How to carry a science journalistic tune in Fez

FEZ, Morocco – This October, in a small restaurant, hazed with the smoke of roasting meat, I learned that American science writers cannot carry a tune. This is in contrast to Arab science journalists who can sing so well that other diners tend to bust into spontaneous applause.

Of course, most American science writers – and this may be because of the talent deficit – don’t actually start singing in crowded restaurants. That Arab science writers do, and do it well, is just one of the sometimes humbling lessons I’ve learned since we at the National Association of Science Writers (US) formed a partnership with the Arab Science Journalists Association (ASJA) more than a year and a half ago.

Our partnership came about through the twinning project of the World Federation of Science Journalists, which pairs journalists from established organizations with those who are in process of building an organization. NASW is almost 75 years old; ASJA is about two years old. So we were a logical match except – obviously – for the U.S. government’s war on Iraq. That fact alone made us appear the least likely of partners.

We probably wouldn’t have done it all except that the president of the Arab science writers, Nadia El-Awady of Egypt, and I had earlier become friends and colleagues. She persuaded her reluctant fellow members to take a chance on us. I didn’t have to work as hard as she did – my argument was based on two simple points. One, that we as American journalists had a chance to do better than our government at being good citizens of the world. And second, that we could learn a lot from science journalists in the Arab world.

I hope the first has been proved true. I know the second point has. In the time since we became international partners, the five-member board of ASJA has attended our national conference and, while there, organized a panel presentation on science writing in the Arab region. The NASW executive director, Tinsley Davis, and I have traveled to Qatar to conduct workshops. And working with the Arab science writers and WFSJ, four NASW members, including myself, traveled to Fez to participate in panels at the first regional meeting of the Arab science journalists. The other American participants were Craig Duff, director of multimedia for Time magazine, and two nationally known freelancers, Jeanne Lenzer and Kevin Begos. Kevin was also the winner of ASJA award for best English language coverage of Arab science.

The conference was just remarkable. There were science journalists from Egypt and Lebanon, Yemen and Algeria, from Jordan, from Qatar, from Iraq, from Saudi Arab and the Emirates, from across the Arab world. They often sounded amazingly like we do at our national meetings – talking about difficulty in getting access to information, reluctance of scientists to cooperate, the need to help create a more science literate public. We talked about the effects of global climate change in our part of the world, such as thinning lake ice, and in theirs, such as the creep of rising seawater into the Nile River delta. We talked about the different ways we tell stories, the rise of multimedia.

The first and best lesson of the partnership has not been that we are different but that we are alike; that we share the same sense of mission, the wish to illuminate science for those who turn away from it as baffling or unnecessary. Of course, we’re not entirely alike, as I first mentioned. The evening of the conference, we joined a group of the Arab science journalists for dinner. Before the mint tea had arrived, they were singing. Man, they sounded good. They asked us to sing a song for them. None of us knew the words to the same song. Only one of us (that would be Craig) could actually carry a tune. But we tried – which, of course, is my other favorite lesson from our partnership. We get asked to do things we haven’t done before. And we jump in and try. But I do let you know, that we of NASW will be practicing our singing before we next travel to a meeting of the Arab Science Journalists Association.