DAVOS, Switzerland — “Did Matt Damon write back yet?” I asked my wife, Sabine Choucair, as we packed our bags to attend the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
“No!” she said.
“What about Shakira?”
Sabine shook her head, scowled and threw a kazoo, a red nose and a slide whistle into her suitcase.
We were still getting used to the idea that we were even going to the forum, and we wondered how we would fit in with the C.E.O.s, heads-of-state, movie stars and millionaires and billionaires who gather annually in the Swiss Alps to discuss the state of the world and its problems.
My wife is a clown (not a joke) who does storytelling workshops with drug addicts, refugees and other vulnerable people.
And yes, she regularly dons a red nose and does funny things to make people laugh.
I am a New York Times correspondent in the Middle East, where I write more about coups and car bombs than about corporate mergers. But in Davos, I was a spouse, along for the ride.
The forum’s motto, “Committed to improving the state of the world,” is written everywhere like a mantra; I counted it 11 times on the walls of one small conference room. (Start with Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya)
High-minded goals and intellectual firepower course through the event, from the headline addresses by the president of China and the foreign minister of Iran to the snippets of conversations overheard in the sleek black buses that ferry thousands of participants through the town’s snow-packed streets.
“My editor just told me to change the name of my book from ‘Rentier Capitalism’ to ‘The Corruption of Capitalism,’” one man intoned while waiting to enter the conference center. (The first term is a corollary to the second among Elite classes who hold the power)
Davos’s lofty goals took a beating in 2016: “Brexit” and the election of Donald J. Trump have shaken the international system, and sessions I attended on climate change, refugees, rising oceans and the fragility of cities left a distinct aftertaste of things getting worse.
“The world is a tough place these days,” I overheard a man tell a friend while waiting at the coat check. “The utility of fiscal and monetary policy is declining.”
But the attendees are fascinating — and often eager to tell you why.
At one reception, I met the chief strategy officer at the Nature Conservancy, Giulio Boccaletti, who holds a Ph.D. from Princeton in geophysical fluid dynamics. His husband, Andrea Mattiello, was working on his second doctorate, in Byzantine art, to complement his first, in American performance art in the mid-20th century. (gay marriage?)
The two men, who live in London but are from small villages in Italy, said their families had a hard time relating to their Davos lives.
“It is all very remote,” Dr. Mattiello said. “Veeeeery remote.”
A number of people I met volunteered how many billions of dollars their companies were worth within a few sentences of my asking, “What do you do?” One man said that he had invented a simple medical technology, then added, with feigned modesty, that it had saved millions of lives.
Being a spouse may be the best gig at Davos — we had access to most sessions but no responsibilities. There were hundreds to choose from, giving the place the feel of an elite, futuristic liberal arts college for adults where all the lectures were actually TED talks.
I gravitated to those that sounded sci-fi: “Ask About: Robotic Exoskeletons”; “What If: Pregnancy Becomes Obsolete?”; and “What If: Animals Become Human Organ Factories?”
Hanging from the ceiling over a stairwell were what looked like massive beach balls, part of the project Aerocene led by the artist Tomás Saraceno, which explores the idea of using solar-heated balloons and natural wind currents for sustainable air travel.
Sabine and I told a man at the exhibit’s booth that we lived in Beirut, and he punched it into a computer, which told us we could theoretically float home in 4.8 days.
But for many of the high-powered attendees, the sessions are merely side activities to the business meetings that happen privately
Janeen Haythornthwaite, who runs an art gallery in London and lectures at the Tate Modern but was at Davos as a spouse, like me, said she rarely saw her husband, Richard Haythornthwaite, the chairman of MasterCard, during the day here. The meetings he can have in a week in Davos would usually take months to organize, she said.
“He does a lot of one-to-ones,” said Ms. Haythornthwaite, who has been to Davos more than a dozen times since 2000. “But he tells me, ‘When you get a moment, go check out the holograms.’ ”
Well-known figures are relatively accessible here: I spotted Christine Lagarde, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund, and Amr Moussa, the former head of the Arab League; Al Gore passed me in the hallway — twice.
My wife, as a full participant, could message other attendees on an internal website — that’s how she invited Mr. Damon and Shakira to her workshop. Neither came. But near the end of a panel she was on, a soft-spoken man in the back row raised his hand to ask a question. He turned out to be Yo-Yo Ma, the cellist.
One of the most talked-about sessions was “A Day in the Life of a Refugee.” Since both our work involves refugees, Sabine and I signed up.
Instead of the normal talking-head format, this was “a simulation” — the facilitator warned us that it was intense and that we could quit if we couldn’t take it.
We began by kneeling on the floor (in the basement of a Hilton hotel), where the facilitator, dressed as a tribal sheikh, told us that our people were being killed, blood was flowing in the streets and we had to flee. But before we could, the lights went out and gunmen stormed the room.
I was ordered to run down a hallway, where a woman told me to duck so as not to get shot by a sniper.
We ended up in a mock refugee camp, where the same facilitator, now dressed as the camp boss, lined us up and shouted at us. He told us not to cause problems and said he had medicine and food for those who were hungry, but only if we had our own dishes. If not, we could buy them. If we did not have money, too bad.
Over the next 20 minutes, we were herded into tents where gunmen shined flashlights on us and ordered us to sleep.
Fights and gunfire broke out. When the lights came on, we had to register on applications that were hard to read, attend a school in a language we did not speak, and occasionally be harassed by gunmen who stole our money, watches and cellphones.
As we sat on benches afterward to process the experience, a number of people were in tears. The organizers distributed tissues.
Sabine, who is from Lebanon and grew up during its civil war, said the simulation was an overdramatized picture of what it is like to be a refugee.
The camps of displaced people I have reported on in Lebanon, Yemen, Iraq, the West Bank and Gaza lack that action-movie excitement, but are sunk in deep feelings of despair and boredom that are hard to capture in a 30-minute simulation.
But many others said it had been their most memorable experience at Davos.
“I didn’t realize until yesterday that I have a moral obligation to do something,” said Greg Nance, 28, the founder and chief executive of Dyad, a company that helps students apply to college. “But that simulation really punched me in the face.”
He said he planned to explore the possibility of helping 100 young Syrians pursue education abroad, a modest goal in a conflict that has produced 4.8 million refugees.
Francis Ngai Wah Sing, a self-described “social entrepreneur” who is the founder and chief executive of Social Ventures Hong Kong, said, “Actually, I cried.”
“We can’t do anything, but we can’t turn a blind eye to it,” he said. “We have to get to know it.”