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From the Sublime to the Hilarious: On Damascus Gate by Robert Stone (part 3) photo

Part 1 of 4
Part 2 of 4
Part 4 of 4: Feb. 28


The story of religious mania and the story of political violence look very likely to converge on each other.  Having consciously elected the first, Lucas keeps being drawn, sometimes unwillingly, sometimes unwittingly, toward the other. Both feature his new inamorata, Sonia Barnes.

Having learned her name from Obermann after spotting her in a dance club near the Mandelbaum Gate, Lucas manages to keep running into her. Sonia earns an income from a singing gig in another club, this one in Tel Aviv, run by Stanley, a semi-retired Russian gangster. The act features Raziel, who happens to be an ex-lover of Sonia’s, on clarinet. Music makes a connection between the two of them and Lucas, whose “sentimental Catholic” mother was a singer of some renown. Moreover, Sonia’s involvement in the Raziel-De Kuff incipient cult relates to his Jerusalem Syndrome project.

The new cult is quite willing to absorb Sonia’s Sufi practices (as the post-Sabbatai Sabbatean movement was). After Berger’s death, she enables the group to establish a base in his apartment, part of an old madrassa complex conveniently or even strategically located on the edge of the enclosure of the Temple Mount, and also within walking distance of the Crusaders’ Church of Saint Anne and beside it, the Bethesda Pool—one of Israel’s most venerable holy places, where Serapis, “the great syncretic god of the east” had been worshipped during the late Hellenistic period. “Each year, it was believed, an angel descended to trouble the water with its wing. The water was good and healing. Beside it, Jesus had healed a paralytic.”

De Kuff, his mania spiking and without any direct prompting from Raziel, begins to appear regularly beside the pool, where he meditates, recites from the Zohar, and preaches. His following is enlarged still more in religious rallies which he and Raziel present in the guise of concerts—duets for clarinet and De Kuff’s cello.  The group wears ouroboros medallions as insignia. This image of a serpent swallowing its own tail originates in ancient Egypt and was adopted by Gnostic and Hermetic cults as a symbol of eternal return; Sabbatai Sevi incorporated the design into his signature. On the Sabbatean model, De Kuff becomes known to his growing cluster of disciples as “the Rev,” and is presented as the Messiah for Jews and Christians and also as the Mahdi for Muslims.

Sonia, for a time, imbibes this Kool-Aid to the lees. Lucas is attracted to the cult not only because of his attraction to her but also from his own obscure religious longings and from recurrent weariness of his own “singularity.” In conversation with a Catholic priest he discloses, “I was Catholic. I believed. I should understand faith but I can’t remember it.” Further, “Jewishness must mean something. It’s always been the conduit between humanity and God.” In Kabbalah he has come to find “the greatest interpretations of life and truth I’ve ever heard. And I find it brings me back to religious feelings I haven’t had…” since childhood.

These ideas and experiences Lucas most certainly shares with his author, but neither can ever quite discard their skepticism, though Lucas occasionally comes close: “Increasingly, the Kabbalist formulations delighted him, even as revised in the ravings of Raziel and De Kuff.” But ultimately, as he has to tell Sonia, he sees De Kuff as “just a manic depressive. He’s manipulated by Raziel.” This difference interrupts the romance. Sonia, deep in an episode of magical thinking, interprets his impotence on their first attempt as a sign from the universe that they must part. Lucas must look for some other path back into her good graces.

Meanwhile there’s a Christian component to the Jerusalem Syndrome story which Lucas needs to explore. On that side of the tracks is a fundamentally fundamentalist organization called House of the Galilean, a group of “Christian Zionists,” in Obermann’s description, “good relations with the rightists, something of a moneymaker.” The place has been until recently run by an American Reverend Ericksen and his wife Linda, who have standard evangelical resumes—he was raised Primitive Baptist, went to a California Bible college, met his wife as a missionary in Guatamela. In Israel the couple has previously served as “evangelical missionaries to Christian Arabs in Ramallah.”

