Maverick Life

From atomic energy and Nobel peace prize to Cape Town and caffeine power

By Rebecca Davis 26 June 2012

When driving along Bree Street in Cape Town’s CBD, it’s easy to miss Escape Caffe. If you were to stop at its orange exterior and walk through the doors, however, you’d find yourself in a coffee shop with a unique claim to fame: the only café in the world owned and run by a Nobel Peace Prize winner. And no, it’s not Desmond Tutu, FW de Klerk or Nelson Mandela. By REBECCA DAVIS.

Rebecca Davis

Turn to the left as you enter Escape Caffe, and you’ll see a fairly unassuming-looking certificate framed on the wall. “Presented to Muhammed Lameen Abdul-Malik to commemorate the awarding to the International Atomic Energy Agency of the Nobel Peace Prize for 2005”, it reads. The man whose name it bears says he had to have his arm twisted to display the award.  

“Nobody knew when I opened the café that I had a Peace Prize,” Abdul-Malik says, chuckling. “They just knew I’d worked in Vienna, and that was it. It was my wife telling everyone, and I was like, no, no, let them come here for a cup of coffee and that’s it. It was only after about six months that I succumbed and she got me to put the placard up.”

Initially, in fact, Abdul-Malik thought he could satisfy his wife’s request by mounting a board near the counter, still on display, which lists “Five things you didn’t know about Escape Caffe”. The first item reads: “Did you know that one of us won a Nobel Peace Prize in 2005?” The problem was that nobody believed him – and so the certificate was brought out from where he’d rather keep it, in his office, as proof.

“When I was awarded it I didn’t go, ‘Wow’, and tell all my friends,” he explains. “Some of my friends still don’t know that I have it. It’s good to be recognised, but we were just doing our work and getting on with it.”

Abdul-Malik, a young-looking 40-year old with a contagious laugh, is clearly a modest man. When the photographer arrives to take his photo, he almost visibly squirms in the face of the lens. In his normal demeanour he has the slow, relaxed manner of a Capetonian stereotype, but his accent gives away the game as to his background.

Born in Switzerland, Abdul-Malik is the child of a Nigerian father and a half-Nigerian, half-English mother. He was raised in Nigeria until he was 12, and it’s a country for which he maintains a strong affection. 

“I loved growing up in Nigeria. I wouldn’t change it for the world,” he says. When he was 12, however, his parents moved to Vienna, and the young Abdul-Malik was sent to boarding school in Kent, England. A degree in Economics at the University of Leicester followed, and then an MBA at the University of Exeter. Isn’t that an unlikely route for someone who ended up at the UN’s nuclear watchdog?

“When I was at university everyone was always talking about being a management consultant, so I thought about doing something like that,” he explains. “But in my final year of university I did a course in international economics, which made me interested in the IMF, the World Bank, development. I was still quite naïve back then, I must admit. I wanted to work for the World Bank and help poor countries. But now…” he pauses. “I know a lot more now than I did then,” he concludes, laughing wryly.

In accordance with these interests, upon graduating in 1994 Abdul-Malik took up a job at DFID, the UK government’s Department for International Development. He started off on the IMF and World Bank desks, but ended his time there working in international trade policy, with what he describes as a “genuinely pro-poor initiative” which meant they were frequently at loggerheads with UK and EU power players. It was only in July 2002 that he moved to Vienna to work for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

“I was looking for something different,” he says. “They asked, do you have a nuclear background? I said, ‘no, I don’t.’ They basically were looking for people who could interact with government, which was one of the skills I developed working at DFID.” 

Working in the IAEA’s Africa division, Abdul-Malik was responsible for five countries – Sudan, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Namibia, and at different points Sierra Leone and Mauritius – and focused on the ways in which nuclear science and technology could be used for development. His biggest project saw the establishment of the first cancer hospital in Lusaka, Zambia. 

The IAEA is mostly in the news for the role it plays in keeping a beady eye on the nuclear programmes of countries suspected of developing nuclear weapons. But Abdul-Malik is at pains to stress that there is another aspect to their work which rarely makes headlines. 

“People always think nuclear science is just about atomic bombs, but the department I worked in was completely on the other side, using the technology to help people, particularly in the area of human health and communicable diseases like malaria, HIV and TB.”

This aspect of IAEA has been criticised by those who are implacably opposed to nuclear uses of any kind, who say you cannot create a coherent position from supporting nuclear civilian applications and opposing nuclear weapons simultaneously. Greenpeace has been particularly outspoken on this point, denouncing “the contradiction inherent within the IAEA that promotes the very technology that is used for nuclear weapons development”. 

