Road to Fez

Road to Fez

by Ruth Knafo Setton

Hardcover(New Edition)

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The Road to Fez tells the story of Brit Lek, a young American woman born to Sephardic-Jewish parents. Seeking solace and a sense of belonging after her mother's death, 18-year-old Brit returns to Morocco, her birthplace and home for the first six years of her life. Brit falls in love with her Uncle Gaby, her mother's much younger brother.

Gaby and the rest of the family try to steer Brit's emotional energy away from him, and they urge her to fulfill her mother's wish that she make a pilgrimage to Fez to the grave of her namesake Suleika, a 19th century Moroccan martyr, who was executed because she would not renounce her faith. Gaby, who moves easily between the Jewish Mellah and the Arab Medina, offers a window for Brit to see beyond the confines of their family's life in Morocco. Together, Gaby and Brit take the road to Fez and along the way surrender to their forbidden love. The Road to Fez is a magical journey of self-discovery.

About the Author:
Ruth Knafo Setton is the recipient of several writing fellowships, including the NEA and PEN. She was born in Morocco, teaches and Lehigh University, and lives in northeastern Pennsylvania.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781582430829
Publisher: Counterpoint Press
Publication date: 03/06/2001
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 240
Product dimensions: 5.76(w) x 8.82(h) x 0.83(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

    the blue door

I'm about six in the last photo taken of me before my parents and I leave Morocco for the United States. Curly brown hair pulled back in a ponytail. Tiny white dress, sturdy bare legs. Dark eyes that look questioningly at the photographer, or at the street ahead of me. A small wanderer through life, I clutch a black purse, and pause, only for an instant, on my journey. I am resolute, firmly rooted, feet in black patent leather shoes gripping the tiled outdoor corridor. My lips are dark, as if I've just eaten a plum, and traces of the juice have stained my lips. Unsmiling, confident that in a moment I will continue on my path to the future, I can afford to let the photographer freeze me. What he doesn't know, what I don't yet know, is that in another moment, my patent leather shoes will be lifted from the tiles, will dangle in the air, as I hover between two worlds—the New and the Old, belonging to neither, clinging to both.

Brit Lek's journal, March 27, 1969

"Do you have your blood yet?" Zahra asks me.

    "I just got it. This morning." I'm out of breath, beating heavy embroidered sheets and tapestries with what looks like a tennis racket. Smashing sense into them, shaking up clouds of tiny blue motes.

    "Finally!" She gives a red and yellow carpet an extra hard smack, and her rare smile breaks out-pointed black teeth framed by two gold ones. "Did you get something he wears for the spell?"

    Ihear a sound, whip my head around. Sheets and tapestries billow and blow around us. All the windows open onto the courtyard—except Gaby's. He boarded his up from the inside. And his door is locked. Zahra told me, "When he moved back here after his wife died, he sealed the window and door like a coffin."

    One of his clay jars stands guard-stained the same sunset-turquoise as the door (Zahra: to fight the evil eye). Whenever I go by, I twist the claw-shaped iron latch, yank it down, and pull it up, but the secret catch holds it fast. Yesterday, while Zahra kept an eye on the corridor, I tried to jimmy the lock with a bobby pin and nail file. It didn't budge. What does he hide in there?

    Zahra shakes the sheet in my face. I breathe in the wet sheep wool and lemon and sky, and sneeze. "I stole his—his—" I don't know how to say shaving brush in Arabic so I make stroking motions over my face.

    "Face isn't good enough." She points to her breasts and belly in the cloud-gray djellabah. "It must touch his body. Like underwear."

    How old is she? Age indeterminate, bird-scrawny body, thick crown of hair and eyebrows. She seems girlish—the way she moves, scrubs, cooks, and sings to herself. But when she puts on the l'tam—the white scarf covering nose, mouth, and chin—to leave the house, her eyes are ageless: unblinking black marble.

    "We have to get the key to his room," I tell her.

    Her eyes open wide. I know what she's thinking. We'll never get it from my grandmother, Mama Ledicia, who carries the house keys on a large brass ring around her neck. She barely reaches my shoulders but is still the scariest woman I know: an ancient sibyl, with eyes even blacker than Zahra's. Centuries of demons dance behind Mama Ledicia's eyes. She never calls me by name, only "Sheba's girl" or "na'bibesk," which seems to translate as "let me carry all your pain." When she pulls my face down to hers with both hands, I feel as if I'm staring at the High Priestess or the Judge. "She sees and knows everything," Zahra told me last week. "We have to work around her."

    We leave the courtyard with its shimmering black and white mosaic-tiles, and sheets and tapestries whispering their songs to the sky. Zahra says, "Get money. Meet me in the kitchen. Now that you have your blood, we can shop for the ingredients."

    I run to my room—my mother's childhood room—where I dig out some coins and large pastel bills, glancing up every second to make sure I'm not being watched. I lean on the carved window and look around the courtyard. Yellow mimosa blossoms sway gently in the breeze. The intricately designed tiles glisten under pale sun. I'm in another country, one with no signs or maps, but one I know intimately, with every pore. I listen for the hum: electric, throbbing, insistent, prickling my flesh, insinuating its way through my veins. But it only comes at night. There is so much I wish I could ask my mother, so much I don't understand. I want to ask her if she ever heard the hum. I want to ask her more about Suleika, what exactly she wants me to do. Light a candle at her grave in Fez? Write her story? And Gaby. What would Mom feel if she knew what's happening to me? Maybe she is here, watching me fall in love with her younger brother.

    I check on the bits and pieces of Gaby I've collected over the past month, since I've been in Morocco. Hidden on the shelf behind Camus' Essais Lyriques and Proust's Un Amour de Swann (I trust that they were men of secrets themselves, who won't give me away). A pitiful showing, but as Zahra tells me: Gaby knows spells, he leaves no clues. Two empty Gitane boxes, still smelling strongly of tobacco, the black gypsy dancing against blue desert sky. Three small wood matchboxes, decorated with a painted camel, a vintage car, a palm tree. The ivory-handled shaving brush, its bristles a pale, gleaming gold, like the Pennsylvania fields of corn I used to ride my bike past every fall. At night I stroke the soft bristles over my face and throat, pretend they are his hands.

    In the kitchen Zahra waits for me impatiently. "Come on. We have to hurry." She stashes the money into a tiny black velvet pouch worn around her throat, then kneels behind the kitchen staircase and opens a small cupboard. She brings out her spare djellabah, a soft gray—identical to the one she's wearing—and a white l'tam. She stands and rolls the scarf and djellabah into a ball that she crushes beneath her arm.

    We move quietly through the house and back outside, where we run to the mellah gate, locked every night until recently. The arched stone gate of the Jewish quarter that my Uncle Haim swears kept Jews safe from a mad Sultan or a rampaging mob, but that Gaby swears-with equal vehemence—made us targets, closed in a world with no way out.

    In the shadows behind the arch, I pull the djellabah down over my head and breathe Zahra's cumin and burnt leaf scent. It's too short and narrow, snug across my hips. Zahra covers my nose and mouth with the l'tam and ties the ends behind my head. She folds the hood of the djellabah down low over my forehead so that all you can see of my face are my eyes. I push the flaps of the hood back behind my ears so it will stay in place and not flop forward.

    We leave the mellah and merge with the stream of people walking up and down the rue Moulay-Youssef. Clouds of dust blow in my eyes. Squinting, I pass women in creamy haiks, one dark eye exposed, high heels peeking out from under. I try to walk quickly the way they do, but the veil and long gown get in my way. Carefully, I place one foot in front of the other, as if I've never walked down this street before. As if my dad didn't ride his bike up this hill (We were so poor my brother and I shared one bike, each using one pedal), as if Mom and her sisters didn't giggle here, sharing longings and gossip, right here, on the cobblestones. I am breathing so hard that my nostrils press the l'tam in and out.

    A hand grabs my shoulder. I jerk around and see a man in a business suit staring at me with sharp eyes, as if he can see through my disguise. He speaks rapid Arabic in a very deep voice. I can't understand a word he says. "A Sidi, ana m'juja," I mumble and run past him, hoping he won't chase me to ask where my husband is.

    Instead of continuing down the rue Moulay-Youssef to the Bab Sha'aba, the gate that opens onto the sophisticated Place de France—with its cafes and shops and Modes de Paris, the boutique managed by Sylvie, Gaby's official girlfriend—we turn right, into the narrow entrance to the medina. I take a deep breath. A lifetime of fear clouds my eyes. The very first words Mama Ledicia said to me when I arrived in El Kajda: "Don't go in the medina. Jews go there and disappear. Janine who went to meet the Arab boy she liked. Never seen again. And Laurette. Same thing. Disappeared. And Suleika. She entered the Arab world, and we all know what happened to her." She slit her throat with her stubby finger.

