“Cain’s Field: Faith, Fratricide, and Fear in the Middle East,” by Matt Rees (Free Press, $26).
Journalist Matt Rees was born in Wales, the great-nephew of two brothers who joined the Imperial Camel Corps and made their way to Egypt in 1916. His uncles fought in a World War I campaign that brought fame to another Welsh-born soldier, Col. T.E. Lawrence of Arabia. In 1917, the year in which the Balfour Declaration was issued, they rode through Jerusalem astride their camels.
Eighty years after his uncles’ journey, Rees traveled to the Middle East to report on the conflict. Now bureau chief in Jerusalem for Time, he has been covering the region for eight years. In his first book, the award-winning correspondent looks to the relationships between brothers who, unlike his uncles, don’t get along. His focus is not the conflict between Palestinian and Israeli, but among the people on each side; it’s a picture of betrayals, hatred and, sometimes violence.
Rees draws on another pair of brothers for the title of his book, “Cain’s Field: Faith, Fratricide, and Fear in the Middle East.” As he writes, “These two Middle Eastern nations battle over a land that was the field Cain farmed in the Book of Genesis. Cain’s offering of ‘the fruit of the ground’ pleased God less than the ‘firstlings of his flock’ offered by his brother Abel, a shepherd.”
He explains that Cain, who felt wronged by God, answered with a new wrong, murder. As he traveled around Israel and looked more closely at different readings of the text, he began to see the story differently than he had as a child, where Cain was seen as simply evil. Instead, he empathizes with Cain’s simple humanity and sees divine injustice. But, as he points out, people on each side, both Palestinians and Israelis, see themselves as Abel, having been wronged by their brother, Cain.
The book is particularly timely, in light of Yasser Arafat’s death, and new possibilities for hope in the Middle East. Rees writes about individuals, many of whom have not spoken publicly before, and he proves himself a good listener and skillful as a teller of other people’s stories. Each chapter is built around internal rifts, whether between supporters of Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, or secular and ultra-Orthodox Jews. While still the objective journalist, it’s clear that Rees cares deeply about the people he’s writing about. He has a great eye for detail, noticing, for instance, that the cellphone of a Palestinian father — whose unarmed son was killed by Arafat’s police and another son was wanted for the revenge killing — trills out the lambada.
“Neither side,” Rees says, “will be able to risk a true peace with the other until it feels secure enough in its own society. Without such a sense of security, the internal ruptures will prove deep and will be disastrously exacerbated by attempts to make peace with the other side. That’s why an Israeli rightist shot Prime Minister Rabin, and it’s also why the peace process inexorably led the Palestinians toward their violent intifada of the last few years.”
“It seems to me now,” he writes, “that the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians is like the spark that jumps between two electrodes. The electrical charge flashing between the two sides is real, but to focus entirely upon it, as interpreters of the Israeli-Palestinian struggle are doing, is to ignore the tangle of wires leading back from each electrode to the source of the current.”
Rees looks like Central Casting’s version of a foreign correspondent: tall and confident with rugged good looks; he speaks both Hebrew and Arabic, and his English is Welsh-accented. Before moving to Israel, he lived in New York for six years and covered Wall Street. From the time he arrived in Jerusalem, he was struck by how much he liked the people he met. In writing about business, he says that he never met people who explained the drama of their lives, in ways that are eloquent and real, as Israelis and Palestinians do.
Unlike his uncles, Rees is a Jew. He converted before his marriage, although he is now divorced. To the Palestinians, he doesn’t look like an Israeli, “which is what a Jew looks like,” so his identity is concealed.
Even those who follow and study the conflict intently will learn something from this book. On the Israeli side, one of the most surprising and troubling chapters, “The Dark Refuge,” relates to the treatment of Holocaust survivors in the country’s mental institutions. He profiles Dr. Yoram Barak, who has been working to ease their current suffering, recognizing that absolutely nothing can make up for being “consigned to little more than a steamy dungeon for half a century by the State of Israel, the country that was supposed to be a haven for people just like this.
When Barak takes a new job as head of a hospital psychogeriatrics ward, he learns that most of his patients do not speak, and all are survivors. Rees explains “this ghostly quiet was a mirror of the silence that greeted these people in Israel when they came from Europe. It was not only Barak’s predecessor who was complicit. An entire society refused to listen to these people when they arrived.”
After experiencing the worst of inhumanity, most suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. But they were incorrectly diagnosed as schizophrenics — and were treated over the years with insulin shocks, cold showers, antipsychotic drugs, electroconvulsive treatments and lithium, beatings, too. No one talked to them.
Their situation was created by inequities of patronage and corruption inherent in the health care system, as it was established by the early Zionists. With sensitive reporting, Rees demonstrates the way the Zionists looked down upon survivors.
He highlights the Sephardi-Ashkenzi rift by interviewing a singer who asserts a new identity performing the songs of his Moroccan background. Rees also describes the role of venerated Sephardi rabbis considered holy men and visited for their advice and blessings. And he interviews settlers and those on the Israeli left.
On the Palestinian side, he follows stories of splits between the old guard and young guard, between power brokers and street fighters, fugitives and henchmen. He interviews Zakaria Baloush, an official who had been part of Arafat’s inner circle, who speaks openly about Arafat’s destructive and divisive rule, and how he played people off of one another. Rees spends time with Hamas member Imad Akel, tracking him down in a refugee camp and in relatives’ homes. Akel, who was sought both by the Palestinian Authority, for a revenge killing, and by the Israelis for killing Jews, told Rees that if he wrote truthfully about him, the two men would be in paradise together one day. But Rees thought that surely Akel would arrive first, “for he sought it and there were many who wished to send him to the world beyond life, whether he found paradise there or not.”
Although the stories in the book can be harsh and profoundly sad, Rees is ultimately hopeful about positive changes, both within the two societies and between them: “I think that right now we have the opportunity, with the death of Arafat, to really change Palestinian society fundamentally.”
He sees the situation getting better between individuals, if people learn to listen to one another and to look inward, “It’s harder to hate a person you can put a face on than an institution. I don’t think there are any intractable problems. If you think it’s intractable, you haven’t been able to think outside of conventions.”
He’s critical of much daily reporting, which he sees as cliché-ridden and formulaic, too dependent on what the leaders are thinking. Unfortunately, he says, many journalists are trying to find the story, not the reality.
Rees, who lives in the Katamon section of Jerusalem, has already stayed in Israel longer than most journalists who pass through for a couple of years. For now, he has no plans to leave, and admits that living in Israel has made him a more tolerant person. He enjoys his life, has friends who share his passion for his soccer team, Manchester United, and he finds that in the Middle East, there’s always something new to see.
Sandee Brawarsky is the book critic for The Jewish Week.