Robert Stone’s 1998 novel Damascus Gate sets spies, cultists, and terrorists loose in the Holy Land
Early in Robert Stone’s 1998 novel Damascus Gate, we meet a former KGB officer named Basil Thomas, who claims to have secret documents revealing the truth about some of the most famous mysteries of the Cold War. “I got the Masaryk story. The Slansky story. The story on Noel Field. I got Raoul Wallenberg. I got Whittaker Chambers,” Thomas tells Christopher Lucas, the freelance American journalist who is the novel’s hero. “This is the stuff of legend. The story of the century.” But Lucas, who is trying to write a book about religious mania in Jerusalem, doesn’t want what the Russian is selling. “The century’s over,” he replies. “People may not care about all that. … Readers are fickle. With time they lose interest.”
Lucas is right, of course. In the 1950s, getting the scoop on someone like Noel Field, an American Communist who played a leading role in the Stalinist show trials in postwar Czechoslovakia, would have made a journalist’s career and maybe even changed world history. Fifty years later, Field’s name is known only to a handful of academics and ideologues—the same tiny but committed group who continue to debate the guilt of the Rosenbergs and Alger Hiss.
For the same reason, the potency of cutting-edge, politically informed spy fiction tends to weaken over time. John Buchan’s novels about Anglo-German rivalry before World War I, or John le Carré’s Smiley tales, were read on first publication as bulletins from the front of an ongoing battle; today, they offer the quainter pleasures of genre fiction. Stone’s gamble in Damascus Gate was that a spy novel set in Jerusalem would be different. That is because, as many characters in the book have occasion to muse, Jerusalem itself is different. “Other cities had antiquities,” Stone writes, “but the monuments of Jerusalem did not belong to the past. They were of the moment and even the future.” The rivalry between the United States and the USSR lasted 44 years, but the contest between Jews, Christians, and Muslims for physical and spiritual ownership of Jerusalem is still going strong after millennia.
It stands to reason, then, that the new paperback edition of Damascus Gate (Mariner, $15.95) should be as timely as the original. In fact, the identity of past and present is the key doctrine of the religious cult at the novel’s heart. The leader of this cult is Adam de Kuff, a middle-aged American Jew turned spiritual seeker, who we first see waiting in a psychiatrist’s office. He is, Stone makes clear, a schizophrenic and manic-depressive, prey to the delusion that he is the Messiah. Such delusions are common enough in Jerusalem; indeed, the novel opens with Lucas encountering a deranged German tourist in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
What sets de Kuff above such garden-variety lunatics—in Arabic, Stone writes, they are called majnoon—is his partnership with Raziel Melker. Melker, who was born Ralph, is another American Jewish seeker, the son of a congressman who has been by turns a yeshiva student, a jazz musician, a drug addict, and a Sufi master. Stone leaves it deliberately ambiguous whether Melker actually believes that de Kuff is the Messiah or is just preying on a madman for his own hidden purposes, or some combination of both.
In any case, Raziel acts as the Saint Paul to de Kuff’s Jesus, building a cult around him and formulating a new, syncretic theology. “They talked about Zen and Theravada and the Holy Ghost, the bodhisattvas, the sefirot and the Trinity, Pico della Mirandola, Teresa of Avila,” and on and on, Stone writes, in a passage whose bop Ginsbergian rhythms remind us that he is essentially a product of the 1960s. (“You’re one crazy mixed-up chick, baby,” Raziel says at one point.) And there is a genial ’60s-ish eclecticism, not to say fogginess, about the de Kuff cult. He declares himself to be at once the Jewish Moshiach, the Second Coming of Christ, and the Muslim Mahdi: “So as the Almighty is One, so also are the believers,” he explains. The cult’s emblem is the ourobouros, the Greek image of a serpent swallowing its tail: It is meant to symbolize the unity of all times and all ways of worshiping God.
It was on the road to Damascus, of course, that Saul had the epiphany that led him to embrace Christianity and change his name to Paul. The title of Damascus Gate alludes to that conversion, and one of the novel’s main themes is appeal of faith to the nonbeliever. Christopher Lucas, as a journalist, an American, and an earnest liberal, holds himself immune to the blind faiths and sectarian loyalties that determine Jerusalem’s history. (“In the United States people are what they choose to be,” says a minor character in the novel. “It’s not that way here, unfortunately.”) Yet Lucas is also half-Jewish, and he was sent to Catholic school by his mother; the impulse to believe is vestigial in him, and the de Kuff cult makes him at least nostalgic for faith. “He could not resist the little flutter of mindless hope,” Stone writes. “In what? In nothing he could remotely conceive.” On a more worldly level, he is drawn to the cult by his passion for Sonia Barnes, a half-black, half-Jewish jazz singer who succumbs to Raziel’s persuasion.
