Reading Group Guide
Reading Group Guide
A Note from the Author
The idea of writing a book set in Jerusalem came to me when I first saw the city in 1985 after doing a travel article set in Egypt. I returned, and in 1992 visited Gaza and the West Bank and witnessed some of the disorders attendant on the intifada, the struggle that had been in progress for five years against the Israeli military administration. As a result of that trip, I set the action of the book in the spring and summer of 1992, with most events taking place in Jerusalem, as well as Tel Aviv, the Gaza Strip and Galilee.
In Damascus Gate I've tried to use a highly charged setting as a background for a story that juxtaposes personal and national dilemmas and conflicts. Jerusalem, with its mystery, timelessness and sacred warren of shrines, relics and commemorative sites, is impinged on by the modern world. Ancient conflicts are carried on with late-twentieth-century weapons and techniques. Pilgrims of all sorts continue to descend on the city as the millennium approaches, obsessed with hopes and illusions that for some are deeply intimate and others hope to project on a vast scale. Frequently the pilgrims become caught up in the ongoing quarrels of the city, sometimes as opportunists, enthusiasts or mere pawns.
Jerusalem is a city in which past, present and future seem to coexist in a way that has no parallel elsewhere. Unlike those of the ancient Greek cities or Rome, its crumbling stones, like Herod's ruined temple built on the site of Solomon's, do not represent a time that has vanished from relevance, but ongoing history, which is the stuff of present struggle and of future prophecy.
At the same time, the city and its environs are a low-grade war zone, where different factions and the security agencies of several countries maneuver for control and advantage. It seemed to me that Jerusalem was an ideal setting for the sort of book I wanted to make Damascus Gate and the only one in which I could present characters who represented my reflections.
-- Robert Stone
- Discuss whether and how this book changed your feelings about the situation in the Middle East. Do you believe you understand the many sides of the issues better after reading Damascus Gate? How did your own knowledge of this complex place affect your perception of the book? Do you wish you had known more about the religious groups depicted in this book before reading it?
- How do you feel about Lucas's alternately concealing and revealing his Jewish heritage, depending on the situation he finds himself in? Is he being duplicitous or savvy? Is this strategy any different from Sonia's decision to choose her clothing based on which neighborhood she will be in? How?
- Is De Kuff a visionary prophet or merely delusional? Is there a fine line between the two? If his preaching helps people, does it matter if he is crazy?
- At what point is Lucas's role as a journalist eclipsed by his personal quest? What is Lucas questing for? Has he, in fact, been seeking spiritual fulfillment all along? If so, does he consciously decide that he is ready to begin this search? What, in the end, does he discover and does he find it satisfying? How does his background affect his approach to writing about Jerusalem Syndrome -- and how does writing about Jerusalem Syndrome affect his quest?
- Damascus Gate has been called "a millennial thriller" (Booklist), and a "millennial novel of the millennial place" (Annie Dillard). But aren't the issues explored in this novel -- who we are, where we are going, what ultimately matters -- questions that have always existed for us in one form or another? What particularly gives this book such strongly millennial overtones?
- Discuss the nature of the thriller as a genre and how it applies to Damascus Gate. How does this book adhere to the conventions of the genre? How does its style and substance differ from more traditional thrillers, like those by Grisham or Turow?
- Compare the character, motivations, and goals of Raziel and De Kuff. Who is the stronger person and in what way? What does each have to offer the other? Who is really being manipulated and who is really pulling the strings?
- What is the significance of the title Damascus Gate? What is the Damascus Gate and how does it figure in the novel? Given the biblical story of what happens to St. Paul on the road to Damascus, what metaphorical suggestion might the title have? How does the literal representation of the Gate tie in with its spiritual implications?
- Ericksen claims that "[Satan's] power has never been greater than it is today" (page 90). What does he mean by this statement? How might it be influenced by the greater availability of information and technology in our world? Is it too easy for us to think we have all the answers? Is it too easy for God to be lost in such a world?
- Compare Sonia and Linda. How are they different from each other, but how are they also similar? Do they have more in common with each other than they realize? Can they both be described as followers? If so, what is different about the way each one "follows" her leader? Who is more dangerous to herself and/or to others?
- The House of Galilean is ultimately exposed as a scam. Does this revelation make the sincere devotion of its followers any less legitimate? How much difference is there between the House of Galilean and other mainstream organizations that promote a religious doctrine while also making money? Where do we draw the line?
- Nuala gets Sonia entangled in transporting both drugs and weapons, even though Sonia's Sufism prohibits any involvement with illegal substances or violence. Do Nuala's passionate beliefs excuse her for putting her friends in danger and for disregarding Sonia's strongest convictions? To what extent is Sonia responsible for her actions? Should one be willing to do anything -- even break the law -- in the name of religion or of personal belief? How might those situations differ? Do strong religious beliefs ever justify violence or deception?
- What is it about Nuala that Lucas finds so compelling? What drives her to put her life on the line? In the end, is she a martyr who dies for her cause? Or does she simply get what is coming to her? What does Nuala ultimately accomplish?
- Most of the main characters in Damascus Gate are foreign to Israel. What is the significance of being a "foreigner" in Jerusalem? Do you think the author is suggesting that most people in Israel are foreigners of one kind or another? Discuss how the story might be different if it were told from a native's point of view, and how that point of view would be affected by the quarter in which the native lived.
- How does Berger's death affect Sonia's beliefs? Her behavior? Her need for someone or something to follow? Who is Berger's replacement in Sonia's life? Lucas? De Kuff? No one? Has she become permanently unmoored? What do you think will happen to her after the novel's conclusion?
- Despite their differences and conflicting belief systems, some of the characters in this book become close friends and confidants. How is this possible? Are these true friendships or fleeting alliances of convenience? How do their personal differences affect their relationships? How do they influence on one another's beliefs? Do any of them truly change their beliefs during the course of the novel? How and why does this happen?
- Discuss the morality of characters like Zimmer and Fotheringill. Are they villains willing to do anything or side with anyone simply for financial gain? Or does their admitting their true motivations make them honest, if also offensive? What are their roles in the plot to bomb the Temple Mount? What do these roles show us about their characters? Did you think better or worse of them after discovering their true intent?
- Discuss the fallout of the bomb plot. How did you react to the ending? Were you surprised? How did it affect your perception of the characters? Discuss how knowing the outcome would have affected your reading of the novel.
- Whether or not Lucas has discovered what he was looking for, he has come to the end of a journey. Where do you think he will go from here? How do you think his experiences in Jerusalem will affect him in the future? What might he be seeking now, that he was not seeking before?