Book Review

The Road to Fez, a novel 
(Counterpoint, 2001, $23.00)
Ruth Knafo Setton
Counterpoint, a small house in Washington, D.C., carries this new 
title in hardcover ($23.00). 

The book jacket includes a quote by anthologist Ilan Stavans: "A journey of exploration where West meets the Levant and the present reconfigures the past...delivered with crystalline passion." Writes Diane Johnson, "The Road to Fez is wonderful. It allows us a rare glimpse behind the veilósuch asn interesting, scary, intense world, filled with passion and compelling characters, the mix of
cultures, and of the real and the magicóall so utterly original while
familiar, the way the best tales are." 

Setton combines erotic and exotic motifs to draw the reader into her imagined magic land, a Morocco of blue doors, mosaic tiles, saints, witches and martyrs.


The Author as Martyr, or the Story of Suleika

by Jordan Elgrably

Ruth Knafo Setton is a writer blessed with flashes of brilliance. Elsewhere, in her short stories, poetry and essays, published in a range of literary journals and anthologies, she shows a mastery of both craft and voice. At times her prose has genuine heart, is strong and supple, with a passion that reminds me of Rainer Maria Rilke's "Spanish Dancer"---a poem that is swift, rhythmic, and stunning. Certainly there are places in the The Road to Fez, her first novel, where Setton's language and setting momentarily distract the attentive reader from the book's underlying malaise. Her instances of literary élan, however, are marred by the author's unremitting identification with one of her characters, a Moroccan Jewish heroine beheaded in 1837 by order of the Sultan who loved her.

Indeed, The Road to Fez is ultimately about Suleika Hatchuel, a 17-year-old martyr to Judaism, and about Brit Lek, the authorís 18-year-old alter ego. Brit identifies with Suleika in the 1960s, and seeks out her tomb on her first trip back to Morocco, having emigrated to the States with her family at the age of six. There is also a sultry subplot about Brit's forbidden love for her handsome uncle Gaby, who still lives in the old country while most Jews have left for Israel, France, the U.S. or Canada. Both the Suleika story and the illicit affair with uncle Gaby weave a narrative that feels overburdened by victimhood, paranoia and persecution. "A lifetime of fear clouds my eyes," Brit admits. And she is warned: "Don't go in the medina [the old city]. Jews go there and disappear." Brit's father has nothing but horrible memories of Morocco and tells her: "Don't look anyone in the eye. Don't draw attention to yourself."

Moroccan Jewish males don't come off much better than their Muslim counterparts. Confesses Gaby, "most men beat their wives."

This is a resolutely blue-collar view on Moroccan life; it is a reality that conforms with Paul Bowles' The Sheltering Sky and other tales of dark, dangerous Morocco. That there might be anything other than this reality cannot be glimpsed here. Disappointingly, this story is about a Moroccan Jewish woman raised in America whose window on Jewish life in Morocco causes her to quote an Ashkenazi journalist, Isidore Loeb, writing of Morocco in 1880, about "the Jews of Morocco, in the midst of the pain and suffering that have followed them ceaselessly"; and another orientalist who describes Suleika in 1836 as a "Jewess of unearthly beauty" in a land where "Arab and Jew [are] at each other's throats while she languished in a dungeon." At times, as the protagonist's (author's?) fear takes over, the prose become purple. Setton even quotes letter excerpts and other commentary from foreign travelers, such as Lady Theodora Bird and the aforementioned Loeb, which provide an unwavering identification with the outsider's orientalizing perspective in which Jews are oppressed, Arabs are violent Jew-haters:

"There was no air," [Setton quoting Bird]. "I forgot why I was in this cursed square, why I had ever come to this kingdom of savagery and blood-lust, why I had insisted on seeing what hid behind the veil of civilization..."

