In the autumn of 2004, as his country was riven by a fierce debate over its borders, Watzman took a two-week journey up the valley. Along the way he met scientists who try to understand the rift through the evidence lying on its surfacean archaeologist who reconstructs the fallen altars of a long-forgotten people, a zoologist whose study of bird societies has produced a theory of why organisms cooperate, and a geologist who thinks that the valley will some day be an ocean. He encountered people whose life and work on the shores of the Dead Sea and Jordan River have led them to dream of paradise and to seem to build Gardens of Eden on eartha booster for a chemical factory, the director of a tourist site, and an aging socialist farmer who curates a museum of idols. And he discovered that the geography’s instability is mirrored in the volatility of the tales that people tell about the Sea of Galilee.
As an observant Jew who has written extensively about science and scholarship, Watzman tries to understand the valley in all its complexityits physical facts, its role in human history and his own life, and the myths it has engendered. He realizes that human beings can never see the rift in isolation. It is the stories that men and women have told to explain what they see and what they do as a result that create the rift as we see it,” he writes. As hard as we try to comprehend the landscape itself, it is humanity that we find.
Watzman’s poetic evocation of the scientific and the human is a unique chronicle of a quest for knowledge.
Finalist, Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, 2008.
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Chapter One At the end of the promenade, past Herod’s, over a rainbow bridge, the swanky stores of Eilat’s hotel strip abruptly vanish. All along the beachfront, high-rise heavens with angled windows and palm-ringed swimming pools gaze down an arm of ocean that reaches out to them from the Arabian Sea. Only the plebeian strip of the promenade’s fast-food stands and street vendors remind four- and five-star vacationers that the luxury they enjoy is tenuous and temporary. The gaudiest tower of them all is the faux palace that bears the name of the ancient East’s greatest manipulator, madman, and master builder. Its rococo extravagance, all arches framed by columns and crowned by moon-bright domes, would have deeply offended the easily offended king’s classical sensibilities. Herod’s (“Where the Legend Comes Alive”) is a temple of earthly delights that offers all-inclusive vacations of endless meals, celebrity shows, and classy boutiques. It would have enraged the great king so much that he’d probably have murdered yet another of his sons. It’s not my kind of place. I’m staying at the youth hostel way down past the other end of the promenade, across the street from where the shoreline turns south toward Egypt and Africa. But the epicurean paradise ends at Herod’s eastern wall. Beyond it is a placid, silent canal spanned by an unlit convex bridge. On it, a few middle-aged fishermen cast their lines out, observed by their wives and by a silent, hungry cat. I step off the bridge into the planet’s natural terrain. The elements rule the October night. Sand, sea, stone, and sky—the loneliness in which Godresides. Thousands of stars suppressed by the brash promenade streetlamps reappear; the Dolphin and the Water Carrier hover to my right, over the sea; Polaris, low on my left, marks Route 90, the northward path of the two-week trip that I began four days ago. The beach is sandy and largely deserted, except for a couple of cars and a clapboard shack, which emits some light and the lilt of songs with Hebrew lyrics and Arab melodies. I stand at the landfall of a great rift valley, a crack in the earth’s crust that begins where the Indian Ocean’s waters mix with those of the Gulf of Aden. It heads west by northwest, turns more sharply to the northwest, and at the Strait of Tiran, where the Sinai Peninsula comes to a point, it takes another turn and heads nearly due north before ending in the mountains of Anatolia. This rift is one of the globe’s largest features, clearly visible from space, and I live on its edge. It forms an intricate landscape that makes the human soul turn end over end in wonder—even in people who are sure they have no organ by that name. One would have to be an automaton not to stand in awe of the God who designed it. Or so I felt when I first viewed the rift three decades ago. In fact, we needn’t call upon God to explain either the lay of the landscape or its origin. The rift is a geological fact, the product of