Gihan Kamel
Gihan Kamel speaks at the AAAS-TWAS Course on Science Diplomacy 2016. Credit: TWAS

How a Mediterranean Wanderer Joined SESAME

Broader Middle East and North Africa

“If you want to walk fast, walk alone. If you want to walk far, walk together.” That was one of the booming echoes that touched both my head and my heart during the AAAS-TWAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science, publisher of Science & Diplomacy, and The World Academy of Sciences) Course on Science Diplomacy 2016. I was thrilled by the expressive contrast between the “challenge” and the “problem,” as with the perception that the strongest form of engagement requires assembling the “three Ps”: people, process, and product. Over five days, we walked far because we walked together. I, the scientist and university lecturer, participated in a diplomacy simulation game in which I played the character of a defense attorney representing a wildlife poacher!

Years ago, I was that persistent undergraduate physics student who proudly assumed that physics was the best arena ever when it came to rationality and precision. It took me fifteen years of trial and error in communicating, bridging, and filling gaps to accept that physics alone is not enough, and to admit that there are no real boundaries between all sciences. It took billions of neurons, observations, evaluations, and interpretations for me to understand that significant coexistence is mandatory for mutual survival. And that all it takes to achieve this is trust, cooperation, and neutrality. I completely altered my outlook and enjoyed linking multidisciplinary approaches, implementing tactics that are poles apart, and switching perspectives. Different mindsets and beliefs positively stimulated my capacity to take things to their best possible state for the overall benefit of all. Expressions such as “human capacity building,” “think global,” “beat the stereotypes,” “defy the odds,” “diaspora networking,” “science for peace,” “science diplomacy,” and many others entered my vocabulary. This is how and why I, the nostalgic Mediterranean wanderer, joined SESAME (Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East).


It took billions of neurons, observations, evaluations, and interpretations for me to understand that significant coexistence is mandatory for mutual survival.


I live in a mosaic region of coexisting nations shaped by geography, history, nationality, and religion, among other factors. When it comes to the Middle East, there are hundreds of opinions, hundreds of impressions, and hundreds of reactions. Generalizations and stereotypes of the rich diversity of the Middle East and its neighboring regions have to be reassessed. It all depends on our perspectives and how often we need to ask new questions and search for new possibilities. How often do we consider our problems with a new angle, and how often do we light a candle rather than cursing the dark?Fear is there. Instability, terror, strains, and dark times are also there. However, as we say in Arabic, ‘on the face of our moon,’ we still see hopes, dreams, and visions, and we still make sweet memories regardless of the bitterness around.

No one can dispute the fact that the Middle East is facing many challenges. Some are common to all of us, but many are specific to the region. One should always keep in mind that the conflicts and tension are not over yet. I think that there is no genuine winner in any war, because however decisive the victory, the winner will inevitably have lost something. To survive, above all, we need to be realistic. Rigid standpoints must give way to flexibility. And personal outlooks need to not be mixed with professional ones. Like all rational people in the world, we seek justice, liberty, and dignity. We want a decent life with better education and health. We strive to feel secure. We strive for peace. Such goals are embodied in SESAME’s mission as a venture of science for peace in the region. Thus, SESAME, the first synchrotron-light source in the Middle East, counts the following nations as members: Bahrain, Cyprus, Egypt, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Pakistan, the Palestinian Authority, and Turkey. Observers are Brazil, China, the European Union, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Japan, Kuwait, Portugal, the Russian Federation, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the United States. SESAME’s voyage started in 1997; over time, difficulties were lessened, closed doors were opened, opportunities were perceived, and the best is yet to come. This unique facility was initiated and developed from the grassroots by scientists and diplomats in the region and others around the world. SESAME was founded by those who believe in building bridges rather than building walls, by those who believe in human rights and human capacities, regardless of any particular identity.


When it comes to the Middle East, there are hundreds of opinions, hundreds of impressions, and hundreds of reactions.


Modeled on the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), SESAME was established under the auspices of UNESCO as an autonomous intergovernmental organization to serve its members. On the journey it demonstrated that it is not just a machine to generate light, not just a facility to advance science and technology in the region, but also a vehicle to enable peace, trust, and appreciation in a tempestuous region where change is the only constant. Annual meetings bring scientists together. All participants spontaneously leave their personal and political stances at the door. And SESAME’s work environment does strongly exceed any “national” motivation, having no real borders or real personal labels; it is a continuous demonstration of how people can work together without thinking at all of relations between their governments. It is always thrilling to see the participants talking, laughing, and looking in one direction despite all the external conflicts and disruption.

My first real test was in 2012, when I represented Egypt in the SESAME Interim Users’ Executive Committee. For the first time, I sat at a table with colleagues representing the other SESAME members to discuss our responsibilities. I remember my silence in the first meeting, and I witnessed how that silence was gradually transformed into words, phrases, and actions. “So this is science diplomacy?” I thought. A few years later, in 2015, while working in Italy, I sought another challenge; I applied for a position at SESAME and consequently became the infrared beamline scientist. This instance exemplifies how SESAME does reverse brain drain in the region, exactly as expected and as hoped. SESAME is not only reflecting my personal beliefs, it is also bringing me closer to home, and most of all, it represents a completely new level in my scientific career, and a huge step forward.


SESAME was founded by those who believe in building bridges rather than building walls, by those who believe in human rights and human capacities, regardless of any particular identity.


Within SESAME, I work with infrared microspectroscopy, a powerful molecular probe and a highly sensitive technique with several potential applications of particular interest for the Middle East, as for the whole world, in exploring biomedical research, materials science, geology, archeology, art restoration, cultural heritage initiatives, environmental issues, plant and marine biology, space physics, and many other areas. Thus, SESAME seeks to advance scientific collaboration toward addressing common problems through collective brainpower, networks, and constructive partnerships. Together, we can lead our region to scientific innovation and cultural understanding. And with our own power, we can accomplish what our diplomats often cannot. Indeed, while politicians and diplomats may be at odds in negotiating a deal, we peacefully choose the pure logic of science, deciding that no nationality, religion, or political conviction can affect the task at hand. We understand that the problem—and not the challenge, in this context—stems neither from our ideologies nor our communities, but that it is mostly diplomatic. Whereas our common humanity may have failed in other instances to bring us together, we thought and sought science—because science is a neutral power. As individuals, we offer diverse motives, perspectives, and intentions, but at the end of the day we create a compassionate oasis of peace. In this age marred by destruction, damage, and sadness, we have no space left for hesitation, uncertainty, or mistrust.

Only recently, I also dared reflect that it was not only my scientific ambition or my curriculum vitae that brought me here. It was also my passion and my personal dream to prove that Arab women of any nationality and any religion can be good scientists, and to demonstrate a full capacity for hard work, thereby breaking so many stereotypes and misconceptions. As the only woman scientist at SESAME thus far, I often imagine an even farther-reaching concept, “SESAME women in science.”

Until I attended the AAAS 2016 annual meeting, I neither realized nor believed that I could be a science diplomat. In a way, I still don’t: I am just a scientist on the global stage doing my job as best I can. I had never pictured myself creating a human bridge. I had never thought I could have a happily-ever-after career. I work for science; I work for peace.

International Research and Large Scale Infrastructures Science for Diplomacy