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From the Sublime to the Hilarious: On Damascus Gate by Robert Stone (part 1) photo

Part 2 of 4: Feb. 14
Part 3 of 4: Feb. 21
Part 4 of 4: Feb. 28


Damascus Gate has a larger cast of important characters than any previous Stone novel, and, more or less as a side-effect of that, a more complicated convergence structure than the earlier works. In this case, though, the principals don’t converge on each other across long distances, as in A Flag for Sunrise, but rather they circle each other, making intermittent contact, as they wander the labyrinth of Jerusalem’s Old City. Most of them are based in Jerusalem and its immediate orbit, though the action sometimes expands to Tel Aviv, the Gaza Strip, and other locations around Palestine. There is a certain unity of place.

The first pilot fish proposed to the reader is Chris Lucas, a middle-aged American journalist who’s recently quit a major U.S. newspaper with the idea of writing…something different, he isn’t yet sure what. In the beginning, his semi-aimless peregrinations around Jerusalem involve an undirected quest for a subject (as his author’s first visits there must have done). He’s magnetized by the several different kinds of religious energy suffusing the place. “The Damascus Gate, with its Ottoman towers and passages and barbarous Crusader revetments, was his favorite place in the city…. To the Palestinians it was the Bab al-Amud, the Gate of the Column, but Lucas rejoiced in the common English name, the suggestion of a route toward mystery, inner light, sudden transformation.” Lucas is a bit of a cynic but also a bit of a seeker, two more qualities he has in common with Robert Stone.

Stone had two modes of handwriting: one a gnarly cursive he used to talk to himself and the other block capitals, more easily legible. On a scrap of torn paper in a crate of Damascus Gate research material is a draft of a self-mocking doggerel poem:







On the back of the scrap, in the gnarly cursive, this curious phrase in some kind of Spanish:

yo no digo est cancion

sino a quien conmigo va


Happening haphazardly into a mosque, Lucas encounters “a young Arab woman” with kohl-rimmed eyes and henna tattoos on her feet. To his surprise she bursts into tuneful song; stranger still it’s a jazz number he knows, “Something Cool.” “Who knew to what arcane aspect of the city she might attach?” More than one, as it turns out; in the second chapter the eye of the story follows her (she is Sonia Barnes) to a gynecologist’s office on Graetz Street, where she scores a prescription for pain pills and chats with the doctor about her childhood in the Bronx, where she was born in a mixed marriage, her father black, her mother Jewish—both Communists for a time, making Sonia a red-diaper baby. The Sonia of the present is a something of a shape-shifter, with costumes that provide her “a cloak of invisibility” as she crosses boundaries between the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim quarters of the old city, “headed for the Tariq Bab al-Nazir, an ancient narrow street leading to the Nazir Gate, an entrance to the Muslim holy places,” en route to the home of Berger al-Tariq, a German convert to Sufism, a sort of spiritual guide for Sonia, now slowly, painfully dying. As she shares the narcotic prescription with him, something more of her past is revealed; Sonia has a résumé as an international aid worker, having served in Africa and Cuba, and is now contemplating doing some similar work in the Gaza Strip. She also sometimes sings professionally in a club in Tel Aviv.

The third chapter picks up a young clarinet player, also of American origin, Ralph Melker, who calls himself Razz in musical contexts and Raziel in religious ones, in the office of a psychiatrist, Pinchas Obermann. He’s an ex-addict, with chameleon qualities more aggressive than Sonia’s, though he mocks Obermann, “You make me sound like a multiple personality.” Their conversation reveals that Raziel is a friend of Sonia, that Obermann is trying to write a book about the various religious manias infesting the Holy City, and that Raziel has an acute interest in an older man waiting his turn to see Obermann—for whom he lies in wait outside.

Adam De Kuff is the older man’s name, he’s a wealthy descendant of a distinguished Jewish family, a musician himself as Raziel somehow has intuited (a cello player), mentally ill with bipolar disorder, and a religious seeker, something he has in common with his fresh young acquaintance. They repair to De Kuff’s “over-stuffed hotel suite,” where they talk until dawn “about tantric Buddhism and the Book of the Dead, kundalini yoga and the writings of Meister Eckhart,” then watch the sun rise over Mount Zion.

Both are tremendously erudite about almost every form of religion ever practiced, and both are pilgrims of a kind, sometimes even the same kind: Raziel was once a Jew for Jesus, while De Kuff, whose mother “is part Gentile,” once made a conversion to Catholicism. The younger Raziel has a much quicker mind and a considerable bag of hustler’s tricks. In this long first encounter it’s clear that on the one hand he is manipulating the older man, but on other, there’s something almost desperately sincere in his interest and attraction.

For his author’s note to the Franklin Library first edition of the novel, instead of talking about thematic intention as he had done for the similar edition of Outerbridge Reach, Stone talked mostly about his sources, with one very specific remark on how he had applied them: “Readers familiar with the story of Sabbatai Sevi and his promoter and disciple Nathan of Gaza, as recounted by Gershom Scholem in The Mystic Messiah, and the characters Adam De Kuff and Ralph ‘Raziel’ Melker.” Stone might have had his tongue in his cheek when suggesting that many of his readers would be “familiar” with Scholem’s work, a difficult, arcane opus originally composed in Hebrew and in its English translation more than a thousand pages long. Obscure stuff, though during the composition of Damascus Gate, Bob was able to fascinate his wife Janice with what he learned from Scholem; “I loved to listen to Bob talk about Kabbala.” This acknowledgment is an excellent clue to the religious rationale of the novel.



The Sabbatean movement began in Smyrna, in the Ottoman Empire (now Izmir in modern Turkey) in 1648, when Sabbatai Sevi proclaimed himself to be the messiah whose appearance had been predicted by the Zohar for that year. His declaration took place in an atmosphere of mid-17th-century millennial expectations that affected Jews and Christians alike, and included a prediction that the Jewish people would return to assert sovereignty in their homeland, Israel. Generally speaking, European Jews at the time were in a state of crisis, which had built over several centuries of persecution, displacement and exile.

In Islamic Spain the Jews (and Christians) had enjoyed a long period of tolerance which enabled them to build a very strong community there, but the end of that sanctuary was signaled by a pogrom in Cordoba in 1013. Sporadic persecution and displacement continued to erupt in Spain over the next four hundred years, and then the Spanish Christian rulers, Ferdinand and Isabella, founded the Inquisition in 1478 and then, with the Alhambra Decree of 1492, compelled surviving Jews of Spain to convert to Christianity or depart. A good number made a pro forma conversion and remained as “marranos” or later “Crypto-Jews” but more (about two hundred thousand) went into exile, scattering around the Mediterranean basin or moving into central Europe, where many settled in Poland, or attempted to, despite the frequent persecutions there. This Spanish/Jewish diaspora carried some key elements of Jewish theology and eschatology, including the Zohar itself (which had been either discovered or composed in Spain in the thirteenth century) and a particular language called Ladino, a dialect of medieval Spanish using Hebrew syntax and often written in the Hebrew alphabet, also the vehicle for a corpus of romantic ballads which could lend themselves to mystical interpretations.

Jews were welcome almost nowhere in Europe by Sabbatai Sevi’s time, having been expelled from England in 1290, and from France intermittently throughout the thirteenth century (in France Jews could pay bribes to return). There was a massacre in Strasbourg in 1349, and the Jews were expelled from Sicily in 1493 and from Portugal and many parts of Germany in 1496. As an exception to the general trend, Sultan Bayezid II had invited Jews expelled from Portugal and Spain to shelter under the wing of the Ottoman Empire, where they were able to begin reassembling their culture and community. That ground was fertile for the germination of Sabbatai Sevi’s messianic dream.

Sabbatai built enough of a following to be banished from Smyrna, with his disciples, in the mid-1650s. With a growing entourage he went to Constantinople, and next to Salonica, a Kabbalistic center from which he was also banished; he then made a tour of Alexandria and Athens and by 1660 had landed in Cairo, where he remained for three years. In 1663 he came to Jerusalem and began to attract new followers there—he also was able to ingratiate himself with the local government by persuading a wealthy adherent in Cairo to contribute to Jerusalem’s heavy tax debt to the Ottoman Empire.