They are, more or less, the Christian counterparts to Nuala’s group of secular NGO-niks, performing parallel good works—except that Linda, a superficially vacuous “sweet-faced blond woman,” has recently left her husband and while looking for another cause to attach her has begun running through a surprisingly various group of new lovers, beginning with Pinchas Oberman. To fill her days, she is now working for Ernest Gross in the Israeli Human Rights Coalition. Her husband is left in charge of the House of the Galilean, whose state-side fundraising makes a standard evangelical pitch, while on site “were many inspirational brochures that emphasized Qumran and the Essenes, with references to the Teacher of Righteousness. The line, barely hinted at in the promotional stuff, seemed to Lucas vaguely unorthodox, if not quite in the majnoon category. It suggested a variety of New Age Gnosticism more than old-time holy rolling.”

Ericksen explains that the House of the Galilean began as a hospice for evangelicals (“They used to be very much outsiders here”) but lately has turned its interest to Biblical archaeology, retaining a specialist, Dr. Gordon Lestrade, who’s focusing his expertise on the Temple Mount. Meanwhile Ericksen exhibits his own version of Jerusalem Syndrome fervor. During a visit to the Mount of Temptation, he explains to Lucas, “The Messiah of the Jewish people is coming back. He’s going to lead the struggle against evil. Then Satan will be known by his true name, Azazel. His forces will fight those of the Lord. When the struggle is over, everyone living will be converted.” Then, from the sublime to the hilarious: “Azazel was imprisoned in the earth. But he escaped to America and he was waiting for mankind there. We Americans spread his power throughout the world. Now we owe Israel help in its struggle against him.” When Lucas objects that this collaboration doesn’t seem a hundred percent Christian, Ericksen clarifies: “Israel will accept Jesus Christ as the Davidic Messiah. But first there will be war and strife.”

When Lucas meets Ericksen a second time, the latter is distraught with some deep disillusion, now willing to declare that the House of the Galilean (from which he has just departed) mainly exists as a cash machine: “A lot of Christians give them money. Jews too, now.”  For a fund-raising goal: “They’re trying to reconstruct Herod’s temple. There’s a Jewish effort and a Christian one.” Lucas is not inclined to take this stuff literally, and Ericksen is in his own way cynical about the people remaining at the House of the Galilean, calling them “just promoters,” or less politely, con artists using the Second Temple reconstruction chimera as bait. His own beliefs have shifted in another direction. “I like the people who wear the serpents,” he tells Lucas. “The black girl and her friends at Bethesda.” He turns out to be wearing their ouroboros token.

 And very soon after he turns up dead, having fallen or jumped or been pushed from a Byzantine aqueduct tower near Herod’s Gate. Ericksen’s death is one of the early harbingers that his fantasy of War in Heaven may have a literal analogue.

His estranged wife Linda has taken up with a Polish journalist named Janusz Zimmer, a veteran of the world’s worst situations, who sometimes shares information with Lucas. “I worked Vietnam,” he tells Lucas. “And don’t forget I was on the other side.” With Lucas steering toward the Jerusalem Syndrome story, Zimmer might pick up Nuala’s lead, to “these IDFs and their lynchings over in the Strip.” He cautions Lucas, “don’t assume a religious story is safer. You could be unpleasantly surprised.” They make a loose deal to keep each other posted about the two stories, but Zimmer turns out to know a lot more than he’s telling.

Zimmer, a recovering Marxist-Leninist, has logged some time in both Africa and Cuba, which he has in common with Sonia, with her American Communist Party heritage. Zimmer is a Jew, as was Sonia’s mother. Zimmer’s opinion is that “the Party lost its soul when it lost us. I mean the Jews.” Advising her “that there are some organizations in this country whose work it is to see that this becomes a better place,” he invites her to join. “Where there was a Red Orchestra we now have a Jewish Orchestra,” he claims, “a network organized as well as anything that was organized in Europe against the Germans, or here against the British.” Sonia takes a pass, explaining that as “a person of color” she feels a call to defend the Palestinians; “that may just be my way of being a good Jew. So if a Jewish underground means what I think it means, no thanks.”

Zimmer warns Sonia to stay out of the Gaza Strip, but he tells Raziel, in a cloak and dagger meeting at the Western Wall, that he really wants her to go there “on a regular basis. With Nuala Rice as much as possible.” Zimmer has it “on good authority that Nuala is bringing in explosives. If Sonia goes, it’s going to look like you and your friends. Since you’re being so kind as to take the fall when… it happens.” In effect, since Sonia won’t sign up, she has to be manipulated as a pawn in Zimmer’s plot.

