(Find Part 1 of Zulfikar Abbany's SESAME Field Trip diary here: A rocky road to science and diplomacy in the Middle East. And Part 2 here: Reality checks in Jerusalem)
We were seven science journalists in the Middle East, traveling through Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Nablus on our way to a synchrotron called SESAME in Allan, Jordan.
We visited laboratories and spoke to scientists. It was great. Until the scientists stop talking. That was the worst. The whole point of our trip was to learn about science and diplomacy and how SESAME was this beacon of light in the Middle East.
SESAME is to science what the EU is to Europe: A peace project which, at its conception, aimed to bring nations and people together. But, as we discovered, such grand ideas can just as easily have the opposite effect.
But more on that later.
The day before today
Our first day in Jerusalem had ended with a guided stroll through the city.
We walked to a historic YMCA opposite an equally historic King David Hotel. We spoke about Jewish customs, how certain forms of Jewish dress "lock you into a culture and lock other people out," and about youthful orthodox indiscretions, like getting Gentiles to buy you illicit cheese and bacon burgers from an American chain when a first Israeli branch opened in the 1980s…
One of our group, American journalist Alan Boyle, read an Israeli poem, ostensibly about a man and boy, as we stood facing the Old City wall. Only just did we hold back tears.
And then at dinner, some of us joined an intriguing conversation about desalinated water and how some parts of the country are "probably unaware that their entire water supply is desalinated" and that they probably don't know that it's "potentially unhealthy."
Those quotes above are intentionally unattributed. The deeper we got into the field trip, we realized we'd have to protect both the innocent and guilty. One of many lessons in diplomacy.
But take a look at the CIA's World Factbook on Israel.
Under an entry "drinking water source" you'll read that water is 100 percent "improved" for both urban and rural populations.
What the CIA means exactly by "improved" is unclear. And — as we learned in Bethlehem and Nablus — debatable.
You could base a fair bit of scientific work on the question of water purity in Israel and Palestine. And you could conduct that science at a facility like SESAME, using the super-high-resolution imagery it affords to analyze a water sample's properties — its minerals and impurities. If only the two peoples would collaborate.
Some Palestinians are reluctant to support what they say would be a "normalization" project — an empty political gesture to give the appearance of peace.
"We can cooperate on daily issues, like crossing checkpoints or getting permission to go… wherever. If we don't, it's like we're in a prison," said Sameer Shadeed, an associate professor at An-Najah University.
"But we cannot collaborate on science," he continued. "To discuss the problems we face here in Palestine, like the water shortage, or research solutions with the occupier — the one who, in my opinion, created the problem — no."
But we're getting ahead of ourselves. Because the water in Jerusalem was just fine. And the conversation polite.
As we waited for a roundtable conversation to begin at the Israeli Academy of Sciences and Humanities on day two, Professor Roy Beck and assistant professor Dr. Brian Rosen, both of Tel Aviv University, debated their version of an American East-West divide.
Beck: People are nice in the West.
(He'd just been chatting about working in California. It was a throwaway line.)
Rosen (interjects): Nicer.
Beck: Sorry, what?
Rosen: But Israelis are more at home in New York.
Beck: No way.
This went on for a while and I probably shouldn't have taken notes, but I did, so that's the truth of it. And it went on. At some point, Beck said "They're all Mormons in Utah" and Rosen responded, "Most."
Beck: Sorry, what?
Rosen (repeats): Most.
The object of my telling this tale is not to ridicule the two scientists. They were both hospitable and generous, and knowledgeable in ways beyond my reach.
But the scene does illustrate how differentiated seemingly similar people can see the world. And it's not just the fact that they see differences, but also the fact that they feel at ease to discuss them in front of strangers.
Because frankly, over on "the other side," there were no such casual chats. In Palestine, it was all about the struggle.
Fortunately, Beck and Rosen are aware of the complexities of the situation.
"For three or four years, I interacted and worked with several Iranian scientist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign," said Rosen, who is one of the first Israelis to get beamtime at SESAME.
"They were extremely brilliant and extremely nice, and we had a lot of positive exchange. When I turned to them, having come to Israel, and asked whether they wanted to collaborate… Erm," he said, pausing, searching.
Then after a moment he continued.
"They still have their families in Iran and they're worried that if they have a joint publication with an Israeli researcher… what that could mean for them. It's a very sad state of affairs."
SESAME could change that. Much like CERN, the international group behind SESAME hopes to create a social environment at the facility where scientists from all backgrounds will just get talking.
"I count on running high quality science and then meeting people from Pakistan and Iran in the cafeteria, and exchanging about culture, lifestyle, and science," said Rosen. "I hope that the major barrier to collaboration which I encountered with my friends in Illinois will not be there. Because if the scientists have those same fears, I'm not sure that they will be at SESAME in the first place."
It's interesting to note that none of Rosen's examples included Palestinian scientists. In the scheme of those who have proclaimed themselves enemies of Israel, Pakistan and Iran both rank high. So, they may have simply been the first to come to his mind.
But the Palestinians are the Israelis' closest neighbors. So, there's a lot of light footwork yet to be done.
"At the start, most people said, "This cannot be done. How can you sit together with Iranians and Pakistanis, Turkish and Cypriots, all making decisions together?" People said it was impossible," Beck told me when we spoke in the gardens of academy.
Beck's been involved with SESAME for about eight years and has served as Vice Chair of its Users' Committee (SUC).
Over the last two decades or so, he says, he and his colleagues have learned that synchrotrons can be used to solve mysteries in chemistry, biology, archeology or materials science. "So, the people who use such facilities are by nature open-minded, because they're integrating their science with a different kind of science."
"We have scientific paper[s] coming out of the facility, and I know it sounds optimistic and smells good and all, but it's reality," said Beck. "Three years ago, I would have told you it was a dream. Today, it's not just crazy ideas from crazy scientists."
You may feel, as I do, that Beck had meant to add "anymore" at the end of that sentence. As in, "It started as a crazy idea, but it isn't crazy anymore." As if a part of him had felt it too. That craziness. And why not? Don't you sometimes have to open your mind to optimistic ideas, even if that means letting a little craziness creep in?
Our time in Jerusalem was up, but we were buzzing. We had met a host of interesting people and talked about all kinds of things. The trip was going well.
The Israeli Academy of Science's director of public relations, Naama Shilony and I even hugged as we said goodbye — we'd chatted long the previous night about our memories of growing up, North London, Kibbutz, books by Hanif Kureishi. It was a warm experience.
And then, as we stood in the academy's drive way, the wind turned subtly and went cold in my mind. It was when Naama wished us "good luck in the West Bank" (or words to that effect), that I began to wonder with some trepidation about where we were headed. No one had felt the need to wish us luck as we entered Jerusalem.
Naama's words lingered, and the West Bank sounded so distant. As distant as Jerusalem is for many, many Palestinians. Even for those who can see it, just there. A short, 40-minute drive away.
We got into cars and off we went.
Read more from Zulfikar Abbany's SESAME diary: Part four: Warning! You are entering Area A.