Terrorism, a clash of civilisations and foreign policy are the subjects addressed by the international press when reporting on current affairs in the Arab world. There is, however, one book in particular entitled “1001 Inventions: Muslim Heritage in Our World” (www.1001inventions.com) that tells the story of an ancient Arab world playing a lead role in a different scenario. This book, which this year inspired an exhibition in London (which moved to Istanbul in August) emphasises the West’s great debt to Arab scientists, astronomers and doctors who, in 1,000 years of history, from North Africa to China, built a bridge with the Renaissance. It is said that the Cairo doctor Ibn Al-Nafisi, for example, was the first to have accurately described the part of the cardiovascular system that involves the heart and the lungs, preparing the way for William Harvey, who in 1628 provided a complete description.
Supported by this legacy, a small group of Arab scientists and journalists are attempting to stimulate scientific interest in popular Arab culture and not just interest from the media. Not only do Arab economies need new thinkers, since they cannot do without research and innovation, but also because if contributions are neglected in this sector, a feeling of cultural inferiority sets in, which is dangerous. This idea of an Arab scientific revival (the United Nation’s Report on Development in the Arab World has until now mentioned a decline), has also for the past year been encouraged by a reality show.
Set up in Doha’s Qatar Science and Technology Park, it is entitled “Stars of Science” and is a pan-Arabic show (broadcast on 17 channels throughout the Arab world) in which participants, youngsters aged between 18 and 30, challenge one another with their inventions. In Egypt instead, once again recently, the Cairo Science Festival (www.cairosciencefestival.org) has been organised in cooperation, and in competition, with the multicultural Cambridge Science Festival in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The founding of the Arab Science Journalists Association (ASJA) presided over by the Egyptian journalist, Nadia El Awady took place in 2004.
“The challenges that need to be addressed by scientific journalism in the Arab world are the same of Arab journalism in general,” explains El Awady, who is also the current president of the World Federation of Science Journalism (WFSJ). Access to sources of information is hard for all Arab journalists, whatever the subject they are reporting on may be. So in country such as Egypt a great deal is written in the press about science, but there is a lack of quality articles, because reporters simply follow the copy and paste culture for statements.” In 2011, the Association presided over by El Awady will host the World Conference of Science Journalists (WCSJ) in Cairo. “We hope that this initiative will provide Arab scientific journalists with an opportunity to understand the challenges addressed and overcome by their Western colleagues,” continued El Awady, “and that since the conference is held in a developing country there will be greater Arab participation. A draft of the programme is available at www.wcsj2011.org”.
In the meantime, the governments of Arab nations (led by Saudi Arabia and Egypt) are investing in new projects in higher education and scientific training and the WFSJ too is committing itself in this area. “In 2006 the WFSJ launched its first Science Journalism Co-op programme in Africa and in the Arab world. This was an intense three-year programme that cost $2 million and had the objective of updating and training scientific journalists in these areas. It was so successful we have had to organise a second edition,” said El Awady. “In phase two, we hope to manage to teach journalists to write articles that will impact scientific policies in their countries.” It will, however take time, years and perhaps decades, before Arab nations will be able to once again boast the same ancient splendours. The main cause has been the brain drain, with 45% of young Arabs who have studied abroad not returning home after graduating. The result? Westerns states are the main beneficiaries of the scientific production by young Arabs with high academic qualifications.
Translated by Francesca Simmons