Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 913
The title Damascus Gate refers to an ancient stone city gate, connecting Jewish and Muslim sectors of Jerusalem near sacred sites hotly contested by three faiths. That Jerusalem has incited religious and ethnic hatreds for centuries makes it the perfect setting for a millennium religious thriller in which ancient spiritual strictures, promises, and passions are reconfigured through explosive New Age sensibilities. While eruditely exploring the religious foundations of major religions, sects, and cults both modern and historical, Stone builds his story around a genuine 1980’s plot to destroy the Mosque of Omar.
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The novel also revisits in new ways the themes that have always driven Stone’s art: religious mysticism, the drug culture and counterculturalists, competing apocalyptic visions (the products of senility, hallucinogenics, and wishful thinking), and ethnic and religious hatreds exposed and carried to bloody ends as individuals seeking meaning beyond their petty fiascoes steer, almost suicidially, toward shared disaster.
Stone’s key characters are mainly displaced Americans with private visions of the Holy Land. Foremost is freelance journalist Christopher Lucas, whose Jewish father and Catholic mother have prompted both skepticism and faith and thus have indirectly led him to his latest book project, a study of the Jerusalem Syndrome—an Israeli psychiatrist’s term for a form of religious mania afflicting Jewish and Christian visitors to the city, a messianic longing for epiphany often expressed through intolerant missions, for example, to destroy sites sacred to opposition faiths.
Like Lucas’s fictional book, Damascus Gate studies religious moderates transformed into extreme fanatics in Jerusalem. Lucas’s search for controversial materials and his interviews with assorted locals provide the justification for a convoluted journey that twists and turns throughout the city and is sidetracked to Tel Aviv, the Gaza Strip, the Jordan River, and Mount Hebron before returning through labyrinthine streets to the Temple Mount (at the Dome of the Rock) and a conspiracy to bomb the Muslim Al-aksa Mosque there as a step toward invoking the Second Coming and the conversion of the Jews. A visit to the Israeli Holocaust museum Yad Vashem seems at first to establish a moral center, as Lucas weeps with shame at man’s inhumanity to man, but after near-death experiences at the hands of both angry Arab villagers and Jewish settlers (highly exciting sequences in a novel too often bogged down in philosophical digressions), his stoned conclusion is that life is like Alice in Wonderland—funny, but with no justice, meaning, or mercy.
Lucas makes many of his contacts for his research through expatriate American Sonia Barnes, a Sufi acolyte and cabaret singer whose mixed-race parents (black/white) raised her as a communist in Cuba and whose relief agency work in Third World hot spots has brought her assorted friends with diverse causes. Idealistic and hopeful, despite having seen humankind at its worst globally, she seem free spirited, acting humanely where possible, hoping for a true mystical experience but finding it too often a drug high. Eclectic and syncretic in her life and beliefs, she is Lucas’s guide and anchor. Her recurring motif is a song—“If you want to hear my song, you have to come with me”—and he does. Sonia lives with her Sufi master, a respected, elderly New Yorker whose death strengthens her connection with a cult concocted by a drug-driven jazz pianist, Raziel (Razz) Melker.
The son of a wealthy American congressman, Melker, formerly a junkie, a yeshiva student, and a member of Jews for Jesus, is now a mysterian, a Lurrianic Kabbalist for whom “Everything is Torah”—that is, truth is a river running through many faiths. The serpent goddess Kundalini is his guide, and an elderly former musician from New Orleans, a manic-depressive named Adam De Kuff, could be the new messiah (with a little help from Razz and his drug epiphanies). Razz contrives the plot to bomb the Al-aksa Mosque and to establish De Kuff as the new messiah (preaching “truths” that all religions share). He is responsible for the murders of United Nations Children’s Foundation employees, the lovely Irish communist idealist Nuala and her local cohort Rashid, gunrunners for their cause. Other tools in Razz’s scheme are the Ericksons of the House of the Galileans, a hotbed of Protestant fanatics trying to rebuild the Herodian Temple as a confirmation of biblical prophesy. Together, the band of seekers that Raziel sets in motion numbers twelve—Stone’s game to infuse every incident with layers of religious associations.
Stone raises doubts about the nature of all religious experiences, as zealous Muslims chase Jews with pitchforks, Christians employ violence to fulfill the prophecies of the Book of Revelation, and Zionist extremists contrive to reignite the 1948 war to oust Arabs from Israel. The Mossad (Israeli intelligence), the Shabak (the Israeli internal security service), the Communist Party, Cypriots, Hamas, and many other groups manipulate characters and events for disparate goals (surprisingly, Stone makes the Shabak the good guys). Lucas’s wished-for romance with Sonia at an end, conspiracy routed, the Mossad pressuring him to leave, man’s heart of darkness confirmed, and his new book fleshed out, Lucas, as Stone’s spokesman, concludes cryptically that losing something longed for or valued is “as good as having it,” since longing leads to perception, definition, and a place in the heart and mind that the trials and tribulations of an adverse universe cannot take away. Stone provides no solutions, but seeming profundities roll off the tongues of many of his characters.