Nostalgia Sunday – Egypt Under the Stereoscope

In December, one spark caused the dry underbrush that had amassed for years beneath the Carmel Forest trees to burst into flame. Similarly, the tinderbox that is the wild, wild Middle East has combusted spontaneously. Except that spontaneity would imply surprise. Although we Israelis are watching the events in Cairo unfold with no little anxiety, (our hope is that the “cold peace” with Egypt will stay intact), it would be a mistake to think that anyone here is entirely surprised. We just thought it would happen a bit differently.

One element that has proved surprising is the enormous amount of credit being attributed to social media, via the Internet and cellular, for driving events in both Tunisia and Egypt — and who knows where else in the near future. Given that, it might be nice to take a look back at the high-tech of 100 years ago: stereoscopy.

As written in a previous column, stereoscopic technology comprised two separate images printed side-by-side, mounted on cardboard and peered at through the lens of a stereoscope viewer. It sounds primitive by today’s standards but the impact of this form of 3-D photography was great. Take, for example, this description of what would today be called “e-learning” as written in 1905 by Prof. James Henry Breasted, Professor of Egyptology and Oriental History at the University of Chicago:

“Heretofore I have never been able to find any books or material which could furnish graphic reproductions of the remains still surviving in the ancient lands of the East… It was, therefore, with peculiar satisfaction that I made the acquaintance of this system of stay-at-home travel, the great merits of which are but beginning to be appreciated. By its use an acquaintance can be gained, here at home, with the wonders of the Nile Valley, which is quite comparable with that obtained by traveling there.”

The full text of Prof. Breasted’s book, Egypt through the stereoscope: a journey through the land of the Pharaohs, complete with stereoscopic images, may be found online. Meanwhile, here is a small selection of images from Cairo as it was 100 years ago.

“Cairo, home of the Arabian Nights, the greatest city of Africa, northwest from Saladin’s citadel to the Nile”

“A ‘Ship of the Desert’ passing the tombs of by-gone Moslem rulers, outside the east wall of Cairo”

“The great Nile Bridge at Cairo open for the passage of the daily fleet of cargo boats”

“The Holy Carpet parade with the Mahmal, before the departure of the pilgrims for Mecca, Cairo”

“The magnificent jewelry of the Pharaohs (Queen Ahhotep, 17th century B. C.), Cairo Museum”

We can only hope that the looters who broke into the Cairo Museum this week didn’t get to these. They did enough damage by tearing the heads off two mummies and breaking many other irreplaceable items.

In closing, here’s one that’s not from Dr. Breasted’s book but a must-share nonetheless: a stereoscopic image by the Keystone View Company entitled “The Graf Zeppelin’s rendezvous with the eternal desert and the more than 4,000 year old pyramids of Gizeh, Egypt” that documents the 1931 event. There’s nothing we in the West love more than a picture that fits our technology leapfrogging ideal and this one is an absolute wow.

From Sudan to Jerusalem

January 18, 2011 - 5:49 PM by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Politics 

Refugees travel from Sudan north through Egypt to Israel

One of the hot topics in the news these past months has been the steady influx of refugees from Africa who have crossed the border between Egypt and Israel, and Israel’s subsequent response of building a fence to keep the Africans out.

With 1,000 refugees arriving every month now, the issue is not trivial. It’s further complicated by the historical Jewish imperative to treat the less fortunate with kindness and compassion and not close the floodgates.

Until recently, the subject was mostly theoretical for me. I had never sat down and actually talked with someone who had made the long journey northward and slipped across the Sinai border.

So I was very intrigued when the opportunity arose to spend a Shabbat meal with a refugee from Darfur, now living in Jerusalem and working as a cleaner. “Jack” had earlier in the day given a talk at our synagogue. He joined us at the Shabbat table of our friends Bob and Ruth, accompanied by a volunteer from the U.S. who is helping him write and edit his speaking material.

Jack was quite articulate as he explained who was fighting whom, why, and for how long. We learned about peace agreements that have been broken, and the current struggles by southern Sudan to secede from the violent north.

