Sunday, January 16, 2011

An Egyptian's scientist's journey from wariness to warmth

By Avigayil Kadesh – for full report see

When Dr. Ahmed Moustafa announced his intention to conduct medical research in Israel during the summer of 2008, his family feared for his life and his friends feared for his sanity.

But the Cairo University graduate, who has a Ph.D. in cognitive neuroscience from the University of Louisiana, was eager to accept an invitation from Jerusalem's
Hadassah-Hebrew University School of Medicine and Al-Quds University to enhance his study of Parkinson's disease.

"Some of my friends in Egypt advised me not to embark on such an 'unethical' trip," Moustafa recently wrote on the Scholars for Peace in the Middle East website. "For many in Egypt, setting foot in Israel is unthinkable. But the Palestinian professors whom I consulted did not voice such criticism; they encouraged me to visit Israel. My friends in the United States did not make such criticisms either, and I realized that many Americans and Europeans who visit Israel hold different views on Israeli politics, yet they discuss their opinions openly with Israelis."

Wariness due to ignorance

Now 33, Moustafa is doing post-doctoral work at Rutgers University in New Jersey – he explains that widespread wariness regarding Israel is not due to educational indoctrination in Egypt, but rather the result of unflattering newspaper reports and cartoons as well as a lack of exposure to anything Israeli.

"I’ve read recently that they tried to show an Israeli movie in Egypt, but it was not allowed," he relates. "If people could see the 'other side' of Israel, its books and movies and science, I think that might make a difference. Now I talk to everyone about my time in Israel," including those friends back home who had discouraged him from going.

He recalls being on his guard when he first arrived, a bit taken aback by the sight of Israeli soldiers on the streets. But after a short while he realized there was nothing to fear and much to be learned about Israel and its Jewish and Arab citizens.

Surprised by Arabic street signs

"The Arabic street signs everywhere surprised me," he relates. "I thought Arabic would be something they’d stay away from, but every sign has Hebrew, Arabic and English. And I met many Jewish people of Arab origin there. I did not know about that before."

Believing strongly that Arab countries need more scientific interaction with the outside world, including Israel, Moustafa has been trying to encourage Arab colleagues to join the ranks of world-class scientists and graduate students from Italy, the United States, Germany, Canada, Japan and many other countries who learn, visit and lecture at Israeli universities and attend scientific conferences in Israel.

Not there yet

"It is sad that neighboring countries do not participate in these activities," he says. "There is no doubt that Israeli science institutions and Israeli researchers would welcome having Arab researchers visit and collaborate with them. It is an overall win-win game for both sides, if not more beneficial for Arab researchers."

If there is one overall message he'd like to get out to his fellow Arab scientists, it is this: "Separate politics from science and give Israel a try. See for yourself."

No comments: