Space Science and the Arab World: Astronauts, Observatories and Nationalism in the Middle East (2018), by Jörg Matthias Determann, is a book that has been a ‘long’ time coming. Both for the author himself, who has researched and drafted it since his days as a PhD candidate in 2014, and for us here in the Arab world.

It’s filled a ‘gap’, a tremendous gaping hole, in our own knowledge of ourselves. I had no idea that scientists, scholars and politicians from the late 19th century in Arabic countries were desperately trying to revive the science of astronomy in the Arab world to help usher in a renaissance of Arab science and help resurrect Islamic civilization. Not just old, esteemed countries like Egypt and Syria, but smaller countries like Lebanon and newly formed countries like Saudi Arabia, and not just pushing astronomy but the wider dream of space travel and rocket technology.

I never knew the story behind Arabsat (Arab Satellite Communications Organization); that it is actually a space agency dating back to the Cold War and not just a provider of satellite channels saturated with soap operas and music videos. I had no idea that Qatar was a major financier of science, via the Qatar Foundation, and that astronomers and scientists in Qatar had even helped find new planets in the universe.

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Qatari astronomer, Dr Khalid A. Al Subai reportedly led in the discovery of “Qatar-6b” last year, the sixth planet found by the country. (pix for illustration)

I had no idea how ‘serious’ the UAE was about actually getting to Mars and setting up the first colony there, with a range of Arabs participating. I also had no idea that Arab science fiction (SF) was part and parcel of this drive to modernize and renovate Arab-Islamic civilizations, with sci-fi visions helping guide the decision-making process.

We’ll see below how profoundly ignorant, if not downright hostile, much of Arab media is of these accomplishments and ambitious plans but there is also that we understand our history wrong.

We adhere to a narrative, a historical account of what went wrong with our scientific history, thinking about a Golden Age that needs to be ‘revived’, an issue taken up in Determann’s compendious book. Alas, science is not the product of willpower alone, or even state financing. There’s policy continuity, independent sources of wealth, the management of that money and the proper staffing of projects along with checks and balances. And there are combinations of vested interest groups who make it their job to push for technological advance, regardless of what the person at the top – the king or republican dictator in question – is thinking.

You have to look at these things through an institutional lens, so to speak. And even our Golden Age had its fair share of flaws, and more so in the field of astronomy, it will surprise you to know. Though I suspect the history of the current mishaps in Arab astronomy and space exploration will not surprise you nearly as much!

Pros and Even More Pros: Refurbishing our Understanding of Science

The first thing that needs to be said about the book is how much fun it was to read. While absolutely jam-packed with information, it only took me about a week to finish. (And I could have finished sooner were it not for my work schedule and writing and other ‘reading’ assignments). This speaks to Dr. Determann’s impeccable English – he’s German originally – and extensive knowledge of Arabic.

While saturated with citations it isn’t written in an excessive academic style and is just as accessible to the layman as the professional academic. I would chalk this down to the fact that Dr. Determann is a historian by training and natural disposition. They jump straight into things whereas we social scientists bog ourselves down in theory and methodology and the construction of ethereal social forces, trying to explain absolutely everything under the sun with the limited tools at our disposal.

By contrast Space Science and the Arab World is a very ‘conversational’ book, written in an easygoing style, and with a lot of passion as well as objectivity. You really get into the frame of mind of the historical personages he talks about – people like Ibrahim Helmi Abdel-Rahman, Farouk El-Baz, Taleb Omran, Mohammed Fares – and you do feel that the author is highly sympathetic to the Arab cause while busily chronicling the facts, however unflattering.

The second strong point of the book is how well ordered it is. The headings are not chronological but tell you what you need to know straight away. Each chapter in turn is ordered into subheadings, helping you go through the phases of Arab space science along with debates about the longer history of Arab-Islamic sciences. This is particularly useful to the Arab reader who is not so familiar with the subject at hand and the mechanics of how science and technology happen in the real world.