Near the end of the conversation, I decided to ask a tough and potentially inflammatory question. What did Jack think of the fence Israel is building? He must be against something that would prevent his country-mates from finding safe haven in Israel, I imagined. His answer surprised me.

Jack was all for the fence, he said. He understood Israel’s dilemma and explained that, as a small country, Israel could not be expected to absorb refugees indefinitely. The fence should be built…but here was the kicker: all refugees already in Israel should receive legal resident status and be allowed to work and build their families here.

What would happen to other would-be asylum seekers, I asked? There were other countries in Africa that would take in the displaced Sudanese, Jack assured us. Once word filtered south that there was now a wall preventing entry into Israel, the flow would surely stop.

I’m not sure what to make of Jack’s response. Was he presenting a politically balanced position calculated to win Israeli favor, or was he thinking only about how to make the best of his own situation, while cynically turning a blind eye to others in a similar, bleak predicament?

The fence and the African migration test Israel’s conceptions about what kind of country we want to be. Should we be a refuge for at least some of the world’s most downtrodden? Or must we protect ourselves from the slippery slope of a demographic a danger.

I don’t have an easy answer. And neither, apparently, did our new friend Jack.

At Nitzana

January 3, 2011 - 10:15 AM by · 3 Comments
Filed under: Art, coexistence, education, Environment, General, Holidays, Israeliness, Life 

Sometimes you’re brought to remote but interesting places. My latest was Nitzana (נִצָּנָה, ניצנה‎‎), a youth village and communal settlement in the western Negev desert in Israel, right at the Egyptian border. It’s just about 2.5 hours from Jerusalem but feels much farther, probably because there’s not a lot happening in the near vicinity, unless you count an ancient Nabatean city and international border crossing.

We were there with a bunch of family and friends, continuing our week-long celebration of my nephew Akiva’s bar mitzvah. Why Nitzana? One of my sisters had been there recently and liked the location as well as the clean, simple and inexpensive hostel-like accommodations for our large group. Built as a youth village in 1987, it now has a population of around 50 families and serves as home for a variety of populations including disadvantaged Israeli, Arab and Bedouin youth learning science, technology and ecology education, as well as Asian students studying at an agricultural outpost of Hebrew University and a range of guests who come to stay in the new guest quarters. The place was founded by Aria Lova Eliav, a beloved Israeli who died just this year, after 89 years of life in Israel, where he moved at the age of four. Lova Eliav, as he was known, founded the city of Arad in the eastern Negev and was responsible for developing the towns of Lachish and Kiryat Gat. When he saw that the South lacked facilities for youth, and he had an idea to turn the sand dunes of Nitzana in the Western Negev into a youth village.

They weren’t the first ones to stake out the desert as a possibly creative and productive outpost. Nitzana appears to have been a station on the eastern branch of the ancient Spice Route, serving pilgrims and merchants travelling to Sinai or central Egypt. A tel to the south of the modern settlement is home to several ancient churches, a well and some living quarters. There’s also a manmade cave that appears to have been hewn out of the stone above to serve as temporary living quarters for travelers.

It’s all ironically similar to the current scenario down here, where the Nitzana Border Crossing used to once handle pedestrians and private cars between Egypt and Nitzana, but no longer. Now it only handles commercial trade and is just across the road from the Path of Peace, an environmental sculpture of columns created by Israeli artist Dani Karavan. Running over three kilometers, from the hills of Nitzana to the border, the 100 round columns are each inscribed with the word ‘peace’ in a different language, each one representing all those who have traveled through or lived in this region.

The war for the airwaves in Eilat

December 14, 2010 - 12:10 PM by · 1 Comment
Filed under: History and Culture, Travel 

21st century airwaves battle for the top of Mount Amram

In 1947, the U.N. partition plan designated the sleepy port of Eilat as the southernmost tip of the new Jewish state. It wasn’t until the final days of the War of Independence, however, when Israel took control of the town in an operation that surprised the small platoon of Jordanian troops stationed in mud huts in what was then called Umm Rashrash.