    And Dad left me at the airport with a string of warnings, wound as tightly around me as the wool scarf knotted around his throat: "Be invisible. Remember my brother. Knifed in the back when he left a Jewish meeting. And my cousin, Pinoche. Your mother's Uncle Sollie. Don't look anyone in the eye. Don't draw attention to yourself. Don't talk too much or too loudly. Don't go alone to the medina or the port. Don't go anywhere at night, unless you're with Haim or Gaby. Remember, you have two things working against you: you're a Jew and a woman."

    Zahra tugs me by the arm. I take a deep breath behind the veil and follow her into the medina. We enter the spice merchant's small booth. Za'atar: pungent green powder. Cumin: harsh, biting through my nostrils. While she shops, I dig my hands into burlap bags of spices: cinnamon, cloves, cumin, saffron—running the grains up and down my arms. My wrists tingle. I wish the veil covered them as well.

    We leave the spice merchant and go down a narrow cobblestone alley. Blinded by the veil and the pyramid of tumbling packages in my arms, I bump into the earth-colored water carrier, copper cups and goatskin twined on leather cords around his neck and waist. Vendors insist—in rhyming chants—that we bite into figs purple and green, or smell the vast stalks of fragrant mint leaves, luisa, sheba.

    We stop at another merchant who sells cosmetics. Zahra buys green henna, adding the twine-wrapped parcel to the others I am holding. As I follow her down the street—past tiny cafes and booths, veiled women carrying enormous baskets, hooded merchants staring at us—I feel numb, as if I'm doing what was written for me centuries ago. Walking through the seething medina at this exact instant. Disguised as an Arab. Preparing a spell. Even loving Gaby. I have never felt less free.

* * *

In an attempt to figure out how to get the key to his room from Mama Ledicia, I trail after the women of the family, the way I used to trail after Mom to tell her about my day at school and my dreams and fears. Read, she told me, keep learning about the outside world. Don't worry about housework, you can pick that up later. I feel like a trespasser in their world, always a beat too slow and clumsy. Zahra covers for me, helps me with all the heavy tasks, while we eye the brass key ring and exchange desperate looks.

    Perla winds a white turban around my head, like hers, and grins at me. "Ah Brit, I'm so glad you're here." My favorite aunt, my cousin Mani's mother, she glows with restless vitality. I love everything about her: her crazy sense of humor, the slight mustache above her dimpled smile, the tufts of henna-orange rooster hair sticking up from her head, the way she rubs her nose with the back of her wrist and wiggles her big rear end in tight black pants. Her husband, Simon, died last year in a car accident. Although Perla doesn't possess Gaby's and my mother's dark-gold desert beauty, Mani tells me that every unmarried man over thirty in El Kajda is after her. She hugs me close. I smell her anise-scented breath as she whispers, "Be strong, chérie. Sheba's watching you. I feel her near."

    Helping Zahra, my grandmother, and aunts with the Pesach cleaning, I discover that every room has secrets. Hidden truths surface as we pull open mattresses and take out the stuffing of sheep wool, washing it by hand until it is soft as silk. The small mirror face-down inside my Aunt Perla's mattress. A contraceptive, whispers Zahra. A silver knife under pregnant Mamouche's mattress. Zahra: to pray for a boy child. The tiny black velvet sacks filled with herbs that Mamouche's kids attach to their underclothes. To guard against the evil eye, explains Zahra. Djnoun hover everywhere, grasp secrets and use them against us.

    "You know how to deal with djnoun, don't you?" Gaby asked me that day, that endless, unforgettable day four years ago—March 18, 1965—when he came from his ship to visit us in Horsens. He smelled of sea and salt, a pirate blown to America on a spice wind. We stood on the corner of Candlestick and Wise, between my parents' apartment building and Mrs. Kopf's, staring at her window. The curtain moved slightly. "See?" I cried. "She's always spying on me!"

    He watched quietly, then said, "Get me some salt."

    I ran inside, past my parents in the living room, grabbed the blue and white salt container with the girl under an umbrella, raced back out, and handed it to him.

    "What's this djinn's name? Kop?"


    He nodded and poured the salt in a circle on the cracked sidewalk in front of her apartment. He chanted in Arabic. I caught the name "Kopf." The curtain was completely still. She was watching. I felt her evil gaze burn through the glass and cloth. He scattered more salt, muttered a few words he made me repeat. He shook the salt over his left shoulder. Then he set the container in the center of the salt circle. Rubbed his hands together. "There, my cat. She won't bother you again."