For example, the second chapter is titled “Nationalism and Cosmopolitanism”. Nationalism makes automatic sense to us as Arabs, whether its Egyptian patriotism or pan-Arabism, but what about cosmopolitanism? That’s the term that takes you by surprise. Since when were Arabs cosmopolitan and why would Arab nationalists specifically be ‘citizens of the cosmos’ (the old Greek meaning of the term)? Even so, many Arab scientists learned, through trial and error, that science cannot succeed without the help of others around the globe, opening up tremendous opportunities for Arabs to make an impact globally. The mere fact that many an Arab scientist couldn’t get a proper job in an Arab country led, inadvertently, to cosmopolitanism, where people like Farouk El Baz discovered that they could help their own countries better with an American passport!

A final redeeming feature of the book, for Arab readers, is that it is interactive. An explanation is not given for everything when recounting events. Concerning Arabic history and past scientific achievements, here is a revealing little titbit of information: “With the exception of the Maraghah Observatory in 13th-century Iran and unlike many madrasas or hospitals, rulers did not create endowments for observatories. As a result, most observatories did not survive longer than a generation.” (pp. 18).

Imagine that! We always think of waqf (religious endowments) as funding all walks of intellectual activity in the Muslim past. Astronomy was the exception sadly to that rule. From the 19th century onwards this situation was fixed, in part, through proper state financing through government ministries and research institutes and university departments. Still, that’s not quite enough. The great thing about waqf was that it was beyond state’s control and provided an important supplement to people’s incomes, particularly wives and widows, and so a source of investment as people put their savings into this form of institutional finance.

Waqfs need upgrading to the modern trust model, no doubt, but government pay just isn’t worth the trouble. As for vested interests pushing for scientific advance in the Middle East, Dr. Determann is right to note that only “Egypt and Iraq perhaps came closest to having a military-industrial complex as sophisticated as Israel’s during the 20th century” (pp. 10). And we all know what happened to Iraq, don’t we?

A distinct pattern emerges in the book when you look at success stories like Iraq, Syria, Egypt and even Algeria. When they’re on the verge of a scientific transformation, a war or civil conflict suddenly ‘emerges’ out of nowhere to ruin it all. In the meantime, politics and bureaucracy and party loyalties tend to get in the way. ‘Koftagate’ is a good example of this (pp. 111-114), the Egyptian device that would somehow magically cure AIDS and Virus C. Egyptian scientist Essam Heggy was the first to expose that fiasco, along with comedian Basem Yousef, but it didn’t do them any good in the end, evidence of the bureaucratic mindset reasserting itself in the post-Arab Spring era, sadly.

To finish off this section, we can add an extra spin on some of the more familiar ‘incidents’ catalogued by Dr. Determann: “In December 1985, Arab communications ministers dismissed Ali Al-Mashat as the organisation’s director general because of malpractice that had resulted in delays and the failure of Arabsat-1A. Al-Mashat had ordered some inferior parts, omitted other parts from the satellite and pocketed the money he had saved.” (pp. 137-138).

This is all too recognizable. From public sector to private sector, you always get people talking the lowest bid, getting shoddy technology. We tend to think of this as middle-ranking managers being too risk-averse, since the technology ends up gathering dust on the shelf, but it could also be an example of corruption.

Like selling factories and quarries and hotels to foreign buyers at bargain basement prices in exchange for a commission, official or otherwise. Never mind if the machinery in the factory is later sold off as scrap by the foreign buyer, or the quarry sold off to another foreign buyer at 20 times the original price!

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Tataouine in southern Tunisia is the real life city that inspired “Tatooine” in the pop-cult SF, Star Wars

Sci-Fi in the Corner: Coming of the Arab Cosmonaut, Fact and Fiction

Dr. Determann is a self-confessed Star Trek fan, to the point that his parents let him watch the series even if it got in the way of his grades. (When I was at university it was Beavis & Butthead)! Evidence of this is strewn throughout the book, proof that a country with no ‘dreams’ for the future can have no future. Thankfully cosmopolitanism was part and parcel of these dreams.