I "I wanted in-your-face exotic: where you take risks: bite into the forbidden fruit, turn the key of the locked room, lift the veil, peer behind the curtain, become a trespasser of a country, body and soul---where the exotic and the erotic become facets of each other."
Ruth Knafo Setton (photo: Sally Ullman)

That a 20th-century Moroccan Jewish writer might be fascinated by a 19th-century heroine---a young woman who demonstrated fierce independence and personality, in addition to legendary beauty---is a perfectly good conceit. Certainly it makes for interesting anthropological research. And it is true that Jews have been oppressed in Arab/Muslim lands, as well as in Europe (though far less severely). What is irksome is that while Suleika was undeniably a victim of Islam, Brit Lek does not have to be one, nor does she have to believe that danger lurks everywhere in Morocco---that Arabs are furtive, slithery creatures.

Steadfast in her love of Judaism, Suleika refused to convert to satisfy the Sultan; apparently she had never heard of Maimonides, who advised that it is preferable for a Jew to convert rather than to be killed. Likewise, Brit seems to believe that no accommodation with the Arabs is possible; co-existence is a chimera. Paradoxically, so obsessed is Brit with Suleika, with the ghost of the Inquisition, with a Judaism that refuses to be snuffed out, that she is gripped by the paradox of her own identity: she does not want to be a Jew in America, nor an Arab, a Moroccan. Her family, living in a small town in Pennsylvania, tries to pass for French Christians from Paris. The pain of this novel is the sense that as a Jew, as a woman, as a Moroccan, as a naturalized American, Brit Lek, perhaps like her creator, cannot find her place.

If for no other reason, The Road to Fez must be read to understand the conundrum of a particular sort of contemporary Sephardic Jew: someone who is caught between a nostalgia for her/his Arab past and a Zionist rhetoric which identifies everything that is Arab/Muslim as the enemy culture.

This is not the Morocco I know today---not the one that tantalizes me. Yet I must be candid: I have been friendly with the author, and I read this novel in manuscript form in 1996; Sephardic writers are not so numerous in this country that we would not know of each others' work. At the time I read The Road to Fez, then titled Suleika, I too shared Ruth Knafo Setton's fascination with the history of Suleika Hatchuel, with the quaint tradition of Moroccan Jewish sainthood and pilgrimages to the tombs of tzaddikim---made by both Jews and Muslims; I too could see little more than a history of Jewish suffering in Morocco. I was born in the United States, and like many Sephardim in this country, I was educated to be Ashkenazi; my grandfather left Morocco in 1919 to settle in France and my father came to America in 1957 after having spent the war in Casablanca. One half of my family are Jews who know nothing about the Levantine world the other half comes from.

The Morocco I knew in 1996 was one of oral history, family interviews, the reading of Moroccan authors including Tahar Ben Jelloun and others; and a single 10-day visit. The Morocco I know today, on the other hand, is the one spoken of by Moroccans I meet everywhere, both Arabs and Jews. My perspective has changed in the last five years, as I have learned more about the interwined Levantine cultures and history; I no longer see through the window of Jewish oppression; I refuse to wear the mantle of victimology which still grips Israel's psyche and its official behavior toward the Arabs, indeed toward the world. I am able to view Jewish history as one of a cultural minority, and like all minorities, Jews have been dealt the cards as a consequence of majority rule. All the more reason for us to identify with the stories of other minorities; and to focus our hopes and dreams on rewriting the future so that we are comfortable with majority cultures, as we are in the contemporary United States.

Although Setton lengthily details a Pesach celebration in her novel, she does not tell us about Mimouna, the celebration that comes at the very end of Passover in which Arab friends and neighbors arrive with fruits, honey, beer and bread. Mimouna has become a national holiday in Israel, and  versions of it are commemorated by Jews of other Muslim lands, including Iran, Tunisia and Libya. Mimouna is a holiday in which all doors are open, as Jews and Muslims fête the rite of spring and fertility, together.

Nowhere in The Road to Fez do we get any sense that there are Moroccan Jews still living in Morocco who love it there. In fact, there are more Jews living in Morocco today than in any other Muslim country, with the exception of Iran; and the Moroccan Jewish population is the only one in the Muslim world which is on the rise.

In spite of Israel's continuing war with the Palestinians, Morocco still welcomes back its native Jews; it even extends citizenship to the children and grandchildren of Moroccan Jews who were not born there.