enormous forces operating inside the globe, and it would exist even if there were no humans to observe it. Yet humans have been a part of it nearly since there were humans; the section I will travel, from the Red Sea north to the mountains of Syria, served as a corridor through which prehistoric humankind passed on its way out of Africa to colonize Asia and Europe. From that time on, they have left their mark on the valley, and it has marked their minds. Now, even in satellite photographs, the rift cannot be seen pristinely. The light and heat emitted by Eilat and its Jordanian sister city, Aqaba, by Jerusalem, and by Tiberias on the shore of Lake Kinneret— the Sea of Galilee—stain the landscape as seen from outer space. Tiny Qaroun Lake in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley has a rulerstraight southern bank that nature could not have fashioned. It marks a dam and shows that the lake, which I rode past time and again when I served as an occupying soldier in Lebanon in the early 1980s, is man-made. Here on earth, with my own eyes, I can see the valley only from its edge or within. Like a worker ant who climbs a blade of grass to get a better view of the hollow in which she will spend her brief life, I must use my mind as a ladder, in an attempt to grasp this great geological object. But even this is no simple matter, for humankind has overlaid the geology not just with cities, dams, fields, and roads but also with history and biography and meanings. I have lived, traveled, and soldiered up and down the Israeli side of the rift valley in the twenty-seven years since this country became my home. For many of my fellow citizens, the greater part of the valley is a border that seems natural. But the location and nature of that border have been challenged by peace efforts and the winds of war alike. Israel’s government is, at the time of my trip, seeking to redraw the country’s boundaries in the Gaza Strip. Israelis who live in the Jordan Valley fear that a revision of the border along which they live is not long to follow. October of the year 2004 is thus an opportune time for me to travel my part of the rift and to see it as it is, but also as it signifies. Along my way I will meet geologists, biologists, and archaeologists who study the physical facts of the rift valley. I will speak to people who live and work in the valley and for whom it represents the fulfillment, or disappointment, of an ideal. And I will encounter others who see the rift through the fun-house mirror of myth, in which stories skip over the landscape and where human beings themselves are mysteries. I walk across the sand and around the shack, where a brown picnic table, a green picnic table, and a table topped with yellow Formica stand on a concrete platform. Behind them is a countertop with a big sign next to it: “Fishermen’s Snack Bar, Presenting: fishing line, sinkers, bait, and fishing lessons. Ice cream, hot and cold drinks.” Around the brown table, the one on the Red Sea side, sit five fishermen drinking beer and Coke. A woman with a weathered face and a soft smile sits with them; they glance at me but offer no greetings. The potent smell of raw fish pervades the patio, which is roofed with reeds and canes. A hundred yards past the snack bar is the frontier: a fence, a line of sandbags, a guard post, and a Jordanian flag on a high pole with a blinking red light on top. Beyond that are the lights of Aqaba, Eilat’s sister city in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. Avraham, the dark-haired, bushy-eyed proprietor, eyes me. I’m a stranger intruding into his territory, and he doesn’t believe that all I want is a glass of tea with nana, the Middle Eastern variety of mint. He looks beyond me to the yellow table, where I’ve already set up my PalmPilot and unfolded my keyboard, which admittedly look out of place. My second request seems to convince him, however. He makes me the tea and stirs in the spoonful of sugar I ask for. He clearly believes it’s not enough. He asks if I’m here on vacation, and I say no, for work. I could come to the Moroccan synagogue tomorrow night for Sabbath services, he suggests, but I tell him that tomorrow I’m heading back to Jerusalem to spend the weekend with my family. I take the glass and saucer from him; the mint leaves circle slowly in the amber liquid. When I turn toward my table, he calls me back, places three gratis homemade cookies on the saucer, and offers some advice: “Watch your pockets.” I sip my tea and gaze south, down the narrow finger of the Gulf of Eilat, called the Gulf of Aqaba if you live on the other side. The city