If anything, it was more evident in Arab SF than in Arab scientific and political practice: “In the introduction to his science-fiction novel Flight into Space, the Egyptian journalist Husayn Qadri wrote that ‘men like us’ set their feet on the moon. ‘It does not matter, whether their names are John, Peter, Shatalov, Mustafa or Hasan.’” (pp. 85).

The novel came out in 1981 and envisioned a ‘global space centre’ belonging to the UN dedicated to the “benefit of mankind ” with 1,200 scientists “from all countries” and led by a “board of directors consisting of twelve senior scientists, each of whom had a ‘different nationality’” (pp. 40). If you’re familiar with the likes of Neil Armstrong and Carl Sagan, you’ll know they express the same sentiments.

Arab astronauts and cosmonauts, likewise, always note that when you look down at the blue expanse of the earth up against the harsh, cold blackness of space, you fall in love with humanity and no longer see the artificial dividing lines – more commonly known as borders – that hold nations apart. It was wonderful finding this sentiment spelled out in detail in the book (see pp. 136 for an example). And, as always, art is always one step ahead – it has to be in our part of the world.

In point of fact, it was Arabs that made NASA into a genuine cosmopolitan enterprise. As Dr. Determann says: “Egyptians such as Farouk El-Baz and Salah Hamid made the American space programs even more global than Germans such as von Braun and Geiss did, as they represented a leading country within the Non-Aligned Movement and the Global South. Not formally with or against either NATO or the Warsaw Pact, Egypt, like other African countries during the Cold War, sought cooperation with, and development aid from, East and West”(pp. 85).

Even before the race to get to the moon there was Ibrahim Abdel-Rahman, an Egyptian astrophysicist who was also the head of the Egyptian Institute of National Planning, Egypt’s representative at the International Atomic Energy Agency, and later the UN commissioner for industrial development in 1963 (pp. 37). In 1966 he became the very first executive director of the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO). Can’t get much more cosmopolitan than that, can you?

The Arab media, as back as the 1950s, exhibited no interest whatsoever in the role of foreigners in our space programmes. The one exception to that was the Egyptian magazine al-Hila¯l (The Crescent) which “printed an interview with the British futurist Arthur Clarke entitled ‘We will travel to the Moon’”, way back in 1950 Not be out done, in 1959, an SF movie came out called Journey to the Moon that “depicted the launch of a German-built rocket with two Egyptians and one German on board” (pp. 43).

The Egyptian media is notoriously anti-scientific and Arab contributions to space exploration and satellite technology come in for specific scorn. Essam Heggy is a classic example, to the media aftermath of Koftagate, but also the dearly departed Ahmed Zewail, who had accumulated enemies in the Egyptian print press before he even got the Noble Prize. (Rumour has it that it all started because Dr. Zewail forgot to invite a newspaper editor to a dinner party!)

There was also the example, cited in the book, of EgyptSat (pp. 154). If I remember correctly, they interviewed an Egyptian scientist on Dream TV on the hoopla in the media over how they lost control of the satellite. The scientist in question replied that the satellite had been in operation for years and years and that it had reached its obsolescence date. He also explained why they had built the satellite in cooperation with the Ukraine. The mastermind of the Soviet space programme originally was a Ukrainian and the country was a major producer of satellite technology.

Farouk El-Baz, despite his international track record, is one of the victims of these tirades himself, along with his plans for the Western Desert. A lot of people don’t know this but major plans were put together for the Western Desert and North Coast and Eastern Desert and Sinai as early as the 1960s in the Nasserist era, but nothing was heard of them since then. The allotted areas were studied thoroughly, and with foreign participation, and crops had been grown there from the times of the pre-dynastic ancient Egyptians and the early Arab conquerors. (English imperial geologists and archaeologists were some of the first people to discover this and from the earliest day of the British presence in Egypt).

There are a lot of naysayers out there and one suspects ‘paid’ enemies of progress who love to target scientists and scientific projects, to perpetuate Egypt’s status as a dependent nation living on imports and imported ideas and technology. Arab SF, again, is one step ahead in this regard. Dr. Taleb Omran, a Syrian who is both a scientist and a sci-fi author, outlined his vision of an Arab science city in his 1997 book Space as Wide as a Dream. It was a pan-Arab institution, naturally, where everybody spoke classical Arabic and left nationally distinctive accents behind. Nonetheless, the underground city shielded itself from prying spy satellites, and on an isolated island at that. And as he clearly states, the scientists had “escaped the ‘foreign monopolies’ that controlled the countries where they had previously worked” (pp. 17).

Dr. Omran is also a big patron of SF, possibly the biggest in the Arab world, a man who clearly believes that to promote science in the Arab world you need to promote SF first. And this book is testament to that fact.

Dr. Jörg Matthias Determann, author of Space Science and the Arab World: Astronauts, Observatories and Nationalism in the Middle East (2018)

A Portrait in Time: The German Man and the Anglo-Arab Mission

Now that’s enough about the book. What about the man behind the book? In so far as this has any bearing on the book. (We already saw the influence of science fiction on his makeup and interests and so the composition of the book. How many history of Arab science books do you know that incorporate SF into them?!)

The obvious question is, what would interest someone born in Munich, Germany in 1984 (October 31) in the historical ups and downs of Arab science and Islamic civilization. What would posses him to become Assistant Professor at Virginia Commonwealth University in Qatar and author three whole books on such related topics: Historiography in Saudi Arabia: Globalization and the State in the Middle East (2014) and Researching Biology and Evolution in the Gulf States: Networks of Science in the Middle East (2015), and then Space Science and the Arab World.

Speaking to Dr. Determann himself you discover that he began his university education in 2003, the same year of the American-led invasion of Iraq, and that he was in secondary education in 2001, when the September 11th attacks occurred. Politics was always his favourite topic of discussion growing up so the Middle East automatically pressed itself upon his mind.

It was the “center of world politics at the time”, as he says (in an email), which prompted him to study History and Arabic Studies at the University of Vienna. He grew to like Arabic, at the same time that he was taking courses on the history of modern science in Vienna. And as if that wasn’t enough, his commitment to improving himself also took him to the University of Malta (2006- 2007), through the Erasmus Programme, to improve his English language skills – the world’s dominant language, as he puts it.

The next stop on his learning career was enrolling at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London in 2009. As he explains, he was “attracted to studying Arabic texts on history as a way of improving my knowledge of the language and of learning about Arab perspectives on history. My doctoral thesis was on Saudi historiography.”

In the process, as he says, he found a way to combine his interests in modern Arab history and the history of science. We need to linger on the topic of historiography here because of its obvious relevance to the book, and the fact that it is not something that would immediately be obvious to the Arab reader.

History isn’t just jotting things down that happened in the past, or even authenticating and cross-checking that those things did in fact happen. It is also the picture you form out of those desperate parts, how you ‘arrange’ the facts over time, charting the (presumed) chain of causality from one episode of history to the next. Europeans, spearheaded by 19th century Englishmen – so-called ‘Whig’ history – saw British and much of world history as a straight line upwards, a constant story of progress building on past achievements.1 In this way of thinking, the Middle Ages was a mere ‘dip’ in the history of European progress. Hence, the emphasis on the Renaissance or ‘revival’ of Greek and Roman heritage followed by the Enlightenment. (The Reformation with the rise of Protestantism is a key component of the Enlightenment, we should add to the benefit of the Arab reader).

Note that the first Arab in outer space, the Saudi prince Sultan bin Salman, had been cajoled into describing his trip onboard the shuttle discovery in 1985 as “reliving’ the Islamic civilisation’s past achievements in the sciences, which formed ‘the basis for what we see now in the space program’” in a CBS interview. Prior to that he “did not think of himself as ‘the personification of the Islamic renaissance’, as one paper described him” (pp. 136). And Dr. Determann also amply documents that almost every scientific figure in modern Arab history insisted on a revival-renaissance of the Islamic Golden Age of astronomy and science.

