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The Jerusalem Quartet

Among the greatest, and surely the weirdest, 20th-century spy novels, written by a former CIA Mideast case officer and centered on the early history of the State of Israel

Peter Theroux
May 10, 2021
Helen Bar-Lev
Edward Whittemore in Jerusalem, circa 1983-1984Helen Bar-Lev
Helen Bar-Lev
Edward Whittemore in Jerusalem, circa 1983-1984Helen Bar-Lev

The ex-spy Edward Whittemore’s legendary, obscure, and now newly rediscovered Jerusalem Quartet of novels is set in the Middle East, from the most ancient scriptural eras in Judea down to the Lebanese Civil War in the 1980s. But the books, especially the first two, are vivid 1970s period pieces. Their combination of fantasy, satire, slapstick, and mythmaking evoke—as many blurbs on these books attest—the magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and the imagination of Thomas Pynchon, but also the countercultural vibe of Richard Brautigan and the myth-remaking of John Barth’s The Chimera.

So why have these books remained so obscure? Because if you’re not high, the first two volumes are not easy reads. And the disorder of their characters and plots reflects not only Whittemore’s own erratic travels, changes of career, broken and resumed relationships and marriages, but also the lives of his literary allies. Whittemore’s first editor at Holt, Rinehart & Winston was his fellow Yale undergraduate Tom Wallace, who wrote the foreword to each of the reissued Quartet novels. Despite critical success and the comparisons to Pynchon, Nabokov, Fuentes, and Vonnegut, sales never exceeded 5,000 or 6,000 copies. When Wallace moved to W.W. Norton after Jerusalem Poker, he did not take Whittemore with him. Judy Karasik, who wrote the afterword that appears in each novel, took over at Holt and edited Nile Shadows, which also sold poorly. Karasik left publishing altogether before Jericho Mosaic, as did a discouraged Wallace.

Whittemore didn’t make things easy for the readers he attracted, either. The first volume, Sinai Tapestry, opens:

The Arabic Jew, or Jewish Arab, who owned the entire Middle East at the turn of the century passed his early life exactly as had his English forebears for 650 years … In due time he would receive his title and become the twenty-ninth Plantagenet Strongbow to bear it … and coincidentally the most scandalous scholar of his era.

This Jewish Arab Strongbow matriculates at Cambridge, where we learn of a society known as the “Secret Seven, or the Immortals … founded in 1327 to mourn the passing of Edward II after a hot poker had been thrust up the king’s anus” and English academia’s “masturbation societies.” Alienated, Strongbow decamps for Tunis and Damascus to study botany and sex. A few pages later, the scene shifts to a monk at Mount Sinai unearthing a Hebrew and Aramaic parchment which is not only the oldest Bible in existence, but …

The New Testament as well? Centuries before Christ had lived? … it denied every religious truth that had taken place over three millennia … To Brother Anthony the words before him were terrifying. What would happen if the world suddenly suspected that Mohammad might well have lived six centuries before Christ rather than six centuries after him? … That Joshua had gained his wisdom from the fifth Abbasid Caliph of Baghdad, who might himself have been Judas or Christ? … That [King] David and Julius Caesar had been secret cardplaying cronies?

This is where many readers might tap the brakes, unfortunately, with the Quartet’s brilliant payoff in volume 4 still far from sight. Perhaps the extreme suspension of disbelief required here was an invitation to young American imaginations straining to escape the Nixon and Ford years through the funky curtain of the 1970s—bellbottoms, beaded curtains, with Roxy Music blasting out of the Marantz speakers advertised full-page in the National Lampoon in the Callista font (This was also when the late John le Carré hit his stride with the Smiley novels).

So yes, Sinai Tapestry is not an easy read at first. An obsessed Albanian monk named Skanderbeg Wallenstein obtains the ancient Bible, forges a replacement, and buries the original in Jerusalem. Strongbow composes a 33-volume series on Levantine sex practices and becomes a Muslim, then marries a Jewish girl in Yemen who gives him a son. Meanwhile, an Irish chieftain named Joseph Enda Columbkille Kieran Kevin Brendan O’Sullivan Beare emerges, eludes the Black and Tan by escaping the island for the Holy Land disguised as a Poor Clare nun, and ends up in Jerusalem, where he befriends Strongbow’s companion, Haj Harun, a 3,000-year-old antique dealer.

Yet if the Jerusalem Quartet seems like the ultimate “baggy monster” of novels, in Henry James’ phrase, it isn’t, because our author knows quite well where he is taking us. A few tendrils of storytelling emerge in the second volume, Jerusalem Poker, that will blossom in the fascinating third volume, Nile Shadows, and the wonderful final volume, Jericho Mosaic, published six and 10 years later. Early in the first volume, we are told that Strongbow’s 40-year quest for the Sinai Bible would eventually “intrigue and baffle his sole child and heir, the idealistic boy one day to become a gunrunner named Stern.” 

