Hard facts

Haim Watzman integrates both the physical and non-physical landscape to reveal the secrets of Israel's rift valley.

By RALPH AMELAN
September 20, 2007 11:45
4 minute read.
crack book 88 224

crack book 88 224. (photo credit: )

A Crack in the Earth: A Journey up Israel's Rift Valley By Haim Watzman Farrar, Straus and Giroux 208 pages; $23 Nothing, you would think, could be as definite and certain as rock and soil. And the twisted fracture in the globe that passes from Eilat up through the Jordan Valley into Lebanon, a northern extension of the Great African Rift Valley, is as plain as fact. Yet the landscape is deceiving. It has secrets, which archeologists, geologists and the people who live there try to solve. How was this wound created? Who raised the structures of standing stones that dot its length? And how are the myths and legends that shroud its history created and passed down? Journalist and author Haim Watzman traveled the length of the valley from south to north in the fall of 2004 to uncover the layers of interpretation and myth that have attached to it. He states simply the theme that runs through the book. "The rift valley is a natural object, created by physical forces. But when we look at it, we don't just see the physical object. We see stories and ideas and our own histories. People see the same landscape differently depending on who they are, when they live, what they've done and what stories they heard when they were children." The exigencies of current events prevented him from crossing into Jordan to see the valley from the other side: National boundaries form another layer of interpretation placed on the relief map of the Earth. For the same reason, encounters with Palestinians are almost nonexistent. Throughout the book, the political turmoil over the disengagement from Gaza rumbles in the background. But he exploits his strengths to piece together another map which integrates both the physical and the non-physical landscape. Years of reporting on the local academic scene enable him to view ambitious and competing scientific theories with critical detachment, while presenting them clearly for the general reader. And he draws on his previous experiences of living near the valley to add another layer of interpretation: his own. A jumble of rocks, through the eyes of a blonde Missouri-born archeologist, becomes either a Bronze Age road marker or a means of placating the local demons. A geologist looks at a dry channel scoured in the rock, and a lake-draining flood foams before us. Small birds called Arabian babblers chirp a warning about a nearby predator, and theories about communication and selflessness blossom in the air. As Watzman travels north, the emphasis shifts to more recent times. A ruined building on the Dead Sea shore is revealed as a former cafe frequented by British mandatory officials, where they no doubt ruminated over the perpetual restlessness of the natives. Old friends of the author, long-time residents of a Jordan Valley kibbutz, reflect on the changes wrought by privatization, their thoughts set against the background of the struggles of the early Zionists to set down roots in the stony soil. Once he reaches Galilee, the landscape softens, and the very place names take on an amorphous quality as different peoples adopt them as their own. Does the name Kinneret derive from the lyre-like shape of the lake, or from a local deity called Kinar? Narrative traditions compete both between cultures and within cultures, and scholars feast on the resulting disputes. The bones of people that lived before Jew and Arab existed occasionally surface from the depths, together with the tools they used and the animals they hunted. There is one surprising omission. The usual cliché word used for describing the rocky wilderness that characterizes the rift for most of its length is "biblical." Yet the biblical account is the one stratum that is almost entirely absent from the book, even though the author and many of the people he interviews are observant. The reason is straightforward. Watzman states, accurately, that modern Orthodox Judaism is based more on the writings of the rabbinical sages, and that the weight of archeological and other evidence offers only ambiguous support for the events of the Bible. The author makes up for this by enriching his account with stories and legends from nearly every other historical period. Still, I had the uneasy feeling that something interesting was missing from the view. For all that, the transitions between the worlds of science, history, religion and legend are deftly handled. Watzman (disclosure: I have been acquainted with the author for many years; we are both members of the same congregation) integrates personal stories, both his own and others, into his finely balanced narrative. He maintains a quiet and undemonstrative tone which rarely strains for effect, and therefore carries weight and conviction. But it is his intelligent and fair-minded curiosity about people and places that really stands out. When he notes that he could not include in the book much of what he had researched, the sense of acute regret is almost palpable. The crack in the Earth remains a hard fact. It is beyond our power to knit it together. At the close of the book, however, Watzman's gesture of assistance to a stranded Palestinian motorist becomes a tiny closing of another crack, the gap between peoples. "As hard as we try to comprehend the landscape, it is humanity that we find," he concludes. And this humanity converts the valley into a multi-layered landscape both familiar and new. A Crack in the Earth should repay an audience, whether here or abroad, looking for something more from a book about Israel than a tourist guide can hope to supply.


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