Sabbatai was on the one hand an ascetic, impressing his followers with his penitential practices: frigid baths, fasting, self-flagellation. At the same time, to prove his status as Messiah, he aggressively broke important Jewish taboos, from pronouncing the Tetragrammaton to eating the meat and fat of the paschal lamb together. He produced spectacles such as a celebration of his mystical marriage to the Torah. Endowed with considerable musical gifts, he could enthrall his followers by singing psalms all night, mingling them with the mystically charged Ladino ballads.

During a second sojourn in Cairo, he married a woman named Sarah, a Jewish girl who’d survived the Chmielnicki pogrom in Poland, then been sent to a Christian convent from which she escaped, first to Amsterdam, and then to Livorno, where she was thought to have been a prostitute. All along she had a dream of becoming the bride of the Messiah, and Sabbatai decided to fulfill this fantasy. Sarah was intelligent, beautiful, and charismatic—the match added to Sabbatai’s prestige. Some shade of this seventeenth-century woman may be found in Stone’s characterization of Sonia Barnes.

Returning with Sarah toward Jerusalem, Sabbatai met Nathan Benjamin Levi in Gaza. Nathan was a Kabbalist and also a healer of sorts; a tradition has it that Sabbatai went to him first in the latter capacity, because (in Gershom Scholem’s analysis) he was suffering from what would later by called manic depressive psychosis, or bipolar syndrome. Nathan disclosed that he had had a previous vision of Sabbatai as the Messiah, urged him to pursue this vocation, and set himself up as his prophet.

Thus encouraged, Sabbatai returned to Jerusalem, where the rabbinical authorities soon threatened him and his followers with excommunication. Sabbatai led his growing group back to Smyrna, where in 1665 he made a louder proclamation of his Messiah-hood. He was briefly able to assert leadership over the entire Jewish community there, and became a subject of fascination for Christians and Muslims as well. But thanks to the technically sacrilegious aspect of many of his initiatives, Sabbatai quickly lost prestige in Smyrna and went again to Constantinople, and was promptly imprisoned in Abydos Castle—where thanks to his spiritual aura and especially to the means he had accrued from his many wealthy disciples, he was able to live in near-royal style, holding a sort of court for his many visitors.

Meanwhile, Nathan worked tirelessly to promote his Messiah… though no longer in his company. Seeing Jerusalem’s hostility to the Sabbateans, Nathan declared Gaza to be the Holy City instead. Thus “Nathan of Gaza,” or simply “the Ghazzati,” became his sobriquet. He sent the good news in written form to communities all over Europe, and eventually took his mission to many European capitals in person, and also to India and Africa.

In Constantinople, the Sultan Mehmed IV grew suspicious enough to offer Sabbatai the choice of conversion to Islam or proving his messiah-dom by ordeals very likely to end in his death. Sabbatai converted with alacrity, bringing Sarah and about three hundred disciples with him. His apparent enthusiasm may have been real; there was an ecumenical aspect to his Messianic program, and he might well have envisioned some sort of apocalyptic reunion of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The Sultan embraced the conversion and appointed Sabbatai to a well-paid court position. But beyond his inner circle, there was a general falling away.

Nevertheless Nathan continued to proselytize and Sabbatai continued quietly (and with some success) to introduce Muslims to Kabbala, while his followers, now known as Dönmeh (converts) worked on an amalgamation of Jewish and Islamic practices. By 1673, Mehmed had grown weary of these intrigues and exiled Sabbatai – a long way off, to Ulcinj on the Adriatic coast, where he died in relative obscurity in 1676, a couple of years after the death of his wife. Nathan of Gaza, true believer to the end, continued to prophesy Sabbatai’s divinity in all parts of the world he could reach, until his death in 1680. The Dönmeh persisted as a crypto-Sabbatean sect, with groups in Istanbul, Izmir and Thessalonika, eventually adding some Sufi practices to their repertoire. Such is the sandy foundation on which Stone’s characters, Raziel and De Kuff, begin to construct their own ecumenical cult.


A version of his essay appears in Child of Light: A Biography of Robert Stone (Doubleday, 2020).


image: Tóth László from Pixabay