Welcome to the Internet Shahkooh

At first glance, this could be any sleepy Iranian hamlet. Women weave carpets on traditional looms. Tea brews over open fires.
Donkeys outnumber cars.

But listen closely: That clacking is fingers on keyboards and that crackling is modems connecting to the Internet.

Welcome to the mountain village that lacks an elementary school, possesses just one central outhouse - but has gone global.

No other Iranian village has progressed as far as Shahkooh, 380 kilometres northeast of Tehran, in tapping the Internet’s potential to widen its horizons.

Villagers credit a native son. Ali Akbar Jalali, who left to study in the provincial capital and went on to earn an electrical engineering degree in the United States, raised the idea during a 1999 visit.

The first computer was purchased with money raised by villagers. A government grant paid for a second and several more came courtesy of a charity formed by Iranians in London.

Villagers who know something about computers volunteer as teachers in the computer centre set up in Shahkooh’s mosque. Classes are free. The village even has its own website, Shahkooh.com. The goal is to teach computer skills to anyone interested among its 6 000 residents - from chador-clad girls to sunburned farmers.

The hardware alone makes Shahkooh unique among villages. Even in cities, a minority of Iranians are wired. Only 2-million out of Iran’s 70-million people - about three percent - have Internet access.

Yet Iran could now be ripe for a high-tech surge a generation after the conservative clerics behind the 1979 Islamic Revolution tried - and failed - to insulate the nation from modern influences.

Nearly half Iran’s population is under age 25 and it’s eager to get online.

After the 1997 the election of reformist President Mohammad Khatami, Internet cafes have sprouted in Iranian cities and Internet providers offer unrestricted access - even to adult and anti-government sites.

That may be due to the relative scarcity of Internet access among clerics in Qom, the country’s religious centre.

In fact, Iran’s clerics have pushed for restrictions on access.

Last year, the Supreme Cultural Revolution Council, a conservative-dominated body, ordered all private Internet access companies under state control.

The order was never implemented but parliament, according to lawmaker Kazem Jalali, is considering legislation that would require Internet providers to block access to adult sites and others.

Hard-liners are also becoming increasingly concerned about Iranians’ access to information, fearing it is stirring pro-reform sentiment.

In Shahkooh, the Web is not controversial.

It is seen as an essential tool to promote knowledge and prepare for jobs in a country choking from unemployment, which some analysts place at more than 30%.

Since Shahkooh.com was launched, more than two dozen villagers have become entrepreneurs, moving to the provincial capital of Gorgan to sell computer spare parts and offer computer services.

The dot-com businessmen also perform Internet searches and sell the information they glean. And Shahkooh.com promotes local handicrafts such as carpets.

“Our talented youth were largely ignored for a long time. We lived without any government facilities and services,” said Gholamreza Khaje, an organiser of computer classes. “Finally, a few of our educated people decided to make our voice heard both locally and internationally and promote our talents.”

It’s far easier to reach this village 2 000 meters above sea level by e-mail than road. Shahkooh is off a bumpy, dirt track that is usually blocked in winter by snow or impassable muck.

In summer, Shahkooh residents cultivate their farmland and tend their sheep and goats in pastures around the village. In autumn, residents pack up their belongings ? including about a dozen computers - ahead of the intolerably cold and snowy winter. They spend the winter 50 kilometres away in Qarnabad. Their year-round Web server is in Gorgan.

Each year, at least 400 villagers learn computer basics in Shahkooh or Qarnabad. Besides giving Shahkooh’s people e-mail and Web access, the Internet also offers familiarity with English, which is almost unknown in Iran outside the country’s main cities. Villagers most like study- or job-related Web sites, as well as those offering health and sports content.

Some traditions do remain intact. however, including separate computer classes for the sexes. Zahra Malek, a 25-year-old graduate student, dresses in a head-to-toe black chador when she teaches computer classes to girls.

Her father, Ali Akbar Malek, a 60-year-old illiterate farmer who is learning to read so he can Net surf, already knows how to download a file.

Ali Akbar Malek credits Jalali, the electrical engineer who started it all and was in the United States during a reporter’s visit to Shahkooh and unreachable - due likely to an incorrect e-mail address provided by his relatives.

“Dr Jalali has told us that people who don’t know how to operate computers are gradually being considered illiterates,” said the farmer, Ali Akbar Malek. “I want to be Internet literate before I die.” - Sapa-AP

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