Finally, with all its condemnation of Muslim Morocco and the purportedly sad history of Jewish life there, Ruth Knafo Setton's story is one that conforms to the expectations of American Jewish orientalists, such as Bernard Lewis and Vivian Mann, of New York's Jewish Museum. That is why, incidentally, Setton is a welcome speaker at the museum, whereas someone like Ammiel Alcalay, who articulates a more cohesive Middle Eastern history, is not.

In truth, Setton loves Morocco, but she loves a Morocco of fantasy; a land of blue doors, white walls and mosaic tiles; of women in l'tams (veils), of djnoun (evil spirits) and the omnipresent eye evil; a land of Jewish saints and martyrs, flying rabbis, and miracles.

There is in The Road to Fez a loyalty to Israel, with no recognition of the fact that Israel's creation entailed the destruction of most Mizrahi life---not only in Morocco but throughout most of the Middle East. The one truth that speaks to me in The Road to Fez is the acknowledgment by the character named Haim that we Sephardim (or Mizrahim if you prefer that nomenclature) must not kid ourselves: "Israel will suffer you too. The Jews from Germany and Eastern Europe see us as Arabs, not Jews. They don't want us anymore than the French do."

Brit's father, a broken man in a small American town, reminded me of my French/Moroccan father and his American experience, when he, Mr. Lek, spoke of his treatment at the hands of an American rabbi: "'You're better off going back to Africa,'" he quotes the man as saying. "'There's no place for you here.' Not one of them [Ashkenazim] offered to help us find a job or a place to live. Not one.'" Neither did my father find much sustenance in the American Jewish community of the 1950s and 1960s, as Sephardic Jews, especially those from Muslim countries, remained dark strangers.

In this Sephardic novel, there is not one empathetic Muslim character, nor even the faintest glimmer of another history, another truth, in which we would learn that Morocco was home to Jews for more than a millennium. This history was more about co-existence and cultural symbiosis, than oppression. In that Morocco, Jews often enjoyed both peace and prosperity; in that Morocco, the monarch protected the country's Jews from the clutches of the Holocaust. None of this can be found in Setton's narrative. Yes, over the past five hundred years, since the Expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492, Jews in Morocco have experienced infrequent persecution, notably the Fez Massacre of 1912, and the riotious outbreaks that followed Israel's success in the Six Day War (1967). Otherwise, it has not been one long cry of misery.

In my subjective view, Setton doesn't seem to be at one with those Middle Eastern Jews who seek peace with the Muslim majority today; she seems unwilling to embrace the region in all its complexities, to imaginatively seek co-existence and a renaissance of cooperation with the dominant Arab population. There are no happy memories among Arabs here, only unhappy incidents. Moreover, nowhere in The Road to Fez do we learn of any Moroccan writers---Jewish or Muslim; instead the authors Brit Lek loves are Proust, D.H. Lawrence, Stendhal and Camus, all Europeans. The much-beloved Camus, I must remind myself, is someone in whose work Arabs are often depicted as incomprehensible, as in The Stranger, in which the Arab whom Meursault shoots to death on the beach is a complete rune.

To be fair, there are Moroccan Jews (and other Mizrahim) who are utterly gripped by fear and loathing, who will argue that "you can't trust an Arab even forty years in his grave." Yet there are many more who see in their Arab/Muslim neighbors a warm, compassionate people, people willing to give you the shirt off their back in friendship. There are Middle Eastern Jews, myself included, who experience Morocco as a land of relative peace and enchantment, which is not to minimize the problems of corruption, press censorship, and political chicanery---all of which, by the way, are familiar to us here in the United States.

A Jew in North America reading this novel will most likely not yearn to visit Morocco. Still, Setton is a writer's writer, and her writing conjurs the country's colors, sounds and smells. She is fascinated by its fragrant flowers and spices, its magic and mystery, and a Jewish past that is full of intrigue. But with Jews hidden away in mellahs, dressed only in black, Setton, alas, remains in the orientalist camp, creating a Morocco that no one today will recognize.

Jordan Elgrably is a writer and activist for Israeli/Palestinian coexistence based in Los Angeles. He edits Nasawi News.


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