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SESAME: A Shining Light of Cooperation in the Middle East

Edward Witten Image
Edward Witten
on May 18, 2017

J Street’s blog aims to reflect a range of voices. The opinions expressed in blog posts do not necessarily reflect the policies or view of J Street.  

Many of us have dreamed of a world in which peace breaks out in the Middle East and Israelis and Arabs work together in harmony.  As of now, the closest we can get to seeing such a place in real life is to visit the SESAME laboratory, near Amman.

SESAME is a joint project of Israel, the Palestinians, Jordan, Turkey, Egypt, Iran, Pakistan and other countries to build a “light source,” in effect a sort of giant microscope, that will be useful for a wide variety of experiments in chemistry, biology, materials science and even archeology.

Main entrance to the SESAME lab

SESAME got started in the hopeful Oslo years. When things went downhill and hope of a better near term future was lost, the Israeli and Arab scientists working on SESAME did not get the message and kept going ahead.  It has been a bumpy road, but the official inauguration of SESAME took place this week.  I am was one of the foreign scientists who flew in for the occasion.

The morning of the inauguration, we were brought by bus from our hotel in Amman to the SESAME lab about 45 minutes away in Allan, Jordan. The lab was a large, new white building, starkly bright in the Jordanian sun. My first thought was that it reminded me of international physics centers that I have visited in Italy and other countries, but on entering it is immediately clear that this is the Middle East.

After mingling for an hour over breakfast, during which I met quite a few European colleagues who had come for the occasion, we were invited into a large tent.  The King of Jordan arrived and had a private tour of SESAME,  and then entered the tent for a photo session.  The King departed and the program continued with a very nice welcome speech from Princess Sumaya — King Abdullah’s sister.

We then heard short speeches of welcome from representatives of the SESAME countries in alphabetical order. That meant that Israel came after Iran and before Pakistan.  I know that in the UN or another international body, an Israeli representative might speak before or after one from Iran or Pakistan. But they would be quarreling. Here they were all saying the same thing: That increased scientific cooperation would profoundly benefit humanity.

After the speeches, I had the good fortune of a semi-private tour with Herman Winick, who was a pioneer of “sychrotron light sources” like SESAME back in the 1970s. He was also instrumental in helping to lay the foundations for SESAME in 1997. We were also accompanied by Dr. Kirsi Lorentz, a Finnish archaeologist who works in Cyprus (a SESAME country) and wants to use a SESAME beam line to study archaeological samples.

From the right, me, Herman Winick, a pioneer of synchrotron research and an engineer from Irbid, Jordan with his wife.

At the dinner, hosted by Princess Sumaya at the Jordan museum, the Finnish archaeologist and I had the chance to talk to a US diplomat who is excited about SESAME. I hope he can help.

This being the Middle East, there were some last minute glitches. Israel — which has helped fund SESAME, along with other member states — was represented by a large delegation of about 20, including the director-general of the science ministry. But the Israeli science minister canceled at the last minute. Likewise, the Palestinians were represented (by a much smaller delegation) but a Palestinian representative canceled at the last minute.  Thankfully, this did little to alter the inspiring overall tone.

It is incredibly exciting that SESAME is happening.  They’ve come a long way against seemingly impossible odds. I met numerous Arabs and Israelis who are highly committed to the project. Still, there is a long way to go and they badly need more funding. It is a real shame that the US has not helped. Just a few million dollars a year in public or private funding from the US would make a world of difference for SESAME and the promise of cooperation and coexistence that it heralds.

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