This is the son of the Yemenite wife, and the reason for his bafflement is that, unlike his father, Stern is an inhabitant of the real world, an intelligence officer whose gunrunning is in the service of the yishuv. While Whittemore was primarily an Arabist, he writes with great penetration of the struggle for Israel’s independence, and his characters, both the mythical and the real, articulate the dream of a free land where Jews, Muslims, and Christians coexist.

After a perilous career Stern has his death foreshadowed in the final pages of Sinai Tapestry while sitting in a bar in Cairo. The year is 1942, and a drunken group of Australian soldiers celebrating their survival of the fall of Crete get into a street fight. Amid cries of “Bloody wogs,” one of them lobs a hand grenade into the bar. Seeing the incoming grenade, Stern saves his companion—his intelligence source—by shoving him across the room.

Blinding light then in the mirror behind the bar … merging the stars and windstorms of his life with darkness in the failure of his seeking … Stern’s once vast vision of a homeland for all peoples of his heritage gone as if he had never lived … the eternal disguise he wore to his last clandestine meeting, his face, as ripped away and thrown against the mirror in the half-light of the Arab bar, there to stare at a now immobile landscape fixed to witness his death forever.

Volume 2 of the Quartet, Jerusalem Poker, is a sharp diversion from the overarching story of the military and espionage wars unfolding alongside Israel’s independence. It also steps back in time to the 1920s and ’30s, and to the early parts of the first book, Sinai Tapestry, where the bawdy, picaresque, and fantastic dominate. Cairo Martyr, an African giant who traffics in aphrodisiac mummy dust, plays The Great Jerusalem Poker Game against Munk Szondi, the Zionist scion of an Austro-Hungarian banking dynasty, and O’Sullivan Beare. The game lasts 12 years and requires another exponential suspension of disbelief, except for Stern’s riveting reappearance for a conversation with Beare, where we get the first of many elaborations of a horrific scene from the sacking of Smyrna, which involves the massacre of Armenians and Greeks in 1922.

If I believed in trigger warnings, I would place one right here. Stern suffers from a mental torment originating in the plight of a young Armenian girl, who is tortured and raped nearly to death and lies in a pool of blood on the quay where desperate pogrom victims are trying to flee. She repeats only the word “Please.” A distraught Stern figures that it might take her all night to die, so he slits her throat. This moral calculation dogs the spy’s conscience over the thousand or so remaining pages of the Quartet.

Nile Shadows, the third volume, gets off to a brisk start with Stern’s murder in real time on the first page. This is followed by a British intelligence mission into the American Southwest to contact Beare, who has sought refuge among the Hopis but is recruited to go undercover in Cairo to locate and assess Stern’s activity in Egypt a few weeks before the murder. In this “epic hashish dream” (according to The New York Times), the author tips his hand as a former CIA operations officer, expertly showing us agent networks that involve archaeologists, an ancient couple of twin sisters on a Nile houseboat, and Stern’s network of subsources across Egypt. The British operation, known as the Monks, is run by a crafty old gent named Bell—as Cairenes and much of Cairo’s British community flood east to Palestine to avoid what they believe will be Rommel’s victory over Montgomery, and the fall of the Egyptian capital to the Nazis.

Stern is encrypted as The Armenian by a second set of British spies called the Waterboys, within a compartmented agent network known as the Purple Seven. Working with the Egyptian police, the British note The Armenian’s covert movements to meetings with the Germans, among others, and a series of compromises of British secrets possibly linked to military setbacks that suggest the Armenian might be tipping off Rommel. Or he a double agent? Or a triple?

The whimsical, or magically realistic element is still here—one conversation between Stern and Beare goes on for 40 pages—but Whittemore is at his best in a world where pseudonyms and crypts replace true names. As in other plotlines, we see Stern in his true name emerge as a beggar (“cover for action”), lover, Englishman, Yemeni Jew, and Arab. Late in the game, it is discovered that Stern had fathered a daughter in Crete, where he was running an agent while posing as a German collaborator.

