This recently published book’s full title is ‘A Crack in the Earth: A Journey up Israel’s Rift Valley,’ and it is just that; in 2004 Jerusalem-based writer and translator Haim Watzman took 2 weeks to travel up the Jordan Valley from Eilat in the south to Kiryat Shmonah in the far north, meeting a wide range of people intimately connected with the valley, and reflecting upon the environment of the diverse area.
The resulting fascinating and well-written travelogue chronicles the human ecology of this geological place. It doesn’t try to be a resource of the environmental issues there, and yet in his written meditations and recording of conversations, with Uzi Avner for instance, former chief archaeologist of the Israel Antiquities Authority in the Eilat region, Watzman succeeds in blending stories of rock formations, geological shifts, tales of ancient peoples told through their remains, and weaving in and out of all these, Israel’s ongoing struggle for survival and relations with its neighbours.
It is a book to read by environmentalists, poets, armchair travellers and hikers alike. We learn how the valley came to be formed, how it has been inhabited over the estimated 5 million years since faultlines created it, and of the intimate connection there between water, land, and people.
There is something in this book for everyone, for as Watzman concludes: “As hard as we try to comprehend the landscape itself, it is humanity that we find.”He explores the history of the Dead Sea Works, set up in the 1920’s by Siberian immigrant Moshe Novomeysky, and the exploitation of this natural resource ever since. The incongruity of the Dead Sea Hotels are given space and examination. Watzman meets the experts who help him unpick the truth from the myth at Masada and Qumran, and proceeds to find lesser known treasure troves of history and people in various spots, just off route 90.
Further peregrinations northward find the author at Kibbutz Tirat Tzvi, near Beit She’an, the first religious kibbutz, created in 1937. The Kibbutz’s retired founders and current workers reminisce to him about the changing values they have experienced, and how the “creeping privatization” may change those clear, altruistic and community-centred values.
His desire to discover what binds people to their chosen area of landscape is infectious, and whether they appear sane or crazed, the author maintains a fascinated and yet compassionate neutrality. Even though they are often fellow Israeli’s (and he reveals early on, Watzman also has lived in various places along the valley since he immigrated here in 1978) there sometimes is a sense of the anthropologist at work here, teasing out ritual and motivation. Crusaders (and an evocation of the legendary battle at the ‘Horns of Hittin’ site particularly resonated with me), Heib Bedouin from the village of Tuba, and freshly baptised non-denominational American Christians beside a contested baptismal site, complete the picture; all with different reasons to value a particular part of the valley. This multi-faceted nature of landscape is what the book draws so well, and poetically too.
This book is a wonderful read, whether tucked in your pocket as you hike the valley, and seek to flesh out the places and people the author visits; or taking pride of place on a bookshelf full of treasured epistles about this land and its people.It is, to give the author the last word: “… an act of enigmatic altruism on the edge of this crack in the earth.”