The literary life of a scientist

19 May 2010

I found a job as a post-doctorate researcher at the University of Sydney a few weeks after I first arrived in Australia. On my third day at work, I took the train from the suburb of Pennant Hills in the northwest of Sydney to Redfern station, a five-minute walk from the campus. I arrived at Redfern just after nine in the morning and walked out of the station into Lawson Street, among a small and colourful crowd of students with knapsacks, dog-eared books, torn trousers and quiet ambition.

So began the Sydney chapters of Abbas El-Zein's life, a period which has seen him oscillate between his love of maths and literature to become an accomplished Associate Professor at the Faculty of Engineering and Information Technologies and an award-winning literary writer.

Associate Professor El-Zein has won the Community Relations Commission prize at the NSW Premier's Literary Awards for his memoir Leave To Remain (Queensland University Press). The book traverses an early life in war-torn Lebanon, a nine-year stint in Europe, emigration to Sydney and return visits to his home town of Beirut. It reads as a meditation on war, displacement and identity.

Tossing up between science and literature as a school student in 1970s Beirut, Associate Professor El-Zein chose the latter, partly because those around him wanted him to embrace a stable career path.

"People would tell you 'you'd be mad to pursue a career in literature, or even humanities, if you can avoid it, because it's very risky'," he says. "I loved mathematics but it's hard to tell whether I would make the same choice today."

Associate Professor El-Zein's academic career has, among other achievements, seen him publish in the likes of the International Journal of the Numerical Methods in Engineering and the British Medical Journal on mathematical modelling, the environment and climate change. He devotes most early mornings - from 6am until around 7.30am - to writing literature.

"There are subtle affinities between the two," he says. "Both involve writing creatively and thinking critically about the world. If I had a job outside the university, the affinities would probably not be there."

And whether he's writing an academic paper or a book, continuity is important.

"It's not just about how much time you put in every day. It's the extent to which it stays with you during the day. You have to let it dwell in your mind, turn it into an obsession of a sort. This is more the case for literary writing but also true, to some extent, with academic research."

Leave to Remain is Associate Professor El-Zein's second published literary work. His novel Tell the Running Water (Sceptre) was published in 2001. The writer - who counts JM Coetzee, Michael Ondaatje and David Malouf among his contemporary favourites - is currently working on a collection of short stories.

Media inquiries: Jocelyn Prasad, 9114 1382. Out-of-hours contact 0434 609 790.