Nonetheless, the Nobel Prize Committee found themselves sufficiently impressed by the work of the IAEA to award them the Nobel Peace Prize for the year 2005, despite there being a record 199 candidates for the award in that year. In their statement on the matter, the committee said the prize was being given jointly to the agency and its head, Mohamed ElBaradei, “for their efforts to prevent nuclear energy from being used for military purposes and to ensure that nuclear energy for peaceful purposes is used in the safest possible way”.

The decision to award the IAEA the Peace Prize was likely not without a political motivation. ElBaradei had told the Bush administration in 2003 that the body had found no evidence that Iraq was reviving its nuclear weapons programme – part of the supposed Weapons of Mass Destruction – and had begged for more time to continue their investigations. The White House rejected his concerns, as we all know, and proceeded to invade, citing the revival of Iran’s nuclear programme as its major justification for doing so. The US subsequently attempted to push ElBaradei out of his position, so the Nobel Prize Committee’s decision to recognise his work in this way was seen by many as a not-very-veiled slap in the face to Washington. 

ElBaradei said at the time of the award that he was “overwhelmed” and that it was a “shot in the arm” for the agency to continue dealing with issues like North Korea and Iran. Not everyone was happy with the award, however. 

Hidayanko, which is a Japanese body that represents survivors of the 1945 atomic bomb attacks, told the BBC at the time that the decision to award the peace prize to a nuclear agency was “very disappointing”. Gerd Leipold, executive director of Greenpeace International, condemned the award on the grounds that “the IAEA has spent nearly 50 years proliferating the very technology and nuclear materials that have given many countries the ability to develop nuclear weapons, including Iraq, North Korea and Iran.”

Naturally, in the IAEA headquarters the response to the award was enthusiastic. Abdul-Malik remembers a jubilatory meeting held after the announcement had been made, with a speech from ElBaradei thanking his employees for their work. Although Abdul-Malik did not attend the prizegiving ceremony – he says only about four IAEA representatives went – he experienced the positive effect of the award first-hand, because his Lusaka cancer hospital was a major beneficiary of funds from the $1,3-million prize money. Abdul-Malik’s name is also inscribed, together with his colleagues’, on a board from the Nobel Prize committee listing the award’s recipients, which is displayed in the IAEA offices in Vienna.

By 2009, Abdul-Malik had reached the mandatory end of the IAEA’s seven-year contracts, and started casting around for something to do next. “I thought about staying in the area of international development, but I’d always had a burning desire to go into something to do with coffee and food, because they are my passions,” he says. “So I just thought, let me give it a shot to see what it’s like.”

He had come to Cape Town for the first time in 2002, on a malaria and TB-related IAEA mission. “It was quite a hectic meeting,” he remembers. “It was only when I was on the plane flying back to Europe that I opened the in-flight magazine, saw a spread on Cape Town, and thought: Wow, is that the city where I’ve just been?” On subsequent visits he had been attracted to Cape Town for an atmosphere he describes as “eclectic, relaxed, but very cosmopolitan”. 

And so Abdul-Malik swapped nuclear energy for nuclear family and took the leap, arriving at the end of 2009 with his wife and two children. The doors to Escape Caffe opened in September 2010. It’s now a cosy, chic little place serving pastries, sandwiches and coffees – one of which is ominously titled the Sleep Suicide – to customers which he describes as “60 to 70% regulars”. 

Running a small Cape Town coffee shop is, he concedes, a massive change of pace from the IAEA. “There are parts of it that I miss – the people I worked with, particularly. But the work I’m doing now also has its challenges, just more personal ones. Working in an international environment, thousands of people get affected by your decisions.”

Abdul-Malik says he still keeps an eye on nuclear-related news. What does he make of the growing concerns around Iran’s nuclear weapons programme? “The problem is that’s Iran,” he says. “Would we have the same problem if it was India, which America likes? Would we have the same problem if it was, I dunno, South Korea?” 

He thinks there’s a certain amount of political hypocrisy around issues of nuclear weapons. “For you to get to the stage when you’re enriching plutonium to weapons grade, one of the major countries has to be helping you. You can’t buy that amount of uranium with nobody knowing what you’re doing. I have too many questions about that sort of stuff,” he concludes, shaking his head. 

Coffee is a simpler business – though one that demands its own precision, he notes. Abdul-Malik says if you’re going to make the perfect cup, you can’t skimp on machinery, beans or staff. That’s the holy triad – the axis of quality, if you will – to ensure a consistently good brew.

The Peace Prize-winning proprietor has customers to greet. In parting, what does he think about criticisms of the Nobel Peace Prize in recent years, particularly following the bestowing of the award on Barack Obama when he had barely taken office? 

“I think when they gave it to Henry Kissinger…” he breaks off to laugh. “That was…I mean, he’s like a mass murderer as far as I’m concerned.” DM

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Photo: Muhammed Lameen Abdul-Malik in his Escape Caffe. (Jeanine Cameron)



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