across the way distracts my eye. It’s practically a mirror image of Eilat, but an image enlarged by a magnifying mirror—it extends farther south along the shoreline, into the mountains, and north into the Arava plain. In fact, it’s really Eilat that is the image in the mirror: historically, Aqaba is the site of human habitation at the north end of the gulf. The east side of the littoral gets more rain and has more sources of fresh water than modern Eilat, which was a tiny fishing village called Um Rash Rash before Israeli forces reached it during the War of Independence and made it the country’s outlet to the Red Sea. Aqaba, known as Aylah to the Byzantine Christians and early Muslims, was the Levantine seaport for commerce with Arabia, Yemen, and India beyond. Sometime during the period of Muslim rule, perhaps in the early 700s but more likely in the mid-800s, a man named Rabi, son of Qays, son of Yazid al-Ghassani, passed through the port town on his way north. A former highway robber, he was now superior of the Santa Katarina monastery at Mount Sinai. The Muslim rulers of Sinai had raised the monastery’s taxes. Al-Ghassani, known to his acolytes as ‘Abd al-Masih, the slave of the Messiah, was on his way to Ramla, the Muslim capital in the coastal plain below the Judean highlands, to plead for consideration. The Aramaic-speaking desert ascetics had probably made him their leader with this eventuality in mind, for ‘Abd al-Masih was a native speaker of Arabic, the rulers’ own language. The mission was an act of considerable altruism on al-Ghassani’s part, for he was a former Muslim, and Muslim rulers punished apostasy with death. The young Santa Katarina monk who set the story down in broken Arabic a generation later tells us that ‘Abd al-Masih had once before deliberately sought out martyrdom. Amotz Zahavi, a biologist and evolutionary theorist whom I met the previous Sunday at the Hatzeva Field School, just off Route 90 a bit south of the Dead Sea, thinks he can explain why living organisms, man included, are sometimes willing to take risks, and even put their lives in danger, for the sake of others. From his observations of the social groups formed by birds who live in a riverbed near Hatzeva, he deduces that animals risk their lives to gain status and mating opportunities. With his status secure and his celibacy maintained by vow and power of will, ‘Abd al-Masih doesn’t seem to fit the theory. What, then, can explain his trip through Aylah? In 1182, Renaud of Châtillon, a knight of the Second Crusade, former prince consort of Antioch, sacker of Cyprus, lord of the great Crusader keeps in the Edom highlands that tower east of the Arava plain, built a seagoing fleet at the landlocked desert castle of Kerak. He had his men transport the disassembled boats 125 miles overland to the seashore, where he assembled and launched them, besieging the island of al-Qureiya, nine miles south; the Crusaders called this island Île de Graye. By controlling the roads at the northern tip of the sea, he could cut off the Muslim west, centered in Egypt, from the Muslim east in the Levant and Arabia. The Christians would then be able to charge tolls from Muslim caravans and pilgrims seeking to cross from one side of their world to the other, particularly pilgrims on their way to Mecca. Renaud’s forces proceeded to plunder and pillage the Arabian coast. All this the prince consort had done without consulting and against the wishes of his nominal sovereign, King Baldwin. Baldwin was in the midst of consolidating and fortifying the Crusader state against the impending threat of the Muslim force then mustering in Syria under the command of a young and ambitious leader named Salah a-Din—the man whom the Franks called Saladin. Controlling the roads, however, was not enough for Renaud. Before the Muslim forces regrouped, he launched a raid across the gulf and deep into Arabia. By the time the Muslims were able to halt his advance, he was close to attacking Medina and Mecca, a knight of Jesus on violent pilgrimage to the shrines of Allah. It’s been two thousand years since the birth of Christianity. If each day in those two millennia had itself lasted a millennium, the church would then be as ancient as the rocks in the mountains on either side of me. They date to the Precambrian and are 570 million to 1 billion years old. The earth took form about 4.5 billion years ago, so a 1-billion-year-old rock was born after the earth had lived through seven-ninths of its history. A rock from the early Cambrian period, when fossils of animals larger than a single cell suddenly appear, was born when the earth was nearly eight-ninths of its present age. Music blares from a boom box; it’s Sarit Hadad, a popular singer in the genre of Hebrew pop songs in Arabic arrangements. Hadad sings blunt, prosaic lyrics about the sisterhood of the housing projects. It’s her “Sea of Love”: “Tell me, what’d you give me/What have I got from you?