Salvation through honor
The picture looks delusional, as if taken from a Fellini film. On a hot afternoon on the shores of the Dead Sea three children sit in a small boat, rocking and waving and singing. The pier, which once abutted the sea, is hanging in the air three meters above them. The Dead Sea is shrinking and the lowest place on earth has become even lower. Photographers scurry along the shore to photograph the boat at dusk. Bernard Weber, the man behind the selection of the seven new wonders of the world, takes photos with three different cameras and smiles. The exhaustion that comes after a long and tiring day disappears for a moment.The Dead Sea is one of the leading candidates in the New 7 Wonders of Nature campaign.
The candidate countries joined by Israel, Palestine, Jordan, is a proof that there is no boundaries in the wild, says Bernard Weber, promoter to select the new 7 wonders, whilst on a short visit there in the world
"Yes, I wanted it to look like a scene from a Fellini film," he confirms. "I wanted it to look surreal and realitydefying. That is, after all, exactly what we are trying to do here. To show that it is possible to raise your head and look beyond reality, even in the Middle East." Weber, 57, is visiting Israel as part of a campaign to select the seven wonders of nature. The Dead Sea is one of the leading candidates. He is interviewed while at Ein Gedi. In the afternoon of that same day he came from Eilat with Sefi Hanegbi, the director general of the Red Sea Tourism Authority. He shook hands with Yossi Leshem, the representative of the Israeli Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI), with Mansour Abu Rashad, the Jordanian representative who attended the event, and Imad Atrash, who heads the Palestinian equivalent of SPNI, but he devoted most of his attention to staging the photograph of the boat. Every detail is important to him. Dozens of times he asked that one of the cars be moved away lest it appear in the photos and ruin them. Only after the car was removed from sight did he agree to have the event begin. In a short speech he voiced his support for the candidacy of the Dead Sea, which is shared by Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority, and for the candidacy of the Red Sea, which is shared by Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Oman, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen. He called on the world to save the Dead Sea, which may disappear, and went to photograph the children in the boat. Afterwards, he was photographed beside them and appeared like someone who is used to facing cameras.
The reference to Fellini is not coincidental. Weber, a Canadian who was born in Switzerland, makes documentary and nature films, and an amateur aviation fan, knew the great Italian director well. In 1974, when he was a beginning filmmaker, Weber asked to be Fellini┬┤s assistant. "Fellini turned me down and said I wouldn┬┤t learn anything from him," he relates. "He explained to me that if I want to learn how to make good films, I must make them myself." But Weber is not the kind of person who gives up easily. "I went back to him two days later and told him he was right, but I still want to work as his assistant in order to learn how he works with the crew, how the group functions. He looked at me, smiled and agreed. In the end it really was the most important lesson I learned alongside Fellini. I learned how the whole group works for the maestro. We were there for him with tremendous loyalty." In 1999 Weber came up with the idea of selecting seven new wonders of the world. Since then, he is the maestro surrounded by a loyal and admiring crew. What started as a small, private venture has been a huge success thanks to his ability to create moments that attract the media┬┤s attention. He sees the turning point in the brilliant idea he had a week before the 2000 Olympics in Sydney.
"I have an old seaplane that I once bought as junk from the Moroccan Air Force," he recalls. "I landed it in the Sydney harbor, across from the famous opera house, which was one of the candidates for the list of the Seven Wonders of the World. It was an excellent photo and was featured on the largest television networks around the world. Everyone knew us after that clip and the organization gained popularity." One hundred million people voted in the previous campaign to choose the seven man-made wonders of the world. The sites selected, the Great Wall of China, the Taj Mahal, Petra in Jordan, the Colosseum in Rome, Chichen Itza in Mexico, Machu Picchu in Peru and the statue of Jesus in Rio de Janeiro, were announced at a huge ceremony held in Lisbon in July 2007. Weber presents this event as an example of the financial method used by the organization, which operates as a nonprofit: "We finance our operations from the sale of franchises to television networks. That is what we did in Lisbon and that is what we will also do in the future. The income from these efforts covers the costs of our operations and also finances the new campaign, to select the new seven wonders."
