Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
23 - 29 December 1999
Issue No. 461
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Femto hero comes home

By Tarek Atia

The decision by Ahmed Zewail, the newly-honoured Nobel laureate who lives in California, USA, to visit his motherland immediately following the ceremony in Stockholm celebrating his breakthroughs in chemistry, was greeted with a frenzy of adulation.

Zewail got a hero's welcome on all levels, as he himself told the audience at a reception held in his honour at the Al-Ahram establishment. "Everyone has been incredibly generous since I got here. I mean everyone from President Hosni Mubarak, who gave me the Necklace of the Nile, to Amm Ahmed in Al-Hussein [district], who didn't want me to pay for the fuul I had ordered."

Almost immediately upon his arrival with his family in Cairo, Zewail was being whisked by Higher Education and Scientific Research Minister Mufid Shehab to function after function in his honour.

Shehab pointed out at the Al-Ahram reception on Monday night that Zewail's schedule was not just ceremonial. He would be conducting intellectual dialogues at the People's Assembly, at Cairo University and at his alma mater, Alexandria University. The goal of these dialogues is to help Egypt's top scientists and planners discover what needs fixing, and how Zewail might be able to help.

Zewail answered questions from the audience at most events. The topics kept returning to the same themes: that Egypt has good resources but "we're missing the spirit of teamwork," as Zewail put it. "It must begin with childhood, but this doesn't mean that we have to wait until we establish such a programme in our schools and wait for that generation to grow up. No, we can start now. The media should encourage this spirit of teamwork that we desperately need by making sure that we always thank those who helped us achieve; not always saying I, I, I... No, I couldn't have done it without others, like Einstein, Newton, etc."

"We're also too negative," the chemist said. "In America, we're more tolerant of people's faults."

The press and media were very kind to Zewail, though the man himself was a little bit more camera-shy than usual, choosing not to do many print or TV interviews.

Zuweil and Mubarak
Celebrating
Top: President Hosni Mubarak bestowed Nobel laureate Ahmed Zewail the nation's highest decoration, the Necklace of the Nile, in a grand ceremony last week; above: Zewail at Al-Ahram being honoured by Ali Ghoneim
A Mufid Fawzi interview with Zewail conducted in Stockholm, even though aired at nearly 2am, kept a lot of people up. The public's reaction to Zewail was not merely limited to admiration of his intelligence; his "kindly face and country mannerisms" scored points as well.

At almost all of the functions in his honour, Zewail hinted at his ambition of continuing to make breakthrough discoveries. His next "eureka," as he himself put it, would probably be in medicine, perhaps catalysed by his currently hailed discovery of the femtosecond.

Zewail made no secret of his desire for a second Nobel. He pointed out though that scientists don't do it for the accolades, but that it is "the passion" for their work and for helping humanity that drives them.

At Al-Ahram, Zewail said that Egypt was not benefiting enough from the wealth of unclassified information coming out of the western world. He gave the example of some of his Chinese colleagues at Cal Tech, who were up late into the night corresponding with their countrymen in China via e-mail about the latest discoveries in the lab regarding lasers and other things.

Zewail was given a plaque by Ali Ghoneim, Al-Ahram's deputy chairman of the board. Ghoneim credited Al-Ahram with predicting Zewail's future success, helping give the chemist publicity and momentum on the national, Arab and global stages. Zewail, for his part, also thanked the various Al-Ahram reporters who had caught on to his achievements in the United States and reported on them extensively in the newspaper. He also made a joke about how a few years ago, the news of one of his achievements was overshadowed by Egypt's victory in the Africa Soccer Cup. "Al-Akhbar ran a cartoon with my head shaved like Hossam Hassan," Zewail said, "saying that that would be the only way anyone would notice me."

Zewail was constantly being prodded to write his memoirs, as a lesson or blueprint for Egypt's youth. He declined, however, saying he was too young and, that instead, he would soon be publishing a book of reflections on science and other things.

One of the highlights of the Al-Ahram reception came when Hani Abdel-Khaleq, a frequent contributor to Bareed al-Ahram [letters to the editor], presented Zewail with a special prize: "I didn't know what to get the esteemed scientist," Abdel-Khaleq said, "but finally I decided that the best thing to do was to bakharoo (perfume him with incense to ward off the evil eye)." And with that, accompanied by the cheers of the crowd, he pulled out a silver incense holder from the Khan Al-Khalili bazaar.

As the guests proceeded to the dessert trays, Ayman Barayez, one of the Al-Ahram's photographers, handed Zewail an envelope full of pictures taken less than 15 minutes earlier at the same reception.

"Wow, you finished them already?" said an incredulous Zewail. The inventor of the world's fastest measurement of time was clearly impressed by the man's diligence and speed. "Thanks!"

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