Edward Whittemore's Sinai Tapestry
An Introduction

Sinai Tapestry, originally published in 1977, is the first book of Edward Whittemore's Jerusalem Quartet: four novels that make the long, complex history of the Middle East comprehensible as no other books do, and that do so by creating an alternate version of history - part real and part imagined (and what pleasure, while reading, to speculate on what, in the novels, is real and what imagined!) - that begins, in this first book, by telling the story of how early in the nineteenth century, Skanderbeg Wallenstein, a fanatical Trappist monk from Albania, comes upon what is "with out question the oldest Bible in the world" and discovers that "It denied every religious truth ever held by anyone"

What would happen, then, he wonders - in ways not so different from the actual speculations of twentieth century Biblical scholars - "if the world suddenly suspected that Mohammed might well have lived six centuries before Christ" or that Christ had been a minor prophet in the age of Elijah" or "that the virtues of Mary and Fatima and Ruth had been confused in the minds of later chroniclers and freely interchanged among them?"

"Melchizedek must have his City of Peace," Wallenstein. concludes, just as men must have their Jerusalem" Believing that faith must be sustained in the world, Wallenstein also believes that if the cause for faith is absent, then it is his duty to provide it. "The decision he had made in his cell," Whittemore tells us, "was to forge the original Bible."

But this forgery - what has led to it, and what issues from it-becomes, in Sinai Tapestry, an imaginative conceit that informs the entire Quartet: It is Whittemore's way of asking us to consider the many ways in which illusions can give birth to realities, by which realities can be transformed by dreams, and - above all - through which the real and the imagined can conspire to create those events and legends that determine how we live, love, and die.

The four books that make up the Jerusalem Quartet comprise, in their entirety, nothing less than a remarkable love song to the Holy Land, and to the myriad dreams and acts that have, across more than four millennia, been at the heart of all we have come to believe are cause and effect of our individual and collective destinies.

But to speculate about the relation in the Quartet between history and belief, and between the real and the fanciful - to try to understand or explain the complicated ways these novels themselves, through story, speculate about the nature, through time, of faith and belief, of the actual and the fabricated, and of time itself - is to forget, momentarily, that these are, first, last, and always, novels that live because of Whittemore's unique gifts as a storyteller.

"Place," Whittemore states, in Jericho Mosaic, the final volume of the Quartet, "is the beginning of memory," and in these books Whittemore shows us, repeatedly, how the history of a particular place - its past and the dreams dreamt in it across millennia - are as much the cause of things as are any mere political events. The portraits of places such as Jericho,

Damascus, Beirut, Jerusalem, and the Sinai - the texture and detail of buildings and marketplaces, of underground chambers and above-ground fortifications, of holy places and deserts - are vividly, tangibly rendered. As with the "endless razings and rebuildings of Jerusalem, "these places take on life and breathe life - in the way Whittemore's characters do, and, in a fictional world where the possible invariably takes precedence over the probable, they become central actors in the narrative.

"Jericho," reflects Abu Musa, a wealthy Arab patriarch and grower of fruit trees who earlier in his life had ridden with the forces of Lawrence of Arabia, "is a crossing of history ….We sit but fifteen miles from Jerusalem and a little more from Amman, and Jerusalem is midway between Amman, the Ancient Creek city of Philadelphia, and the sea. Jerusalem is holy, and biblical Rabbat Ammon or Amman is where King David put Uriah the Hittite in the forefront of battle to be killed, so he might enjoy the dead man's wife Bathsheba, who gave the king a son called Solomon. Thus the mountains and the valley, the deserts and the sea, lust and wisdom and murder and empire, these various profane and sacred causes of man all find their crossroads in Jericho, which is why we grow oranges here. To refresh those who are forever passing through."

Jericho Mosaic, from which this passage comes, is the most coherent, and the most coherently realized of the four novels. It is an intricate tale of espionage that centers on the story of Yossi, a young Israeli, allegedly killed during the 1956 war in the Sinai, who becomes an agent whose mission it is "to penetrate Arab culture so deeply that he would never come back." The story (modeled in large part on the true story of the Israeli agent Ellie Cohen) of how he forges a new identity for himself, survives various Syrian regimes, passes information along and learns to become the respected businessman Halim - especially the way in which his intelligence-gathering is decisive in the Six Day War of 1967 - is complex and compelling - worthy of comparison to the novels of John Le Carre or - a more apt comparison - to those of Graham Greene.

But before we come to this final novel of the Quartet, and to a depiction of events that have taken place in the Middle East within living memory, Whittemore takes us back, through time, to the very beginnings of recorded history, and he does so, especially in this first novel, Sinai Tapestry, in ways that will remind readers more of Borges and Marquez than of Le Carre or Greene; and in ways that remain uniquely Whittemore.

In Sinai Tapestry, characters move from place to place; and through time itself - and history - in improbable and implausible ways; they are conceived, and rendered for us, as larger than life, often literally so. Consider two of Whittemore's creations, Plantagent Strongbow and Haj Harun.

Plantagenet Strongbow, whom we meet. on page one, is twenty-ninth Duke of Dorset, a great swordsman, botanist, and explorer; he disappears in the Sinai in 1840, and reappears forty years later as an Arab holy man who has written a thirty-three volume study of Levantine sex, and who becomes the secret owner of the Ottoman Empire; and he is seven-feet seven-inches tall. And Haj Harun, a former antiquities dealer and stone carver of winged lions during the Assyrian occupation of the Holy Land, a proprietor of an all-night grocery store under the Greeks, a waiter under the Romans, a distributor of hashish and goats under the Turks, is a man who has been able to do all these things and to live in all these places because he is at least three thousand years old.