The spy games that ensue in Jericho Mosaic, the final volume, are of the highest order. The fantastic and mythical melt away as we follow the life of Yossi, a young immigrant to Israel from Iraq, who opts for a career in espionage. Yossi is planted in Argentina to build up a backstory, and then, posing as a Syrian émigré, moves to Damascus, where he is tasked with penetrating the society and then the upper echelons of the government. The Mossad runs Yossi, alias Halim, via third-country meetings, dead drops, and covert communications. This master spy, codenamed the Runner, is so capable, well-connected, and trusted that he is eventually recruited by the Syrians as an operative working against Lebanon. Clearly, he is a reimagined Elie Cohen, alias Kamel Amin Thabet, whose life Yossi/Halim replicates almost identically.

Jericho Mosaic is the only part of the Quartet you could describe as gripping. Whittemore inhabits Yossi’s busy brain as the operative makes money and friends, and survives a succession of coups that eliminate and promote various members of his social network. He is preoccupied with Syrian fortifications on the Golan Heights and the Palestinian community in Syria, especially its terrorist groups, both of which are entirely creations of the Syrian regime, answerable to various of its 12 intelligence services—and of course ultimately run by the KGB against the USA, Israel, and Europe.

Anyone with Yossi/Halim’s political and military contacts in Syria and Lebanon would be high on any spy service’s wish list of recruits. The Syrians succeed where the Lebanese and Palestinian services fail, along with those of the Iraqi Baath and imperial Iran’s SAVAK. In a delightful twist, Yossi suspects that a particularly shadowy approach to him is from Mossad: The Yossi operation is so tightly compartmented within Mossad, with only three senior officers knowing his identity, that Israeli spotters and assessors see this Syrian-Argentinian highflier as a natural target for recruitment. Tajar, Yossi’s handler, is greatly amused and raises it in their next safe house meeting in Lebanon.

True enough, Tajar told Yossi. Suspicion confirmed. I ran my own little operation inside headquarters and it turns out the man who had his eye on you was actually on the Runner backup team in the sixties. He didn’t think there was a chance in the world that Halim would bite, but his boss was so impressed by Halim’s reputation he thought an effort had to be made … A bizarre turnabout, but at least it shows that the Runner’s security is everything it should be …

As the super spy he is, Yossi sees all these approaches coming before the offer is made. The tricky thing about accepting a Syrian offer is that the Syrians use spy work as a cover for smuggling and other criminal enterprises. In classic fashion, Tajar and Yossi confer and decide to keep Halim incorruptible— “an eccentricity in Damascus.” Halim’s well-crafted cover personality is a patriotic but innocent Syrian, astute at commerce but lacking in the cunning required for espionage. This buys him breathing room inside Syria, where he has so completely become Halim that in his increasingly frequent discussions with Tajar about what will happen when the operation ends, he cannot face the idea of returning to Israel, where he has a wife and soldier son—and the prospect of a grandchild.

In a wonderfully drawn instance of the classic clash of intelligence with policymaking, Whittemore pits Yossi and Tajar against Israeli politicians’ early-1980s opening to the Lebanese Phalange, led by Bashir Gemayel, here known as Naji. Yossi argues against the fantasy of an Israel-Lebanese peace treaty based on an alliance with the Naji-led Lebanese warlords, citing the limitless brutality of the Syrian Baath, which is on the verge of murdering Naji. Jerusalem, high on the expulsion of the PLO from Lebanon, ignores its precious intelligence resources and lives to regret it.

Whittemore spares Yossi/Halim the ghastly real-life fate of Cohen/Thabit, but otherwise, his rendering of the life of an Israeli deep-cover officer in enemy territory is mind-blowingly accurate. Cohen’s own profile has remained high lately, with the Netflix series The Spy and Sacha Baron Cohen’s superlative interpretation of Cohen, and the evergreen rumors that Israeli-Syrian diplomacy might bring about the repatriation of Cohen’s remains.

Even le Carré at his best never hit the altitudes Whittemore explores in Jericho Mosaic. There is a reason Jericho is in the title—Yossi’s ex-wife, son, future daughter-in-law, the exiled Bell, and an assortment of others live in the ancient village, and (spoiler alert) Yossi himself eventually turns up there. But the rendering of the death-defying tension of Israel’s double-triple agent in Damascus, marked from birth with triumph and doom, is what makes Jericho Mosaic a spy classic.

Jericho Mosaic was published in 1987 and would be Whittemore’s last book before he died of prostate cancer eight years later. He had struggled to finish another vast, eccentric novel titled Sister Sally and Billy the Kid, which Karasik, with whom he had by then had a brief affair, edited heavily and cut drastically for Wallace to place, but the sale never happened. At present, the only reliable way of finding the Quartet novels is via e-books. Fittingly, one of the best espionage novels ever written remains elusive but operational, hiding in plain sight.

Peter Theroux is a translator and writer in suburban Los Angeles. After more than 20 years in the U.S. government, he was awarded the Career Intelligence Medal.