/No past and no future/I don’t need you.” It’s not the cleaned-up version you hear on the radio but a recording of a live performance, with loud, whining strings and massive parallel chords, offering no quarter to the Western ear. A little girl, maybe four years old, with dark, plump cheeks, dances on the green table as the woman sitting with the fisherman applauds. Avraham joins them. I overhear an occasional word: “disengagement,” “Gaza,” “Sharon,” “asshole.” A Jordanian oil tanker floats out at sea, continuing the straight line of the fence in the sand. Geologists don’t know for sure where it all began. The mountains, whose reddish cast is indiscernible in the dark, are part of an ancient, shattered craton, one of the primal cores around which the continents coalesced. Between 580 and 600 million years ago, as those first continents collided with one another to form the supercontinent of Pangaea, the pressure caused high mountains to rise. The next 300 million years, the Paleozoic era, are represented by Nubian sandstone. This rust-colored rock formed during a long period when the land I now stand on was a desert on the edge of an ocean, part of an uninterrupted Arabo-Nubian landmass that had no Red Sea in the middle. During the nearly 200 million years that followed, the Mesozoic era, the age of the dinosaurs, the Levant was mostly under water. Pangaea split up, with a sea called the Tethys forming between its fragments and flooding the former desert. The sea’s dominion continued as India, once attached to Africa, swung north and east to collide with Asia 50 million years ago, pushing up the Himalayas. Antarctica disconnected from South America and moved toward the South Pole. The sea current that formed around the southernmost continent cooled the planet, making sea levels drop, and the Levant emerged from below the waves. The Middle East and Arabia were, at this point, still part of Africa. Then, about 25 million years ago, in what geologists call the Miocene epoch—the time when grasslands, camels, and anthropoid apes first appeared—Africa cracked and Arabia began to move northward. An upwelling from the mantle, the huge, thick layer of viscous rock that lies below the earth’s crust, stretched and broke it and caused it to collapse. The collapse formed the basin that was the first incarnation of the Red Sea. Volcanoes spewed lava on a line running from southeast to northwest, straight up to what is now the Gulf of Suez. The seafloor spread, creating new crust out of magma. Twenty million years ago the direction of the pressures changed. They took a right turn at Sinai’s southern apex, leaving the Gulf of Suez in embryo form. The crack began to run northward. The land to the east of the fault line—just a line then, not a valley, crept north relative to the west. Later, about 5 million years ago, the two sides began to spread apart, forming the gulf before me and the rift valley that stretches to the north behind my back. A car inches over the sand, its headlights reflecting in the quiet waters. The Red Sea is narrow, a passageway rather than an expanse, so it does not have big waves. It does not pound its shore. It laps it, like a kitten. I ponder the border post on my left. My writer’s instinct tells me to walk over to it and experience it close up, in whatever way one experiences a border post. But there are a few dark figures by the car and elsewhere on the sand—perhaps fishermen, perhaps beachcombers, but perhaps the pickpockets Avraham alluded to. It’s Thursday night, and I am anxious to get home tomorrow. Israel has already reverted to standard time, and the day is short. I have a man to talk to here in the morning and a long drive home—a determined motorist can do it in four hours, but I am an occasional driver who can’t stay on the road for more than an hour and a half without taking a break. If I don’t get home by the beginning of the Sabbath, just before sunset, I don’t get home at all, since the laws of Orthodox Judaism don’t allow driving once the Sabbath has begun. Excerpted from A Crack in the Earth by Haim Watzman. Copyright © 2007 by Haim Watzman. Published in May 2007 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.
Table of Contents
Facts on the Ground 1
Hanging By a Hair 65
Floating in the Air 123
Note on Sources 187