"When I want to daydream," he says to Strongbow, "I gaze at one of my antiquities and pretty soon I'm slipping back in time and seeing Romans and Babylonians in the streets of Jerusalem."

What is remarkable about Sinai Tapestry is that its flights of invention, as in these instances, are set forth in ways that are as playful and ordinary as they are mysterious and magical. It is as if the multitude of stories - many reflecting actual events of history, others seeming to be tall tales - are, effectively, trying to persuade us of what, in the Middle East, often seems true: that the entire history of the region, and of those who have peopled it - Christians, Jews, and Muslims - can be present in any one moment, and in any one place, and - as in Haj Harun's shop - in any one object. What Whittemore does to create this sense of timelessness is to keep his eye constantly on the relation between the large movements of history and their most ordinary, palpable human sources. He never loses sight, that is, of the ways the most sublime or savage moments, in war and in peace, arise from and impinge upon individual human beings: their sufferings, hopes, desires, joys, confusions, and losses.

Thus, the following descriptions, a few pages apart, of moments that occur shortly before, and that look forward to, World War Two:

"Haj Harun's crumpled figure was all but lifeless. He lay on the stony ground gasping painfully for breath, his face smeared with blood. Blood and rust filled his eyes. The circle of blood below his waist was spreading. The broken leg was bent awkwardly to one side."

"An ugly world and she was frightened. People left you, why? what had you done? Everyone always went away and there was no one to trust, so she dreamed. At home alone she took off her clothes and danced in front of a mirror, dreaming, because dreams alone were safe and beautiful."

And this, of the massacre in Smyrna, in the year 1922:

"Turks worked the peripheries robbing and killing and taking girls. Horses' halters catching fire, the beasts charging through the crowds trampling bodies. The crowds so dense in places the dead remained standing, held up by tile living."

If, at first, coming upon such passages, we find ourselves making comparisons, as critics have done, to the fiction of Barth, Borges, Marquez, Nabokov, or Pynchon, the more accurate comparison would seem to be to that very book that is central to Sinai Tapestry. For in its use of folk tales, its erratic mixture of fact and legend, its truncating of time, its insistence on the validity of miracles, its chronicling of conquests and wars, its listings of lineages, its depictions of barbarism and heroism, and - above all - its tracing, through individual lives and family sagas, of the small and large moments and movements of history, Sinai Tapestry is the most Biblical of books.

In its setting, in its style and its subject, in its swift movements through time, and in its vision of all that is depraved and redemptive about humankind, Sinai Tapestry thus recalls the very book whose reality it calls into question. Early in the novel, Strongbow, who has made his way, by foot, from Constantinople to the Holy Land, asks others the question he had been asking himself. "Have you heard of a mysterious lost book in which all things are written? A book that is circular and unchronicled and calmly contradictory, suggesting infinity?"

And later in the book, Strongbow's son Stern, thinking of his father and his grandfather - Englishman, Arab, Jew - has this epiphany, not unlike those of the patriarchs of the Old Testament:

"The vision burst upon him. A homeland for all the peoples of his heritage. One nation embracing Arabs and Christians and Jews. A new world and the Fertile Crescent of antiquity reborn in the new century one great nation stretching majestically from the Nile through Arabia and Palestine and Syria to the foothills of Anatolia, watered by the Jordan and the Tigris and the Euphrates as well, by Galilee, a vast nation honoring all of its three and twelve and forty thousand prophets, a splendid nation where the legendary cities would be raised to flourish once more, Memphis of Menes and Ecbatana of Media and Sidon and Alep of the Hittites, Kish and Lagash of Sumer and Zoar of the Edomites, Akkad of Sargon and Tyre of the purple dye and Acre of the Crusaders, Petra of the Nabataeans and Ctesiphon of the Sassanids and Basra of the Abbasids, sublime Jerusalem and the equally sublime Baghdad of the Thousand and One Nights."

In the early winter of the year 2000, at the age of 61, I visited Israel for the first time in my life. On my last evening there, in Jerusalem, a short while after the Sabbath had ended, my cousin Jerrold who had settled in Israel 37 years before (both of us are blessed with the Hebrew name of Yakov, in memory of our paternal grandfather), arrived at my hotel to bid me farewell. Embracing me, he asked that I not wait until another 61 years had passed before I visited Jerusalem again.

But I recall thinking, at the time, that were I living in the Jerusalem of Edward Whittemore, I could return as easily in 61 years as I could in 61 days. (Near the end of the novel, musing on his father's life, Stern thinks: "What he did is too unreal not to be true. No one could forge a life like his." And whenever and however I might return - in fact, or in fancy, or in memory - I would find that my sense of the city would be enhanced by having read the four books that comprise Whittemore's Jerusalem Quartet.

The Quartet is, in sum, larger than any of its individual parts - an imaginative construct that allows us to wander through time, place, and history with a knowledgeable and crafty guide, and thereby to allow memory and imagination to inspire us, the novels suggest, as they have inspired others before us, and have, thereby, brought into being everything that would seem to radiate from the very stones of this holiest of cities - this place where heaven and earth are said to meet - not least of which is the power of imagination and desire, when allied with memory, to shape history itself.

©Jay Neugeboren
New York City, 2002

Jay Neugeboren is the author of 13 books, including the prizewinning novels, The Stolen Jew and Before My Life Began, and two award-winning books of non-fiction, Imagining Robert and Transforming Madness. He is lives in New York City


©Anne Sydenham 2001-2016