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IU Southeast professor, Fulbright scholar to publish photo book on biodiversity in Sinai Peninsula

May 7, 2014

Omar Attum, assistant professor of biology at IU Southeast, was awarded the full Fulbright scholarship to further his research. The scholarship will pay for him and his family to live, tax free, in Jordan for a year, including housing, salary and travel expenses.

Attum was honored when he found out that he received the scholarship through an email. “I was in a conference and I immediately forwarded the email to my wife,” Attum said. “This is such a great opportunity, not only for me but for my family as well.”

Attum plans to study the wildlife indigenous to the area, specifically, the Nubian Ibex goat. Attum will photograph his experience in Jordan and hopes to publish a book about it. “This experience will allow me to better train my students for when they are out in the field doing their own research,” Attum said.

In addition to researching wildlife and the environment, Attum is a freelance photographer. Recently, his work has been published with the American University in Cairo Press, for his book “Sinai Landscape and Nature in Egypt’s Wilderness,” which will become available in September 2014. 

Meet the author interview

Omar Attum is a wildlife biologist and professor at Indiana University Southeast who fell in love with Sinai at the age of 16. He has been conducting wildlife research and surveys in the peninsula since 1998.

Omar Attum photographing on rocks

IU Southeast professor Omar Attum taking photos in Sinai, Egypt | Photo By Alaa el Dinn

He is the author of the forthcoming book Sinai: Landscape and Nature in Egypt’s Wilderness, which will be published by the American University in Cairo Press in September.

A self-taught photographer, his credits include National Geographic magazine, The Courier Journal, Outdoor Photographer, Popular Photography, Shutterbug, Egypt Today and The Jordan Times. He is the recipient of a Blue Earth Alliance Photography fellowship.

American University in Cairo Press: You refer to “surreal views” when you describe the Sinai. Just how out of the ordinary is this part of Egypt?

Omar Attum: There is something special about the views in Sinai, especially in the high mountains around sunset and sunrise. The first rays of light, peaking through the horizon, selectively light up a shrub or tree for just a few seconds, while everything else is dark. Then the mountains relive their magma origins, as the warm sunlight paints the mountains lava red and orange colors. You combine this lighting with the grandness of the open desert and you have “surreal views.”

AUC Press: How long did it take you to put together all the images for this book?

OA: This book is a result of multiple expeditions, camping trips and extended backpacking journeys during a 13-year span. Some of the backpacking trips involved hikes as long as 170 kilometers. I started to seriously photograph Sinai in 2000. 

AUC Press: Can you describe some of the challenges you faced during your photo shoots to try and capture the different treasures of Sinai with its endangered species, like for example to the Nubian ibex, a “hyper-muscular goat” that you claim “escaped extinction by retreating to some of the most inhospitable mountains in Egypt”?

Omar Attum photographing on ground

Attum laying down on the job | Photo By Alaa el Dinn

OA: The challenges associated with remote camping, backpacking or spending extended times in the field were part of the adventure and what made photographing Sinai so rewarding.

Photographing or even observing endangered mammals is extremely difficult because they are 1) rare and 2) extremely afraid of humans because of persecution or hunting. Usually, you are lucky if you find signs, such as fecal pellets, tracks or bones. You really appreciate and understand how ibex can still exist in South Sinai, despite high poaching levels, when you try to follow ibex into the difficult and sometimes inhospitable terrain of the Sinai mountains. There were a few times I questioned the wisdom of my actions when walking along the edges of high cliffs. 

The storms were beautifully rewarding but could also be challenging because they could be potentially dangerous and destructive to equipment. I was caught in a few storms, where there was nothing I could do but wait for the wind, sand, snow or rain to pass. I am a wimp when it comes to cold weather, despite winter being my favorite time to photograph.

Just as the Sinai’s landscape can be beautiful, it can be challenging. In Zaranik Protected Area, North Sinai, the beautiful and mobile sand of the sand dunes was very destructive to equipment as they penetrated my lenses and cameras. I have had a new camera fail because sand "flooded" my camera after photographing a sand storm. The sand also finds its way into the camera bag and eventually the camera. It is unavoidable.

I hated when fleas infected my clothes and sleeping bags from camping in areas with a large number of goats, as I am allergic to their bites. There were times I hallucinated about what a shower felt like. One of our guides was bitten by his camel during our last trip and had to go to the hospital. One of our stubborn donkeys refused to follow our guide and almost fell off a cliff to his death, dangling and slipping until the donkey was able to be rescued. 

AUC Press: What species from Sinai's wilderness stuns you the most?

Omar Attum taking photos in winter

Attum said winter is his favorite time of year to photograph Sinai. | Photo By Alaa el Dinn

OA: The Egyptian tortoise. It almost seems out of place in a desert -- a small herbivore that cannot travel super long distances and is a heat-sensitive species. Yet, it did because of adaptations to the desert. It is sad that the Egyptian tortoise could live in the desert for thousands and thousands of years, but is threatened with extinction as a result of humans collecting them for the pet trade and destroying their habitat within the past 30 years.

AUC Press: How aware and how concerned are people in Egypt and abroad of the rare biodiversity and fragile micro habitats specific to Sinai?

OA: I think there is very little awareness abroad and locally. The Red Sea, Mt. Sinai or the geopolitics are what most people associate with Sinai. Many people view the desert as just a harsh, barren area with no life and want to pass through it as quickly as possible to reach Sharm. They are missing out on so much beauty and life. 

While rainforests are well known for the biodiversity and abundance of life, Sinai is unique in that its wildlife can survive and can adapt to environments where rainfall is rare and unpredictable. Also, there are pockets of different microhabitats that are like an oasis of biodiversity, relicts of species from a wetter, different era. 

However, many wildlife and habitats are threatened with being lost forever in Sinai. We are at a tipping point. This is what concerns me most, that by the time people become aware, it will be too late.

This is why I am also donating 30 percent of my proceeds to conserve wildlife in Sinai. 

Omar Attum in Egypt

Attum in Sinai, Egypt | Photo By Alaa el Dinn

AUC Press: Sinai can be a very harsh environment -- extreme weather, flash floods, “unforgiving” Sinai mountains, wild animals, etc. Is that what fascinates you most and made you want to do this book?

OA: I am attracted to Sinai for a combination of the environment, wildlife, history, people and culture.  When I am in Sinai, at times I want to be an archaeologist, historian, geologist, anthropologist, botanist, etc., in order to better understand Sinai. Sinai is such a history book full of life lessons. It is obvious how the environment has shaped the culture of people who live there. There are numerous lessons of what happens to society when they overuse their resources and the climate changes, and how wildlife have adapted to survive in Sinai.

The extreme weather, in my opinion, is when Sinai is the most photogenic. Most of the photographs that made the final cut were taken in the winter months when the weather is most unpredictable, when the light quality differs because of clouds and storms. The beginning or end of the storms in Sinai are truly magical, ephemeral moments. 

Visit the American University in Cairo Press' website to view photographs from Attum's book.

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