The Jordanians surrendered without a fight and, today, the Red Sea border town is a major international tourist destination, favored by Europeans escaping the cold winters of the continent.

The war for Eilat is not quite over, though. It’s now being fought in the airwaves for control of our cell phones.

We were on a week’s vacation in Eilat last week and went for a hike in an area called Amram’s Pillars, west of Highway 90, the main artery connecting the far north and southern poles of the country. We chose a barren trail that climbed steeply up Mount Amram for a stunning view of the entire Eilat area, before plunging down into the mysterious red limestone rock formations where the ancient Egyptians once mined copper some 3,000 years ago.

As we trekked up and down the hills, our cell phones all began to ring at once. Who wanted us so badly when we were communing with the infinite desert?

It was Jordan calling. Or more accurately, our Israeli cell phone provider Orange was warning us that we were no longer connected to Israel’s mobile network and that any call we made would be routed through Amman at a hefty premium.

A few seconds later, it was Orange again, welcoming us back to Israel. And then it was Jordan calling. And Israel. The virtual tussle for atmospheric supremacy went on for much of the day, each time resulting in a barrage of SMS’s.

The funny thing was, despite our cell phones’ warnings to the contrary, we had no usable reception. When our group got separated at one point, not even our friendly neighbor King Abdullah could intervene to get our phones to connect.

Two days later, we set out for another tiyul, this one along the Egyptian border, through the Red Canyon and up an equally spectacular lunar landscape. This time, though, there was no aerial tug of war.

Egypt, having received the Sinai back twice – after the 1956 and Yom Kippur wars – had apparently conceded the airwaves to Israel.

A seamless CEO

July 15, 2010 - 8:36 PM by · 2 Comments
Filed under: design, General, Life 

From a Tefron catalog

Pointing you toward an article I just wrote for WWD about Tefron, the seamless knitting company from Israel, which includes the National Football League, Reebok, Lululemon athletica and Patagonia among its long client list. I’d been waiting a few months to interview Amit Meridor, the new CEO of Tefron, which had been having some tough times in the last year.

After borrowing several million dollars from Israel’s three largest banks — because they lost a lot of business post the U.S. economic downturn and primarily from their #1 client, Victoria’s Secret — they also hired Meridor and some other senior management and embarked on a serious cost-cutting and efficiency plan.

Here’s the gist of their goals for the next few quarters:

“Where Tefron failed [compared to competitor Delta Galil], explains Meridor, was in manufacturing and timely delivery, particularly because of its cut-and-sew departments. Most textile companies worldwide outsource their cut-and-sew work to cheaper shores, such as Bangladesh, India and China. Delta Galil has been outsourcing to Egypt for years. But Tefron had not completed that shift despite working with nearby neighbor Jordan on certain sewing segments, and that deficiency helped account for their recent losses….

For now, that means focusing on the cut-and-sew segments of the company, which is the area that “got hit” in Tefron’s downturn, says Meridor. The prices for cut-and-sew workers were too high in Israel and as a result, Tefron couldn’t offer any special deals to its clients. With 40% of the business in cut-and-sew garments, the company is now looking to Bangladesh, Egypt, India and China for that segment of the business. That transition is already taking place, but the big shift will be by 2012, says Meridor.

“In this business, there’s a lot of sewing and you have to know how to do offshore work,” offered Meridor. “Jordan does great work, as good as China or India. That, along with our duty free agreements gives us a break of 15% to 30%, and that helps us succeed.”

Despite the changes, the company has some prestigious new customers, including the National Football League, a development they have been working on for four years with Reebok, creating new uniforms that help contain the body but which don’t rip easily. Lululemon athletica and Patagonia continue to be strong, solid clients, according to Meridor, and Tefron will also be developing army uniforms in the U.S. and Europe.”

You can read the full story in WWD. And hopefully Tefron will be bringing me to Egypt over the next few months to see their operations over there. Stay tuned.

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