The “it” remains obscure until Zimmer tells Linda Ericksen that Nuala is running weapons into the Gaza Strip and bringing back drugs, an operation tacitly permitted by Shabak as “their way of arming the one PLO faction they think they can control and that can keep order down there.” Zimmer more or less commands Linda to “use your Human Rights Coalition status to get into the strip. As often as you can, get Sonia Barnes to go with you, and try to see that she’s on record as accompanying Nuala Rice.” The ultimate goal, he replies to Linda’s question, “is to destroy the enemy shrines on the Temple Mount. To wipe them away and build the Temple of the Almighty.”

The nature of Zimmer’s alliances becomes clearer at a secret conclave held in the basement of the House of the Galilean (whose surviving representatives, exclusively interested in money, “knew the purpose of the meeting and the intentions of the participants” but did “not choose to be represented at their deliberations”). Some in attendance are religious maniacs, e.g. an American renegade Hasid, whose sect desires to destroy the Dome of the Rock and rebuild the Jewish Temple on the Mount in order “to restore the balance of time as conveyed to Moses by the angel Uriel, so that the feasts might be celebrated as the Almighty desired;”and an American secular Jew who “had come to the Apocalypse through his readings of Scripture, the agrarian pessimism of Wendell Berry, and the predestinarian poetry of Larry Woiwode.” Present among these nutjobs are Linda, Raziel, and a California rabbi named Yacov Miller, whose “group had committed itself to armed violence against the Palestinians and, if need be, against the Israeli State.” This sect is as inflamed with apocalyptic millennialism as the others but more practically connected, with “a few small but avid cells in the army and bureaucracy and especially among the pioneers in the harsher settlements of Gaza and the West Bank, where the Arabs were many and the amenities few.”

To Miller, whom he takes far more seriously than the other conspirators, Zimmer explains his own motives more plainly than to anyone else: “Now I have the choice of meditating all my life on what I’ve seen and learned. Perhaps I can transcend through insight, eh?” A Kabbalist or a contemplative Christian would take that option, believing the last statement to be true. “Zimmer goes on. “Or I can be part of the process of becoming. The relationship between this land and the Almighty I leave to you, Rabbi. But I don’t propose to watch this country, the country of my allegiance, remain a pawn of hypocrites in the west or the refuge of mediocrity. We engage in the process of becoming or we die.”

In this process of becoming there’s opportunity for plenty of other people to die. In the midst it, Sonia introduces a Spanish proverb; “the slaves used to say it in Cuba,” according to her. “Que tienen hacer, que hacer no morir.” Bob Stone had learned it from Jim Maraniss, and it became one of his favorite expressions. He sometimes liked to render it in New York street talk: What you gotta do—you gotta not die.



Sonia has the influence to procure U.N. vans for Nuala’s runs to Gaza; when she discovers she’s been played into the arms for drugs exchange (which happens to be managed on behalf of Shabak by Stanley, the owner of the Tel Aviv club where Sonia sings), she’s annoyed at first, but she and Nuala go too far back for a real rift to develop over this deception. Nuala, devout Marxist that she is, keeps pursuing her own agenda, but neither she nor Sonia has any idea that they’re being used by Zimmer’s group. The runs in and out of Gaza continue. Lucas, who at this point would do anything to get next to Sonia, sometimes offers to drive.

Following Zimmer’s orders, Linda Ericksen persuades Sonia to drive her and another Zimmer confederate, a young American Jew with the cover name “Lenny,” to Argentina Camp in Gaza, actually a sort of safe house for Palestinian informers to the Israeli security forces, though not all the players know it. Sonia, temporarily duped by Linda, has invited Lucas to come from Jerusalem on his own, for an interview with “Abu Baraka;” Linda’s real plan is to debunk the Abu Baraka story in the press with phony confessions the informants in Argentina Camp will feed Lucas. “Lenny” is along as a pilot fish.

