Jerusalem 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.

More precisely, 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 see it.

Funny, scabrous, 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 globe.

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 experience.

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 able to.

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 writer."

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 symbols.
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 and ineffable.

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.

© Lesley Hazleton
Seattle 2002

Lesley Hazleton's 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.


©Anne Sydenham 2001-2016