A peculiar science awards dinner in Doha…

“You have to write about that awards dinner,” said the distinguished, drunk science journalist, lurching out of a swanky hotel-top bar in Doha. “You have to. Promise me you will.” He leaned on me and swayed, but did not topple. Six other members of the profession watched and grinned, admiring this man’s traditional, how-to-exit-a-pub form of journalistic balance. “Okay, Phil. I will,” said I.

Phil and three of those other people had bailed out of the awards dinner when it got too damn weird for them. I and the other three had stayed through the dinner’s end, mesmerized and giggling. Then we had zoomed by elevator to the sky bar where we encountered Phil and his fellow merry men.

So here, sketched briefly, is the story of the awards dinner at the World Conference of Science Journalists, in Doha, Qatar.

First, some background.

The conference. The conference had been moved to Doha in haste, having been originally and elaborately planned for pre-revolutionary Cairo. The discussions in Doha and the camaraderie were wonderful. There were more than 700 of us, many old friends, many new, all unsure how to understand our temporary new environment. The organizers — who were forced to, in effect, organize the conference twice — had worked marvels. The resulting loose ends were few, and mostly entertaining, the greatest exception being the medical-adventure/twitter-hashtag called #dohabug.

The buildings. Most of us stayed at the conference’s recommended hotel. Like many of the buildings in downtown Doha, it is tall, new, assembled in slapdash fashion, apparently crumbling, and obviously oozing with unpredictability. Downtown there’s lots to wonder at. The apparent emptiness of the metastasizing, sci-fi-shaped skyscrapers which, even as they are being built, seem eternally waiting for someone, perhaps Godot’s long-lost cousin, to come visit and offer them a sense of purpose. The glaring emptiness of the city sidewalks. The experience of becoming a human form of baked-Alaska: many Doha buildings have constantly-sun-baked exteriors and relentlessly-machine-frozen insides.

The bars and people: The Doha airport forces arriving visitors to put their belongings through x-ray machines. This, we were told, is to prevent anyone bringing liquor into town. Liquor would be officially available, word was, only at a small number of special places, inside select hotels, which only passport-wielding foreigners are permitted to patronize. We as a group managed to explore many of those bars, the nicest of which seem to serve mainly as playgrounds for adventure-seeking local citizens. Those individuals aside, we met few actual Qataris. Four-fifths or more of the people in Qatar are foreigners. Most are there for short periods to do specific jobs at irresistible rates of pay. It proved handy to remind ourselves that almost everyone we met was acting for much of the day in a professional role. Some of them relaxed after hours in those bars, with us, where they could temporarily again be foreigners, revealing depths of quirky human warmth from beneath their daytime pleasant-but-professional modes of warmth.

The awards dinner. As dazed, ignorant foreigners, we felt a bit physically constrained during the evening hours. Doha offered few obvious and convenient places to explore after dark. Seeing that the conference schedule mentioned an awards dinner, and being always eager for a free, good meal with lots of fellow writers as company, several hundred of us decided to go to the dinner. We were vague as to the nature of the awards, or their purpose, or really, almost anything about them other than the single fact that they held high promise of a delicious free meal. So off we went to the Sheraton Hotel, where a big ballroom had been transformed, a tiny bit, into a magical hall of imminent delights.

This was a rare form of magic. Beautiful plates, silverware, and centerpieces graced every table. The tables were huddled in the center of the room, and outnumbered us people. The empty chairs and empty tables, and the vasty emptiness between them and the stage, and the mock-gamma-ray-burst disco light crossing the expanse of the new-birth’d ballroom-universe, renewed in us, even in the most jaded astronomy reporters, a sense of the immensity of the cosmos.

We contemplated the void.

We saw, far, far to one side, a stage with giant video screens mounted on high. Music whipped by. Psychotropic lighting swept across the floor and walls and our faces and bodies. Everywhere crackled the electricity of money, money, money having been spent, spent, spent to prepare for us — us! — a startling, lavish new region of space-time far different from any we had ever encountered or imagined.

Waiters, well rehearsed, bid us sit. We sat.

The food, when it came, in several courses over the next hours, was delicious and artful, borne in by snaking lines of smiling waitstaff, polite and friendly as in any reasonably well-run state dinner. Drinks, drinks, do they have drinks, murmured many among us, ever hopeful. No, not here. This is Qatar. But afterwards we can repair to the bar upstairs, said the whisperings, or to another bar that’s down in a basement. Be patient, said the quiet voices to the distressed. Be patient. Eat.