What seems to have happened then is that Arabs and Muslims have unconsciously imbibed the European model of history. They see what they are going through now, the period of stagnation and decline in Arabic science, as a Dark Age and see it as their duty to usher in a renaissance of what lay before.

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This manuscript is a late fifteenth-century copy of the Kitab suwar al-kawakib al-thabita (Book of Images of the Fixed Stars), an astronomical treatise originally composed by ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Sufi (d. 986) in 946

A reformation of Islam as a religion, along Protestant lines, is part of this baggage of ideas, something that was quite explicitly stated in Egypt in the 19th century at the time of Sheikh Muhammad Abduh and Jamal Al-Din Al-Afghani –however well-intentioned they were. What is more, this reading of history seems to have crept into the modern Arab way of thinking via the modern education system through the importation of the modern educational system into the Arab world in the 19th century.

A case in point is the Syrian Protestant College, more commonly known as the American University of Beirut (AUB). One particularly nefarious example of this kind of ideologised reading of history was a medical professor and American missionary named Van Dyck. The man was a self-professed advocate of ‘evangelical modernism’, thinking that religion – his religion – had caused Western progress, while the Arabs had done nothing except ‘preserve’ the scientific accomplishments of the Greeks, without adding to them. (Had he never heard of the Presbyterian witch-hunts?)

Moreover, he considered Islam to be an obstacle to science: “Islamism, in itself considered, must be regarded as a desolating superstition” (pp. 55). And these were so the so-called advocates of secularism, people who couldn’t distinguish between Islam and Islamism, and all before the Muslim Brotherhood and Wahabism and bin Laden!

I would go as far as saying that one of the key ingredients of progress is getting your historiography of progress sorted out. Still, there is hope at the end of this historical tunnel.

People creating realities on the ground, through foundations that finance science and observatories and research centres, regardless of historical models and debates. As Dr. Determann says, this overly progressive model of history, however problematic, is a highly useful nonetheless as a ‘symbolic resource’ and driver for progress (pp. 61). Not to forget, again, the role of science fiction in all this.

The Gulf Arab countries have been doing exceptionally good on all counts. A great many decision-makers, extending into the many members of the royal families across the Gulf, have bought into this desire to revive the Islamic scientific heritage as well as building the infrastructure that will drive for
it; development is meaningless without ‘sustainable’ development.

SF is part of this futurist vision they have of themselves: “Michael Winterbottom shot his 2003 film Code 46 partly in Dubai, parts of The Force Awakens were shot in Abu Dhabi” (pp. 155-156). Note the transition eastwards here, since the desert planet Tatooine in Star Wars is actually the desert town of the same name in Tunisia where much of the filming was done – political instability after 2011 ruined this, sadly.

The UAE has cashed in on this by providing financial incentives for Western movie producers, itself part of its wider diversification away from oil strategy too. The same goes for their Mission to Mars. As one project manager explains, the missions is not about reaching Mars but about inspiring a whole new generation and transforming the way youth think within the region.

The goal here is hope, for humanity, for the region, for youth in countries with lots of conflict” (Omran Sharaf, quoted in Determann, pp. 161-162). Cosmopolitanism once again.

That’s precisely what this book does for the Arab reader. It fills him full of hope for the future, while also giving him the tools to create that future in a practical, cost-efficient and sustainable way. History, to me at least, is the handmaiden of science fiction. The buzz you get from holding an archaeological artifact in your hand is the same as the thrill of traveling to a new world and meeting an alien race. History is there specifically for us to go forwards, not backwards. But you have to go backwards first, study the past and its many pitfalls, to go forwards. And if Dr. Determann’s book can play a part in this enterprise, you’ve simply got to cough up the cash to buy and read it.

Unless, that is, you’re an enthusiastic but miserly book reviewer like me!!!

This article is a longer version of a review published May 22, 2018 on the Arab Literature in English blog

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