the name plate

Exploring the "Star" Arabic Atari 65 XE

the computer

I acquired this rare Arabic Atari 65 XE on February 26, 1999. It has three main differences from your average 65 XE: the keyboard contains the Arabic alphabet as well as English letters, the name plate (shown above) includes Arabic (the Arabic logo NAJM means "Star") and -- best of all -- it includes unusual system ROMs. The ROMs include Arabic and English character sets as well as the abilities to type from right-to-left in Arabic mode or left-to-right in English mode.

I first saw this computer at the 1998 World of Atari show in Las Vegas. It was one of the many items up for auction. I bid on it, but didn't win it -- no one did as the reserve price wasn't met. (I was saving what little cash I had left after two days in a Geekville candy store to bid on a rare European Atari, model 800XE. I won that auction.) Anyway, after six months I still regretted not getting the obscure Arabic Atari. So I contacted the company that had put it up for auction, Best Electronics. Surprisingly, they still had it. It was apparently lost in a warehouse somewhere, and they happened to find it around the time I asked. So, it's mine now.

How rare is this machine? I don't really know. There is no label or serial number on the bottom. In my searches with Dejanews, Hotbot, Excite, etc., I've found no other references to this machine. Bradley at Best guessed that Atari might have made 10 or 15 to test in the Arabic market.

The computer outputs an NTSC standard signal, so it is compatible with U.S. televisions. This makes it easy to get screenshots. I've been told that in Iran, TVs are not NTSC compatible -- so this was clearly a prototype that was to be tested by U.S. technicians.

Before we go further, a disclaimer. I'm an avid collector of Atari computers, but I know very little about the Arabic language. If you know more about Arabic than I do, feel free to send me e-mail to correct any assumptions I've made.

According to Draco's excellent SysInfo system investigator and benchmark program, the Arabic unit has OS serial number BB 01.3B with an OS revision date of 21 July 1987. For comparison, my vanilla 65 XE has OS serial number BB 01.02 and a revision date of 10 May 1983.

The Keyboard

close-up of the keyboard

Here's a close-up of the keyboard. All of the keys have their usual English labels, including ATASCII graphics characters on the front. Most keys show Arabic letters as well. Function keys like help, start, select, option, reset, shift, and return are also labeled in Arabic.

Character Sets

standard ATASCII character set Arabic character set

The computer has two character sets. The first screenshot is of the standard ATASCII characters that are redefined in the Arabic character set. Next is the same screen after switching character sets.

Typical Atari XEs have two character sets, which affects what you see when you hold the control key while typing a letter:

The Arabic computer apparently uses the same ROM space to hold dual character sets. Except there are Arabic characters in one instead of the so-called international character set. Also, the "regular" character set (the one with graphics characters) is the alternative, not the default. So you get:

It's interesting to note that both character sets include capital English letters. When you're in Arabic mode, control characters and lowercase characters are replaced by Arabic letters. You can switch character sets at any time by pressing shift-help. This isn't so on typical XEs. (Although you can switch to and from the international character set on the 1200XL by pressing control-F4.)

Typing Modes

close-up of keyboard

In the English/graphics character mode, the caps key works like you would expect: toggling between capital letters and lower case. In Arabic mode, the caps key switches between two typing modes: Arabic and English.

Arabic is written and read from right to left. And in Arabic mode, the Atari writes from right to left! Here's how it works: The cursor remains in one place on the left edge of the screen. As you type, Arabic characters appear under the cursor and scroll to the right. The cursor doesn't move (unless you type a control-arrow to move it), the letters do.

There's more -- but this is where my ignorance of Arabic may get in the way. Apparently there are two versions of each Arabic letter in the character set: one with a "baseline" and one without. Look at the bottom three rows of Arabic letters in the screenshot above. Notice how most of them are built on a horizontal line. That line flows continuously through a word, so it seems to form a continuous shape -- like cursive writing in English. But the last letter of each word does not have the baseline: many of the letters on the third, fourth and fifth lines of the Arabic character set screenshot resemble the sixth through eighth lines, but lack the baseline.

So, as you type, the Atari uses the baseline letters most of the time. But when you press the space bar, the computer changes the last character that you typed to the version without the baseline(!) All of this makes it impossible to program BASIC in Arabic mode. :)

Fellow Atarian Steve Johnson, who has some background on foreign language computing, told me that Arabic has not two, but four forms of each letter. A letter will look different depending on its position in the word:

I don't know which two forms are excluded in the Arabic Atari.

