I was hoping to give daily updates on my escapades with the Nobel laureates, but things never work out the way we planned. I started this entry a few days ago and had intended on finishing it later in the day. When I tried to come back to it the Internet wasn't working. Apparently in this backward country, if you sign up for a wireless Internet connection but never actually pay any money,they cut off your service after a few months.
Monday started out with us being bused to the Emirates palace where the opening ceremony was held. Before the ceremony there was coffee, juice and pastries available. I started talking with a friend and the man he was shadowing, the inventor of a deep-sea diving suit. He was a really nice guy and I had been talking with him for about 10 minutes before I even realized that he was one of the Thinkers. The most notable thing about the pre-ceremony reception was a seven-foot man by the name of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar walking past me. I didn't have a pen on me or would've asked for his autograph.
The speeches in the opening ceremony were pretty good. The main speaker was Dr. Sirin Ebadi who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003. She is notable for being the first Muslim woman as well as the first Iranian to win a Nobel prize. As soon as she started speaking, a majority of the audience got up and left. It was then that I realized what the devices that were sitting on the tables as we walked into the hall were for. They were headsets broadcasting translations of what she was saying. I sat for as long as I could but after a few minutes, I got up to get a headset. She must've been speaking Farsi because both Emiratis and English speakers were running to get the headsets.
After a few more speeches and a few performances, there was a panel discussion about the financial crisis onstage with Mike Moore (former Prime Minister of New Zealand), Cherie Blair (wife of former Prime Minister of Brittan, Tony Blair), John Nash , a former ambassador of the U.S. and the head of the U.K. Atomic Energy commission. It was fun watching Cherie Blair and Mike Moore go at it a little, but I was disappointed that there wasn't more fighting.
Next we got on a minibus to The Abu Dhabi Women's College and had lunch then round table discussions with the Thinkers. The discussions went fairly well and while I thought that the people were just being nice, I still liked hearing the Thinkers tell me that I was doing a good job. My original intention was to give a day by day account, but at this point, I don't feel like it. Instead, it will probably be much more interesting giving some of the highlights:
...moderating a discussion with Prince Nikolaos of Greece on Globalization of Culture and Language
...unintentionally choosing the Iranian student to give his thoughts on using nuclear power to reduce carbon emissions
...watching a panel discussion with a number of pro athletes and Olympic gold medalists
...getting a photo of myself with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (but not an autograph)
...leading a top neurosurgeon to a table discussion when he was clearly not feeling well and trying to escape the room
...watching a panel discussion with two Nobel Prize winners in Physics, the commander of the UK forces in the Gulf War, and the inventor of a deep sea diving suit
...plunking down some students at the table of the inventor of the diving suit while he was trying to eat lunch
...weaseling my way into moderating at the table where Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was supposed to participate only to find that he had left early
...expecting to have Dan Clark at my table for a discussion only to have him leave so he could pass out DVDs of his daughter singing a tribute to the Festival of Thinkers
Overall, I had a great time and really got a lot out of it. Even though the discussions were mainly for show, I gained confidence through moderating them with some pretty important people. The onstage panel discussions in particular were really interesting. The main point of everything that I saw was an exercise in promoting the UAE and the school I work for in particular. Nothing was really accomplished apart from some excellent coverage and networking opportunities for the attendees. A few of the international students as well as teachers like myself were personally able to interact with people we never would under other circumstances so I can't really say much bad about it.
On a final note regarding my quest to get Kareem's autograph, I found out that he was being led around the school where I teach today (Thursday) around the time I was correcting some depressingly bad math tests. By the time I found out, he was long gone. I didn't feel bad because I had already met him. Also, it's nice to know that even though the students I teach aren't that great, I teach at a place that has the clout to attract such superstars as the ones I met over the past few days.