Bernard Weber, founder of new7wonders Uber┬ę Emil Salman / Jeannie)
Not about money
The expectations for the current campaign are huge: Weber believes 1 billion people will vote over the Internet and using text messages. "Barack Obama was elected president of the United States thanks to 62 million voters, in our first campaign, we had over 100 million voters. Only events on the scale of the Olympic Games or the soccer World Cup attract more media attention," he says with unconcealed pride. He does not want to talk about the money because, in his opinion, it is not such an interesting subject: "You need money in order to do the things that you want and like." He is from a wealthy family but says that is not important. The success in choosing the new seven wonders of the world he attributes, primarily, to technological developments: "the Internet makes it possible to run a worldwide campaign that hundreds of millions participate in. It┬┤s the most democratic way to choose, vote and influence."
He believes it is also the best way to rise above national borders. These are not of great importance today, Weber argues, and they also have no influence on the selection of the sites. His favorite example is the Colosseum in Rome, which was selected even though very few Italians participated in the process. The site he is less fond of among the list of the seven wonders of the world is the statue of Jesus in Rio de Janeiro. "I really wanted the giant statues on Easter Island to be chosen," acknowledges Weber. "It┬┤s a fascinating site and I thought it had tremendous appeal, specifically since it is not located in the heart of a country with a million residents." The Easter Island site actually did make it to the list of finalists, which included 21 locations, but in the last days of the voting the Brazilian president waged a campaign and urged residents to vote for a Brazilian venue, and Easter Island was pushed aside.
The current list of the wonders of nature features over 400 sites. When he is asked why he came to Israel, of all places, and why he is energetically promoting the Dead Sea and the Red Sea, which currently are in 17th and 18th place on the list, Weber explains that these two candidates are very important. This is when he sounds very much like a preacher. "I have no way or intention of promoting all the sites on the list," he says. "Only around 40 of them are nature sites that cross borders. The candidacy of the Dead Sea, which is shared by Palestine, Israel and Jordan, is the piece de resistance for me. It proves that in nature there are no borders. We simply must say thank you to nature for the happiness it grants us, for our lives, and serve it to the best our ability. We must place nature above our day-to-day worries. Nature is a basis for dialogue."
Weber is not naive. He is well aware of the reality in the Middle East. During his visit, he is to meet with President Shimon Peres and the Palestinian Minister of Tourism and Antiquities, Dr. Khuloud Daibes, and with other Israeli, Jordanian and Palestinian personalities, in order to promote the joint candidacy. He completely avoids discussing politics. Among other things, he elegantly evades questions regarding the fact that the Megilot Regional Council, which submitted the Dead Sea┬┤s candidacy, is located within the West Bank and about the fact that the press release issued this week by the Megilot Regional Council did not at all mention that this is a joint candidacy involving other political entities. All of this, he says, is not essential. The Dead Sea┬┤s candidacy is common to the three countries and there is no chance this will change. The only important thing, he says, is saving the Dead Sea from disappearing and the way to do that entails dialogue and establishing good relations between the surrounding peoples. "The fights that have taken place until now did not help anyone and certainly didn┬┤t help the nature sites," he notes. "We are suggesting choosing another way, one that is positive, that will also bring tourism and economic development to the region." As far as the matter of the huge environmental damage to the Dead Sea not being a divine phenomenon but something inflicted by man, to be more precise by Israeli governments which developed the Dead Sea Works, prevented the flow of the Jordan River into the sea and caused other damage, he explains, in his Swiss way, that everyone must now recognize that the damage needs to be repaired and the responsibility to do so is on us. He is completely informed about the details and can even cite the date when the Knesset will hold a session to discuss the future of the Dead Sea. He also is aware of the proposed solution to build a canal from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea. Will salvation come from there? No, he is not sure, but in his view it is proof that everyone realizes that we must act. The guarantee that an immediate solution will be found, he feels, lies in the declaration of the Dead Sea as one of the seven wonders of nature.
"Then you won┬┤t have a choice but to act jointly to preserve this amazing place," he says, pointing to the lovely oasis of Ein Gedi and the Dead Sea, which looks stunning at sunset. In answer to the question if other sites chosen for the list will not incur damage due to the huge number of visitors, Weber says: "Those are good problems. I call them high-quality problems. Here is the Dead Sea. Until now, it was not included on any list, people don┬┤t come here en masse and still its situation is pretty bad. If the site is chosen as one of the seven wonders of nature, a lot more tourists will arrive here, but then you will have no choice but to save it. Otherwise, you will lose a treasure. That is what is happening now to sites chosen in the first campaign. You can see Petra, which already is benefiting from much greater popularity, but also from more preservation efforts and more stringent monitoring."
For more information please visit: www.new7wonders.com
(Haaretz. Tel Aviv, Monday 17 November 2008 03:54 By Moshe Gilad)