But if Lucas can’t bring himself to believe, he is surrounded by people who are dangerously convinced. Like a detective in a film noir, he gradually unearths an ever-ramifying conspiracy: a plot to blow up the Temple Mount, in order to clear the way for the construction of the Third Temple. It becomes clear that Raziel has set up Adam de Kuff as the fall guy for this plot, whose real movers are a combination of hard-right Jewish settlers and messianic American Christians. Along the way, Stone spins a dense web of connections and betrayals: Lucas encounters a gun-running Irish NGO worker, and a Palestinian Communist doctor, and a fascistic British archeologist, and a close-mouthed American diplomat, and many more. In the novel’s frenetic last hundred pages, Lucas and a handful of other characters race to a chamber under the Temple Mount, where some are planning to detonate a bomb and others hope to stop it—and it remains unclear, until the very end, exactly who is on which side.
Damascus Gate’s combination of abstruse theological speculation (Stone clearly researched the Kabbalah) and screen-ready action sequences won it a lot of praise when it appeared in 1998. Taken together, they made the novel a good match for its pre-millennial moment, when old fears about the end of the world were taking new forms, and readers responded in kind: To Annie Dillard, for instance, Damascus Gate was “a narrative of good and evil written in letters of fire.”
Certainly no one could say that Jerusalem has calmed down in the last 13 years, or that the religious passions in the city have stopped being explosive. Indeed, just two years after Damascus Gate appeared, Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount helped to set off the so-called “al-Aqsa Intifada,” named after the mosque that Stone’s fictional terrorists hoped to blow up.
Yet that event also helps to show how Damascus Gate misunderstands the very passions it means to analyze. To Stone, the danger of religion is that it is apocalyptic: At the core of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, he argues, is a belief that the world as we know it will someday end, to be replaced by something infinitely better. The most religious people, in Stone’s novel, are those who take this promise seriously and try to hasten the Messiah’s arrival. “We change, we fail,” Raziel tells Lucas, “but the Torah remains, never changes under its garment. The chance to restore tikkun comes again and again.”
Because this dynamic is common to all faiths, Stone suggests, it can best be embodied in a movement like the de Kuff cult, which is post-sectarian and even New Agey in its blending of religious symbols. This licenses the biggest and, at times, most ludicrous failure of realism in Damascus Gate: the fact that its messianic plotters are not mullahs or Lubavitchers but hipsters. Raziel and Sonja are both jazz musicians and ex-druggies, and when they’re not planning the end of the world they jam at a Russian-owned club in Tel Aviv. Even the minor characters in the novel are generally cool and sexy—from Nuala Rice, the seductive Irish leftist who ends up dangling from a noose, to Janusz Zimmer, the aging womanizer and ex-Communist who seems to be masterminding the Temple plot.
Surprisingly, however, in this novel about Jerusalem, none of the main characters is Israeli or Palestinian. At one point Lucas refers to himself as being “in country,” and this foreign-correspondent’s or aid-worker’s phrase sums up the relationship of Stone’s American protagonists to Jerusalem and its inhabitants: They are sources, interlocutors, or obstacles, but seldom peers. This distance allows Damascus Gate to maintain a certain grim neutrality about the Arab-Jewish conflict. The Israeli soldiers we see in the novel are habitually brutal, and one of them—a mysterious figure who operates under the nom de guerre Abu Baraka—leads a vigilante gang in random attacks on Palestinians.
Yet these characters are at least individualized, and Stone balances them with other Jewish Israelis who are benevolent, such as the human-rights worker Ernest Gross and the worldly psychiatrist Dr. Obermann. Palestinians, on the other hand, appear most forcefully in Damascus Gate in the form of superstitious, murderous mobs: Two of the novel’s most powerful scenes involve Lucas fleeing for his life from Arab crowds chanting, “Kill the Jews.” Lucas seems to speak for the novel as a whole when he says that the Israelis, for all their flaws, are “people more like me, in the end. They may not be Knights of the Round Table, but they won’t kill me for being a Jew. Or a djinn.”
To really come to grips with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, however, would take a novelist more interested in history and less interested in apocalyptic mysticism. After all, when Ariel Sharon went to the Temple Mount in 2000, it was not in an attempt to hasten the End Times, but as a way of claiming sovereignty over territory and signaling his intentions to the Israeli public; that is, his motives were political. So were the motives of the Palestinians who responded with massive violence and suicide bombings. And the militant zealots among Jewish settlers and Palestinian Muslims are not in search of some tantalizing new spiritual insight, like Raziel’s synthesis of Sufism and Buddhism and Judaism; they do not stand for hybridity but for purity and tradition. A fundamentalist is someone who is exactly what he says he is. And that makes fundamentalism a terrible subject for a spy novel, where the narrative suspense comes from the reader’s uncertainty about whether anyone is what he claims to be.
Damascus Gate fails as a book about Jerusalem, one might say, because it is too interesting—more interesting than the city it aims to describe, or else interesting in the wrong way. The best antidote to its fever-dream is to open a book like Zeruya Shalev’s Thera, an Israeli novel in which Jerusalemites get divorced and raise children and argue and suffer, just as people do all over the world. Or, for that matter, to open the newspaper and read about how tens of thousands of Israelis are taking to the streets of Jerusalem—not to build the Third Temple, but to protest the high cost of housing. These are the kinds of human stories that keep getting told in novels, long after the flashy conspiracies are forgotten.
In a new HBO documentary, Gloria Steinem is treated like the icon she is. But efforts to praise and eulogize her feminism don’t do the subject—or the liveliness of the movement she helped inspire—justice.