Professor Jim Al-Khalili: From escaping Saddam’s Iraq to science on the BBC

Exclusive Professor Jim Al-Khalili: From escaping Saddam’s Iraq to science on the BBC
Professor Jim Al-Khalili, professor of theoretical physics at the University of Surrey and science broadcaster. (Courtesy Channel 4)
Updated 31 May 2018

Professor Jim Al-Khalili: From escaping Saddam’s Iraq to science on the BBC

Professor Jim Al-Khalili: From escaping Saddam’s Iraq to science on the BBC
  • As a teenager he escaped Saddam. Now he explains how he sees the green shoots of a new Arab flowering of knowledge
  • Professor Al-Khalili: The whole region is moving in a good direction. Look at the changes in Saudi Arabia. The crown prince doesn’t get the plaudits he deserves.

LONDON: Professor Jim Al-Khalili is the science teacher we all wish we’d had at school. As presenter of The Life Scientific on BBC radio, he makes sense of such arcane subjects as nuclear fusion, the genetics of cancer, robots and mutant worms. As for astrophysics at music festivals... now there’s a subject guaranteed to keep their attention in science class.

Al-Khalili, 55, calls himself a science communicator. As well as “The Life Scientific,” which is also broadcast on the World Service and is back on BBC radio with a new series, he has lectured in the Middle East, presented science programmes on television, (one of which, “Chemistry: A Volatile History,” was nominated for a Bafta) and written a stack of books and scientific papers. His first novel, “Sunfall,” a science fiction thriller set in the 2040s, is due out soon.

Oh, and he also has a rather busy day job as professor of theoretical physics at the University of Surrey in Guildford, south-east England.

Before our meeting, he had warned that he tends “not to engage” with the politics of the Middle East and in particular with the politics of Iraq, the land of his birth.

What he does engage with, however, is the Arab world and its place in history. In 2009 he made a three-part series, “Science and Islam,” and has written books about that golden age, between the 8th and 14th centuries, when learning flourished in the Arab world and the heart of it was Baghdad.

“If you were a mathematician, an inventor, a poet, if you were anyone with a new idea, Baghdad was the place to be,” he said. “Muslim, Christian, Jew, whatever you were, wherever you came from didn’t matter. Europe was in the Dark Ages. Baghdad was the place where you could make your name. A Persian working in Baghdad wrote a single book on algebra called “The Book of Completion,” because when you solve a quadratic equation it’s called completion. But we know that author today because his name was Al-Khawarizmi and from his name we get the word algorithm.

“At the same time you had a few European scholars travelling to Andalusia in Spain, which had been conquered by the Moors of North Africa, because the great works of science were written in Arabic and those scholars wanted to read them and translate them into Latin.”

I mention that the Museum of Islamic Civilisation in Sharjah contains 500-year-old medical instruments that could easily be used in surgery today.

“Absolutely!” said Al-Khalili. “Arab scientists invented forceps delivery!”

This explosion of learning was no renaissance, he insists. “Renaissance means re-birth. This was a first-time birth. Algebra didn’t exist before the Arabs. Chemistry didn’t exist.”

So… six centuries of discovery and advancement and then it stopped. Some would say it not only stopped but went backwards. Why?

The stock answer is that Arab society veered off into conservative Islam, but  surely Islam is not opposed to learning?

“Not at all. In fact when filming in two madrassas I met two very senior imams who told me it’s anti-Islamic to not lift up your eyes, to not learn. The Qu’ran tells us to keep learning from the cradle to the grave. Scholars say go find out how the world works and it will help you to better understand the Qu’ran.”

Al-Khalili spent the first 16 years of his life in Baghdad, speaking Arabic at school and English at home. His grandfather was a well-known author and poet. His Iraqi father met his English mother, a librarian, when studying at Portsmouth Polytechnic (now university) in southern England. Jameel — shortened to Jim by his teenage footballing pals — is the first of their four children.

Neither parent faced any family opposition to their union. The Iraqis welcomed their English daughter-in-law “with open arms” while Al-Khalili senior and his British father-in-law bonded at their first meeting while watching the wrestling on TV.

Baghdad was a great place to grow up until Saddam Hussein came to power, he said. Al-Khalili’s father, an electrical engineer, had never joined the Ba’ath party but still worked his way up to the rank of major in the Iraqi air force. 

“He kept his head down but he was kicked out because he was married to my mum, and they passed a law saying you couldn’t be in the armed forces if you were married to a non-Iraqi. He went into civilian jobs but never got promoted.”

As the regime grew in brutality — “I had cousins who were executed by Saddam” — the family made secret plans to leave Iraq.

“We couldn’t tell anyone. We used to come to England every other year to see my grandparents so people thought we were just going on holiday. My dad couldn’t even tell his mother, my grandmother, that we weren’t coming back. We bought return tickets. I felt bad not being able to say goodbye to my friends. But we got out just in time. My brother and I would have been conscripted for the war with Iran and with our background we would have been frontline fodder.”

That England was not an unfamiliar place to him undoubtedly made things easier. “For me, moving to England meant I could get all the football comics on the day they came out and I could watch “Match of the Day” on the day and not three months later.”

He studied physics and entered academia but also discovered a talent for broadcasting. He presented his first documentary, “The Riddle of Einstein’s Brain,” in 2004 and hasn’t stopped since.

Neither he nor his father, who is now 86, has ever returned to Iraq. Aside from any residual caution, familial ties also lessened as the Al-Khalili clan dispersed all over the world from the late 1970s onwards. 

“My father’s overwhelming emotion is that he got his family out safely. There is no nostalgic pull. Baghdad is not the place we remember,” said Al-Khalili.

He admits feeling angry that the overthrow  of Saddam Hussein has become conflated with the continuing instability today.

“Make no mistake, Iraqis wanted regime change. When George Bush senior failed to finish the job back in 1991, Saddam simply re-grew his power base and went on to kill a lot of people.”

But there is cause for hope. “There is a smidgin of democracy in Iraq now. When I was a kid, I didn’t know who was Sunni and who was Shia. We celebrated Christmas and no one cared. The clerics are closing their power. The whole region is moving in a good direction. Look at the changes in Saudi Arabia. The crown prince of Saudi Arabia doesn’t get the plaudits he deserves.”

There are even signs of tiny green shoots signaling another flowering of knowledge in the Arab world.

“You can’t create that climate of learning without open-mindedness and money. A thousand years ago, the Abbasids in Baghdad had the money and the power. In Europe, the Renaissance had the Medicis (the Florentine family who accumulated immense wealth and power). In the Middle East today, they have the money to build the universities and bring in expertise.

“And young people are asking about their heritage. They want to know where all the old souks and spice markets have gone. The older generation might go, ‘Ugh! The old markets were dirty and smelly — go to the mall.’ But the young people are saying, ‘No, it’s our culture and we want it.’”