Then came the good stuff. A man appeared on stage, at the microphone. He was so far away that we, any of us, could make out only his shape. But that was no impediment to our seeing him well and clearly, because his head was televised to three giant screens, giving us three identical heads, each dwarfing the wee little figure at the microphone.

The man spoke to us, his voice smooth, his patter slick, his words mostly a stream of ancient, mechanical bad jokes from the late days of vaudeville or the early days of mediocre television comedy. The jokes featured mild insults. Some were of the kind people used to call “a little dirty.” All of this was delivered with an aplomb that ancient comedians developed through long years of playing to unresponsive audiences. This was professional-calibre, low-content, slick, smarmy smoothness.

After several rounds of his patter, interspersed with the early courses of the meal, some of us were hooked on the spectacle. Others, Phil included, ducked out and found their way to the sky bar.

The spectacle got better. Things felt off. Everything felt off. We still didn’t know what these awards were for, or who would get them, or who arranged them, or why. The emcee dropped bits of information into his slickstream of bad jokes. These were awards for science journalists in Africa, chosen by some criteria of some sort, decided by some sort of committee or group or collection of people who made decisions.

This was all news to us, albeit news without much content that was clear or made much sense. Why only African journalists, we wondered, when the conference had people from around the world, and was being held in Asia? Why were most of the jokes overtly tailored to one particular country, a country that had only a tiny number of journalists at the conference? Who was this comedian? Why was he here? Why were we here?

Then came a bit of clarity, arriving in sudden jerks. The awards and the dinner were arranged and paid for by a large technology company. A high executive from that company would speak to us. The emcee introduced the executive.

The executive looked more than a bit disconcerted, as if she had just arrived, and had immediately become aware that this whole event had no apparent purpose and made no sense to anyone in the room. And that her company had been put in the position, somehow, of being responsible for everything.

The corporate exec introduced the science minister from the African country about which the emcee had, with effusive slickness, been making the smarmy jokes.

The science minister walked to the stage and took the microphone. That’s when things got really good.

This was not a typical science minister. For one thing, she was a she. Science ministers, and their equivalents, are almost always men. And she was eloquent in the way that one would expect an ancient Greek god to be eloquent, with the presence one would find in someone who was experienced in dealing with matters that affected the life and death of nations. And about science, she seemed to really know what she was talking about, something that is not standard issue for science ministers in every country.

She said a few words of greeting. Then in the most concise way possible, she said that the emcee’s jokes exemplified the backwards attitudes that her country had been laboring to overcome.

The god having flicked away a gnat, she then gave us an eloquent talk about science. Then she walked away from the microphone.

The emcee now returned. His speech pattern was as slick as ever. But his face was melting. And his sentences, now and for the rest of the evening, came with chunks missing. It was as if an automaton continued to go through its paces, unable to realize that portions of its software had been erased.

He announced the award winners, only some of whom were present and came to the stage. Most of them looked baffled about what was happening. None was allowed to speak. We learned only partly about who they were and what they had accomplished, because the emcee keep skipping over parts of his sentences and paragraphs.

And then the ceremony ended.

I asked a friend, a journalist who lives and works in the same country as the science minister and the emcee, to tell me about the emcee’s background. What kind of comedian is he? How and why had they chosen him from among the country’s many performers to fly all this way and perform in this manner?

Oh, he’s not a comedian, she told me. He’s the country’s most popular evening television news presenter.

My friend introduced me to the science minister, with whom I chatted briefly.

Then several of us left the room, intent on finding the bar atop the hotel.

But then, right outside the door of the ballroom, we saw the emcee standing by himself, perhaps lost in thought.

I could not resist the opportunity. So I walked up and thanked him for giving the most memorable performance I had ever seen. I asked if I could shake his hand. He graciously put his hand out. Somehow, it was our left hands that met and clasped. Then I asked if I might be permitted to have someone take a photo of the two of us. Of course, he said. That photograph is what you see here.

Then my friends and I took the elevator up to the top of the hotel, stepped out into the bar, and met Phil, without whose kind urging I would not have written this account.

BONUS: The science minister’s speech delighted me because she mentioned and mused about the Gunning Fog Index, an obscure tool that I wrote about several months ago. My friend tells me that the science minister has an extensive background in English literature.

BONUS FROM THE CONFERENCE: Cris Russell’s video of herself and several other science journalists in a motor vehicle careening in the Qatari desert: