Three years ago, Amor Nadji and three young engineers piled into a van in Amman, Jordan, and drove 30 kilometers northeast to the city of Zarqa. Their route took them past faded, sand-colored buildings and empty lots where sheep grazed on patches of grass and low brush.
The shops and apartment buildings gradually thinned out, and the van entered an industrial ghetto of warehouses. Behind one set of padlocked doors, about 100 plywood boxes and metal equipment racks stood coated in a thick layer of dust. Carefully packed away in those boxes was the collected hardware of a vintage synchrotron. The engineers’ mission was to salvage the then-25-year-old particle accelerator and turn it into a first-rate machine. This supermicroscope, called SESAME (for Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East) would enable scientists from Jordan and nearby countries to investigate the atomic structure of different materials. The engineers’ hope was that SESAME would revitalize Middle Eastern science and encourage friendly encounters between otherwise factious neighbors.
But first they had to navigate the plywood labyrinth of dust and decay. A decade before, their particle accelerator had narrowly escaped being sent to a scrap yard in Germany. The machine, then called Bessy, had had a research program in full swing. But after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and the country reunified, the German government found itself paying for one synchrotron light source too many. By the end of the ’90s Bessy faced dismantlement.
Around that time, four physicists working in Europe got a wild idea. CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, had been built to encourage basic science after World War II and to help heal Europe’s fractures. Maybe a defunct German synchrotron could do the same for the Middle East, the physicists thought. They asked Germany to donate Bessy to the region. The machine could help spur collaborations, they argued: Israeli scientists searching for new materials could run experiments next to Iranian biomedical researchers imaging proteins while Palestinian environmental scientists analyzed rock samples across the hall. The rest of the world, they pointed out, had built more than 60 such facilities, while the Middle East had none.
The four physicists got their approval. ”It was one of the best [synchrotrons] in the world at the time,” says Herman Winick, who was then on Bessy’s board. ”They were going to call a junkyard dealer and cut it up and sell it as scrap metal. I wanted to convince them that we should offer it as a gift.” They set up a council to find Bessy a new home. Seven countries lobbied to get the machine, but Jordan won; its political regime was considered more stable and open to all visitors. The council recruited a fledgling staff, and the 13 young engineers were sent off to Europe for training.
In 2002, a ship pulled into Aqaba’s harbor carrying the boxed-up Bessy, and Jordan got the makings of a synchrotron. But rebuilding a machine that was originally 64 meters in circumference is no simple affair. There was no place to set up the machine, and nobody to run it. Khaled Toukan, the chairman of the Jordan Atomic Energy Commission and SESAME’s director, convinced King Abdullah II to donate a plot of land and build a hall for the synchrotron.
Two years passed before the team was ready to tackle the hardware. Nadji, SESAME’s technical director, recalls facing the warehouse with trepidation. ”This technology was completely new to this region, and my team was not very experienced,” he says. ”I suddenly had to be a specialist in everything.” Among his colleagues, he alone had helped build a synchrotron before—Soleil, a new machine outside Paris. There, pristine laboratories full of oscilloscopes and probes enabled him to diagnose problems quickly and easily. Here, nothing of the sort existed. That didn’t faze SESAME’s staff. Arash Kaftoosian, an engineer from Iran, approached the project ”like a puzzle,” he says. ”We used our imaginations to figure out how it all might fit together. But sometimes it seemed harder than if we were building it from scratch.”
Indeed, SESAME’s engineers, who hail from Iran, Pakistan, and the Palestinian territories, as well as Jordan, have been handed an almost impossible task. The equipment has become seriously dated, outstripped by the march of technological progress and aged by dust, heat, and time. Somehow, these young recruits must transform the mass of parts into a world-class laboratory so alluring that scientists from across the Middle East will set aside their grievances and build professional relationships at SESAME’s workstations. The staff has had to do so in the face of apathy from their home governments and a mere trickle of funding for the new facility.
Nadji and his crew collected about 20 of the boxes from the warehouse in Zarqa and brought them back to Allan, a small community in the rolling, tree-covered hills outside Amman. A brand-new, empty white building on a bare plot of land awaited them. Despite the political and financial challenges, the team was optimistic. The project seemed difficult but straightforward—take a good, working machine and reconstruct it. None of them imagined that two years later, they’d just be getting started.