Pressing the caps key instantly switches to English characters and to left-to-right typing. Holding down the shift key in Arabic mode yields English letters. Holding down the control key forces characters without the baseline. By the way, there is no "beep" near the end of the third screen line when you're writing in Arabic mode as there is in English mode. If you type more than three lines, the beginning of that line will scroll away and be lost.


MyDOS screenshot

If you're in Arabic mode using a program that doesn't expect it, things can look mighty weird. Here's a MyDOS screen in which all the lowercase letters are replaced with Arabic. It's gibberish in two languages at once! Pressing shift-help immediately cures the problem.

keyboard test screenshot

The ROM-based system tests are there. Like everything else, the keyboard test displays in either language.

MyDOS screenshot

Jumpman plays perfectly. :)


Several people have asked for copies of the computer's ROMs. Here you are. You can use the ROMs in your Atari emulator.

Messages from readers

Some interesting e-mail from folks who have visited this page:

I'm Turkish by the way, living in Turkey at the moment. I was in Saudi Arabia from 1985
till 1992. I bought my Atari 800XL and 1040 ST from Arabia. Neither the system nor the
keyboard is in Arabic. It's not because I didn't want it to be Arabic. The distributer of
Atari in Saudi Arabia sold Atari's with both configurations. Just like the one you have.
It was being sold throughout Arabia.

You sure show one of the weirdest pieces of hardware I've ever seen.

This ATARI 65XE Arabic is definetly a rare piece.

All I can add is the assurance that you're right in your conclusion
that the area for which it would be intended (middle east) uses IMHO
the PAL TV norm (to be precise the PAL-SECAM) so the machine is even
weirder than it seems at the first glance. 

What use would it make to have an ATARI in Arabic when you cant use it
in that area where the language is widely used?

The only idea I can come up with is that this computer was intended
for use in some country where the arabian letters are used but which
has another basic language. As far as I know this is the case in some
countries in the further east. Like Afghanistan and Pakistan, and Indonesia
or Bangla Desh. The people there of Muslim religion should be able to read
the letters just as Arabic speaking people would but the would make up other
words (those from their own language). In some of those Countries the NTSC
signaling is used.

Robert - count at inode dot at
And another message I received in November 2003.
I am an Egyptian, now living in Montreal, Canada, I move here a little
over 3 years ago.

In the early 1980's my father was working in Saudi-Arabia, and I would
go there every summer for a month or two, he bought me two "computers"
when I was there, the first one was a Sony MSX, and the second was an
Atari 65XE (Arabic), I left it in Egypt when I moved to Canada, and 
unless my mother "cleaned" my room, it's probably still there.

The one I had did not have the Arabic letters printed on the keyboard,
it came with a set of stickers for that, the output signal was PAL, not
NTSC, and I had a 5 1/4 disk drive with a slew of applications on both
diskettes and ROMs.

This thing was VERY popular during that time, one of my friends also 
bought one of them in Egypt, this computer is what started my computer
learning, and now I'm a full-blown unix sys/net admin.

Nicholas - nicholas at mamma dot com

Other Foreign language Ataris

Here's an interesting message from someone who had an Atari XL with a Hebrew modification!

I am an old Atari user, and live in Israel. I have an old ATARI 800 XL,
which I upgraded with a Hebrew chip in 1983. Like the one in the
computer you describe, it has two main functions. The first is to add
the Hebrew charachter set (which is available with POKE 756,224). The
second is changing typing direction to 'right to left' mode. As far as I
can tell, it was not considered rare at the time, although I never met
any other Atari owner who installed the chip.

Its use is slightly different than the one in your computer. Pressing
CONTROL-SHIFT-S toggled between Hebrew letters and lowercase English
letters (uppercase English letters remained unchanged). Pressing
CONTROL-SHIFT-R toggled typing direction. When using right to left mode
the screen 'flipped' as if you were looking in the mirror while typing,
with the cursor moving from right to left properly. The chip also added
a coldstart option with CONTROL-SHIFT-ESC.

If you have questions or comments, e-mail me!
Last updated 19 November 2003
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