A person can be a role model for youth and inspire them simply by being. By what they achieve and how they behave. But it is entirely different when a person of stature decides to engage with youth directly, not inspiring them from a distant height, but directly.
This is my personal tribute to Ahmed Zewail. Not one where I talk about the scientific achievements that earned him a Nobel prize. Not one where I talk about what he tried to do to support education and research in Egypt. Those are of course all worthy of much praise – which I am sure many others can write about.
My tribute is personal, because my relationship with him was personal. He inspired me that way.
When you’re a little bit nerdy, like many academics are, you dream of meeting celebrities who aren’t athletes or pop stars but scientists and authors. Zewail, as the first Egyptian scientist to get a Nobel prize, was an inspiration to young Egyptians. Whenever he had opportunities to speak on television or in public lectures, he did so with an admirable humility. He was giving a lecture when I was an undergraduate at the American University of Cairo, and I remember Fadel Assabghy (one of my professors, God rest his soul) gave me an invitation to the VIP reception—not so I could meet Zewail, but because I was looking for my mother and she was there. I had the opportunity to meet him and his family, and ended up chatting with his daughter (another Maha) and getting his autograph. But that was a fleeting connection.
I graduated in February 2001 and that same year Ahmed Zewail offered the first Zewail award for a graduating student. Because it was the first award of its kind, those of us who applied contributed to defining it. The award was explained to us as one meant to “recognize AUC honors graduates who demonstrate extraordinary commitment to the pursuit of scientific inquiry and the affirmation of humanistic values.” One of my professors encouraged me to apply, so I did. To apply, students submitted a CV and wrote an essay, which was then judged by a panel of faculty members.
I remember working on this essay, which helped me reflect on what I had learned throughout four-and-a-half years of college—how it made me connect what I had learned through my liberal arts education, participation in extracurricular activities, and my computer-science degree. I called it Globalization of Science. The essay was actually much better than the title sounds now. It’s about how researchers need interdisciplinary and international collaboration in order to make revolutionary advances rather than incremental ones. I submitted my essay (hard copy those days) in the nick of time and waited to see who would be chosen as winner and announced on graduation day.
On my graduation day, my grandmother couldn’t come to the ceremony and I was really upset. I told her: “But don’t you know Ahmed Zewail will be there?” And she said: “If you get a chance to see him up close, tell him I said hello.”
They announced the winner of that prize. It was me. Me. I got up and walked over and shook hands with Ahmed Zewail. Completely flustered. I remember nothing from our conversation except two things. Me, telling him “my grandmother says hello.” And him, telling me, “عقبال النوبل” (that is hopefully one day you will get the Nobel).
It doesn’t end here. He didn’t just give that award and then ignore me. He was an AUC board member. He attended the February graduation ceremony often, but not the June one. And so he did not meet the second winner of his prize (my good friend Khaled Harras, now a faculty member at Carnegie Mellon). So when Zewail next came to Egypt, he asked to meet Khaled and me. Tim Sullivan, the provost at the time, and one of my dearest mentors and friends, who is amazingly in the background of photos of mine with Zewail on my graduation day, hosted that meeting. Zewail was interested in learning about Khaled and me, about our passions and ambitions. He took notice when I said hello to Gomaa (who worked at the AUC President’s office and was coming to ask us if we wanted to drink tea—I knew Gomaa because I had previously been a volunteer teacher to AUC workers who wanted to learn English).
And it didn’t end there. I have to say the meeting with Zewail made me wonder why I was working in a corporation instead of pursuing my passion, which was education. And so I was extremely proud that the next time he came to Cairo and asked to see me, I had switched to an education career.
This last time I saw him, he invited me and the latest winner of his award, Hussein Abou Bakr, to participate in a (recorded but never broadcast) conversation with Egyptian intellectuals on the future of education in Egypt. That he would invite young people into a conversation like this, to ask us questions and truly listen to our answers, and truly make us think, amazed me. This meeting with him had a deep impact on me and exposed me to the diversity of voices thinking about education here and their differences in perspective. It made me realize that although many of us care deeply about education and about reforming it, we each have different approaches, and dialogue around our differences was a good way forward.
This meeting was 10 years ago, and as I said, never televised. But its impact on me remains. I remember he asked me what I thought of the clash of civilizations. I hadn’t heard of Huntington at the time. But I knew something in my heart. And it was this: that it is our choice whether we will allow our differences to break us apart, call it a clash, take a fatalistic approach, and never try, or we could choose to work through our differences, find our similarities, and have hope that someday we will find a way. It was a naive answer. I am less naive now, but I still have hope. And whether or not I ever achieve anything remotely like what Zewail achieved, I hope to continue to engage with young people directly. Not just with my teaching or my writing, but to listen to them and make them feel valued and heard. And that’s what I learned from Ahmed Zewail. He is now in a better place, but his legacy lives on.
* Maha Bali is associate professor of practice at the American University in Cairo’s Center for Learning and Teaching, where she also teaches educational game design. She is also the co-founder of VirtuallyConnecting.org. She blogs at http://blog.mahabali.me and Chronicle of Higher Education’s Prof Hacker blog. She tweets at @bali_maha.