‘The knives will be out’

JOHN GEDDES April 22 2002

‘The knives will be out’

JOHN GEDDES April 22 2002


Arab and Israeli scientists are working together


Someday, maybe not for a while yet, Israeli tanks will pull out of the West Bank, Palestinian gunmen will quiet their weapons and a dusting of peace will settle on the Middle East. That’s when Arnie’s Army will really spring into action.

Nearly 600 strong, it’s already in place in strategic locales in Israel, neighbouring Jordan and the Palestinian territories. Some of its medical deans, scientists, doctors and other health workers—Arabs and Israelis—trained in Canada. And all of them are tied in a gentle way to this country, largely through the efforts of one man: Dr. Arnold Noyek, head of the ear, nose and throat department at Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital who, even at 64, is a veritable fistful of energy.

Dr. Arnie—Dublin-born, he came to Canada as a toddler—does not much look the part of a commander-in-chief, and certainly doesn’t see himself that way. A rumpled insomniac who rattles off apologetic voice-mail messages in the middle of the night, Noyek is more like a Jewish leprechaun, someone who sprinkles a little happy dust wherever he goes. And that includes the Middle East, where his insatiable networking has created a battalion of like-minded do-gooders to combat a disorder that transcends even the rough borders of ethnic hatred: hereditary deafness.

Because of tribal intermarrying, hearing loss is particularly pronounced in the ethnic Arab population: early studies suggest it may be 10 times more prevalent than in

North America. Noyek’s medical charity—funded by the Canadian International Development Agency, a Swiss foundation, but mostly by his own patients—is spending roughly $450,000 a year, much of that to train Arab and Israeli health workers in the screening and treatment of newborns for deafness. And to conduct, often discreetly, joint research and how-to sessions—even as war rages.

“This couldn’t have worked without the Canadian umbrella,” says Noyek. “Otherwise, it’s very difficult to have Arabs and Israelis come together even for scientific meetings.” The Canadian connection means Arab and Israeli scientists can study together at Mount Sinai and the University of Toronto. It also allows for practical information—including, once, an entire medical school curriculum—to flow between Arab and Jewish medical centres, with Toronto as a distant intermediary.

“Our job is not to try to make peace happen,” says Noyek. “We’re just trying to forge the personal relationships for when it does.” Fittingly, personal relationships are where it all began. As a young doctor, Noyek treated members of the Silverman family for hearing loss. Their charity, the Saul A. Silverman Family Foundation, became his main backer and the impetus for what is now called the Canadian International Scientific Exchange Program.

One early project was helping medical émigrés from Russia retrain for life in Israel. This was followed by a network linking regionally isolated Israeli academics with colleagues in North and South Amer-

ica. Then, a year after Israel and Jordan signed their 1994 peace agreement, the late King Hussein summoned Noyek to Amman to discuss scientific exchanges. “How do you say no to a king?” asks Noyek. How do you say no to Arnie, most of his colleagues would reply.

From that trip eventually grew the program calling for Jordanian, Palestinian, Israeli and Canadian audiologists to screen 12,000 Arab and Israeli newborns by 2004. Mount Sinai had been leading the charge for Ontario-wide screening so Noyek had the know-how and the connections to come up with screening kits, sign language programs and donated hearing aids for the Middle East.

Still, even with royal patronage, there were hurdles: the Jordanian Medical Association initially threatened to revoke the licences of members who met professionally with Israeli colleagues. But the Jordanian government stood firm. And the new King Abdullah has affirmed one of his health policy advisers, 32-year-old, Harvardeducated Prince Firas bin Raad, as patron of the project. The prince’s take: “We’ve been saying all along that our involvement in hearing loss is symbolic because the region has been exhibiting hearing loss in the political sense for the last few decades.”

Firas says there have been discussions to broaden the screening program to other Arab countries, when tensions ease. “This is a unique program and Canada has certainly gained the trust of a lot of people in the region, particularly in Jordan,” says the prince. “Friendships are vital. You can see that at the leadership level. If you don’t have them, things break down.”

To date, the exchange program has brought almost 50 visiting scholars to Canada. It has also arranged for more than 500 Arab and Israeli professionals to meet face to face in the Middle East on joint projects. And it is on the verge of installing a telemedicine hookup to allow the exchange of information between doctors in the region and those in Canada—bypassing the bureaucratic middlemen. Is this the new model of statecraft, science before politics? “It is certainly worth investigating,” says Firas. Noyek is equally cautious. For him this network is a complex fabric of relationships, delicately woven and very personal. Because that is who he is: “I’m an in-yourface kinda guy,” he says. It’s an old joke. He’s ears, nose and throat, remember. CU