in the late seventies. Caught eternally, it seemed, between
war and peace That's when a small group of us - writers,
lists, historians, commentators gathering every Friday
in a downtown cafe - discovered Edward Whittemore.
None of us had
met him, except through his fiction, but we needed him.
We needed him badly. Bogged down in the particularities
of daily events, in the hourly newscasts and mind numbing
series of military and political skirmishes, we needed
someone who could soar above it all. Someone who could
take the absurd reality we lived and weave it into a
rich tapestry of realist absurdity.
Whittemore didn't soar so much as tunnel. He tunnelled
under the surface of Jerusalem, following the three-thousand-year-old
antiquities dealer Haj Harun in his tattered yellow
cloak and dented Crusader helmet down through the physical
layers of the place - one era's stones laid on top of
the previous one's to create a vertical history - and
into the existential city, the one we really inhabited
if we could only escape daily reality long enough to
magical, cynical, romantic, clear-eyed Whittemore was
these and more. Reading him, we felt as though finally
someone had come along who could grasp the madness in
which we lived. Who could take it and run with it, celebrating
its delirious complexity, its fantastic twists and turns,
its ramifications through the centuries and across the
Later, when he
moved to Jerusalem and lived right by the Ethiopian
church, a hidden compound where black-robed monks swayed
and chanted as they had for centuries, it seemed as
though Whittemore were the Pied Piper of the city, playing
the hidden tune that would make it dance. He wrote out
of an immense affection for the place, its inhabitants
and their foibles. Out of pity for the bloodshed yet
with calm, Zen-like insight into the passions that led
to it. His Jerusalem quartet, now nearly complete, had
become a symphony of time and history, innocence and
By then, he could
himself have been a character from the Quartet: the
ex-CIA agent secluded in the peaceful oasis of the Ethiopian
compound, speaking Geez with the monks, juggling the
story of Jerusalem at his desk by the arched stone window.
There was always something pixie-like about him, but
now it seemed he had become a master conjurer who could
take your mind and stretch it through time and space,
then bring it back again in an arcing circularity, wiser
and sadder and yet at the same time happier.
And then he disappeared.
And later resurfaced in New York. And in terribly short
order, died. Perhaps he knew of the cancer when he walked
away from Jerusalem literally in the middle of the night,
leaving behind this lovely, wild, time - and mind-bending
series of novels.
I was the first
in that Friday group to discover Whittemore, quite by
the kind of chance he loved. On a break from a year's
wandering round the Sinai in research for a book, I
strayed into Jerusalem's main bookstore and found, in
the remainder bin, a paperback titled Sinai Tapestry.
The cover was luridly sci-fi - the publisher had served
him ill - but nevertheless I read the first few pages
and knew I had to read them all.
Determined to make
the book last, I allowed myself no more than twenty
pages an evening. And each day, I'd tell friends what
I'd read the night before.
They accused me
of making it up.
I wish I'd been
I went back to
the store, bought every copy, and handed them out. We
became a kind of Whittemore cult, tracing shades of
Vonnegut and Borges, Pynchon and Lawrence Durrell in
the man who'd been called "America's best least-known
And then a year
or so later, passing by the same store, I saw Jerusalem
Poker in the window. In hardback - a major investment
at the time for a struggling wordsmith. But I had no
choice: I walked right in and bought it. And knew instantly
that this would be my favorite of the planned Quartet.
If you had to describe
the novel in one line, you could say it's about a twelve-year
poker game for control of the holy city. But that of
course is only the top layer, as you realize if you
take just the three main players in the Great Jerusalem
Poker Game: Moslem, Christian, and Jew.
First, Cairo Martyr,
the Nubian dragoman with pale blue eyes who has made
a fortune selling mummy dust cut with quinine as an
aphrodisiac. Then Joe O'Sullivan Beare, an Irish patriot
who now smuggles arms for the Haganah inside giant hollow
scarabs, and trades in sacred phallic amulets. And then
Munk Szondi, the scion of a powerful Budapest- based
banking house run by a matriarchal directorate known
as The Sarahs, who trades in futures - any and all futures.
..Mummy dust. Trading in futures, Religious
With that kind of backing, the three men seemed unbeatable.
Year after year, they stripped visitors to Jerusalem
of all they owned, bewildered emirs and European smugglers
and feuding sheikhs, devout priests and assorted commercial
agents and pious fanatics, every manner of pilgrim
in that vast dreaming army from many lands that had
always been scaling the heights of the Holy City,
in search of spiritual gold, Martyr and Szondi and
O'Sullivan Beare implacably dealing and shuffling
and dealing again, relentlessly plunging Jerusalem
into its greatest turmoil since the First Crusade."
Familiar and half-familiar
characters swirl in and out of the narrative as it arcs
from Jericho to Smyrna, Venice to Cairo, the pendulum
swinging inexorably back and forth through Jerusalem.
There's the seven-foot-tall Plantagenet Strongbow, an
English lord who purchased the whole of the Ottoman
Empire and wrote a 33-volume study of Levantine sex.
. Avraham Stern of the eponymous Stern Gang. A Japanese
nobleman who becomes a revered rabbi in seclusion beneath
Mount Sinai. King Zog of Albania. Warlords and pederasts,
eunuchs and bishops, lovers and thieves and soldiers
and spies all dancing to Whittemore's tune of time infinite
This is a Jerusalem
where time expands and contracts, where it may unpredictably,
speed up or slow down. "Eternal city and so forth,
" says O'Sullivan Beare. Daft time spinning out
of control for sure on top of the holy mountain"
But always in the world of Whittemore, time's swoops
and spirals come full circle - as they have now for
Jerusalem Poker, back in print after the mere eye blink
of twenty - odd years.
books include the award-winning Jerusalem Jerusalem
and Where Mountains Roar. She lived thirteen years in
Jerusalem, reporting on the Middle East for Time, The
New York Times, Esquire, The Nation and many other publications.
In a Whittemoreish move, she now lives and writes on
houseboat in Seattle.