As bad luck would have it, all the Gaza Strip is about to blow up in rioting that day. Sonia, smelling trouble and beginning to mistrust her companions, manages to raise Nuala, who’s elsewhere in the Strip with another aid worker, on a U.N. frequency. By the time they and Lucas have joined the others at Argentina camp, “Lenny,” naïve and inexperienced as he is, has recklessly chosen to depart on his own, planning to catch a ride in an Israeli army vehicle to a settlement, Kfar Gottlieb. Lucas, on his way in, happens to notice him, still on foot, looking “out of place, to say the least.” When he mentions it, Linda insists that the group go to his rescue, but the others disagree. Their imperative has become to get themselves out of the situation alive.

Que tienen hacer, que hacer no morir. “It was the first time Lucas had ever seen the shebab rampant,” he thinks, observing the kaffiyeh-masked youth swirling around the U.N. van. His erudition moves him to compare the present situation to the Zealots rising against Roman rule, inspired by the Lord of Hosts. “Mercy was his middle name—except on certain occasions, during special enthusiasms.” Linda, aware that she is not exactly among friends, weeps in the front seat. A cry, “Itbah al-Yahud!” goes up in their vicinity—Kill the Jew! When Linda gets a glimpse of Lenny in the grasp of “an ecstatic crowd,” the group, led by Nuala, makes a valiant attempt to rescue him but is beaten back. Nuala and Sonia won’t allow Linda to inform Israeli soldiers at a checkpoint of Lenny’s plight, because Lenny has to be dead already, and “people who work in the Strip can’t afford to be seen as informers for the IDF. They can’t provide intelligence for the soldiers. Even to be thought of that way.” When Linda can’t be calmed, Nuala punches her out. When Linda wakes, a mile past the checkpoint, she dives out of the car and runs back. Soon the U.N. van is overtaken by an IDF jeep whose driver curses them: “You Nazi swine!  You oversaw the killing of a Jew!”

Nightfall overtakes them, still trapped in the Strip. As recognized aid-workers known to be sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, the women have a measure of safety from the shebab, but Lucas has no such portfolio and is Jewish enough in appearance to attract hostile attention. Exploring a small camp for shelter, the four get separated from their vehicle and are soon fleeing on foot from another mob shouting Itbah al Yahud! They make their way into a PLO controlled camp, Beit Ajani, where the women are taken in by a midwife. Lucas, as a man, cannot be admitted to the daya’s chamber. He’s now alone, friendless, his singularity no longer of any advantage, with the mob growing closer.

Resuming his flight, Lucas reaches the border of Beit Ajani camp and manages to crawl out under barbed wire and into a settlement spinach field. Having survived a night of exotic misadventure, the next morning he’s taken in (to custody as it turns out) by the settlers at Kfar Gottlieb. There’s a dark comedy to the situation. Lucas hardly knows if he thinks of himself as a Jew or not. In the Gaza Strip the previous night, being a Jew would have been fatal. At Kfar Gottlieb, to be a Jew would be a far, far better thing than not. Lucas is soundly beaten there, and advised by his assailant, between blows, “You do not ever strike a Jew. For you to raise your fist, to attempt to injure a Jewish person, is to direct an injury against the Almighty Himself.”

Eventually Lucas is confronted with Linda, also sheltering at the settlement, whose account of Lenny’s death has been through enough distortion that Lucas is now being punished for it. He finds it politic to disclose the Jewish bits of his background, silently thinking “If I’m good enough to get gassed, I ought to be good enough for you.”

 Whereupon the settlers stop beating him and start encouraging him to spin the story he’s writing in their favor. “You were being programmed for a campaign of lies. Instead, you’ll write the truth.” Truth is relative; what the settlers want told is that the Raziel – De Kuff cult is conspiring to blow up the Dome of the Rock—which actually is a cover story devised by Zimmer’s cohort and agreed with Raziel, though secret from the other cult members. Lucas thinks privately that “if anyone had destructive plans for the Haram, it would be the militants of Kfar Gottlieb, the superpatriotic creators of Abu Baraka, hardly De Kuff and Raziel’s group of Kabbalist aesthetes.” Aloud, he merely says “OK to whatever they told him,” until he is released.

This episode solves the mystery of Abu Baraka for all practical purposes and also has worse consequences than Lucas’s beating: Nuala is abruptly expelled from Israel, then lured to Cyprus where, with her Palestinian lover Rashid, she is assassinated. Though Nuala’s devotion is political and secular, this very powerful scene is reminiscent of Sister Justin’s martyrdom in A Flag for Sunrise.


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


image: Tóth László from Pixabay