    Turbaned and wrapped in a white apron, I dust the salon arabe in my grandparents' house, a stranglehold of memory—from the wall of old photos to Gaby's ceramic vessels: at least four feet high, red-stained sentinels from an ancient desert palace, guarding each corner. But the heart of the room is the long brass key that hangs in the center of a white wall. When I first saw the key, with a wall to itself, as if it held the answer to every mystery, I thought it was Gaby's key—miraculously out in the open, like Poe's purloined letter, where no one would think to look. But one night after dinner, when we all sauntered into this room for mint tea and sweets, Papa Naphtali told us a story about our old house in Toledo, with its orange trees and blue-tiled walls, and he pointed to the key and said, "One day we'll return home." Later, Perla explained that he was talking about our family's house in Spain, when our ancestors fled the Inquisition by sailing across the Strait of Gibraltar to Morocco. But he had described the scent of orange blossoms and the courtyard where we drank wine and watched the moon so vividly and fondly that it seemed as if we had just left Spain yesterday.

    I stare at the brass key now, gleaming yet forlorn on its wall, and think of Gaby's key, and the key to the mellah gate: somehow all related, as if they are all the same key, but I can't find the link to unlock the door.

    Dusting my way through time, I see a photo of my mother at my age, pregnant with me, laughing with arms outstretched. A photo of Tonton Elie and Gaby as boys, which Perla calls "The Sacred and the Profane": Elie, pale and solemn, next to taller Gaby, who squints into the sun, holding a cat in his arms. I even find myself nearly unrecognizable, sitting on my mother's lap, in a wide-sleeved gold caftan, my curls slicked down, my expression as disagreeable as ever. Next to me, with a hopeful, open smile, sits Mani on Perla's lap—before the fever hit, dark curls as loose and glowing as Gaby's, tumbling around his face.

    The old man, Rabbi Abraham ben Avram, our saint-ancestor, glares at me. Papa Naphtali told me about his hiloula: the night of miracles held at his shrine on the outskirts of El Kajda, seventeen days after Pesach. It is like a wedding between God and human beings, with the saint as the matchmaker. His spirit returns, and he listens to our prayers and carries them back to God. Papy told me that Rabbi Abraham was known for performing many miracles. A mystic who talked to animals and turned himself invisible, he flew like a bird when he had to prevent a disaster. Once he even stopped time, just to save a little boy. He looked at you and knew in a moment if you told the truth or not. He touched you, and you were cured of whatever ailed you. At dawn he talked to God. At night he sang in his courtyard, and everyone came to listen. They gathered outside, under the fig tree, and he sang to them of God and miracles and hope. You listened and you cried. When the music stopped, you still heard his oud, his voice vibrating through the sky.

    Rabbi Abraham's ferocious black eyes follow me through the room, penetrate me, and find me wanting. Perla told me that when they were kids, Gaby covered the saint's eyes with a postcard of the Wicked Witch of the West, and it was a week before Mamouche tattled to Papy, and he got punished.

    To hide from Rabbi Abraham's eyes, I crouch and peer through my favorite of Gaby's vessels. It burns with a hidden light, like a moon in the corner of the room. On my knees, I discover a mirror glued to the inside wall that sends rays shooting back through openings in the clay. I feel as if I'm peering through the keyhole into Gaby's soul.

That night Mani and I go to the Majestic, where we hook up with Jacky, Luc, Isabelle, and Mani's few remaining friends who haven't left for Paris or Lucerne. We dance for hours on a hot, tiny red-lit floor, to Mani's idol, James Brown, and Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett. Afterward, under midnight sky, we walk along the beach to the Café Tamarik, where I order my favorite, kehouwa me'hersa, literally "broken coffee," coffee and milk swirled and foamed together. I love the sound of the words on my tongue, and even more, the image of coffee broken with milk. Here, all languages are broken, colliding: Arabic, Judeo-Arabic, Berber dialects, French, Spanish, Ladino, English. We speak in slivers and fragments, pieces of a puzzle that will never fit. As we say a word, its meaning shifts: no becomes yes, and yes is usually no. We whisper, especially people's names. Words from the heart are unspoken; half-finished sentences drift into a hush. The evil eye watches. We are never alone. Women's tongues are sharp, but only in their domain—the rooftop, courtyard and kitchen, where they dissect an entire town and then sew it back together. Men speak quietly, their eyes darting and watchful. Greenblack leaves tremble with the weight of eyes and voices. Mama Ledicia told me: A man may wear a white djellabah and be filthy inside. He may carry a knee behind his back and smile.

    Is this what the converso existence is like—when one suspects everyone of being a spy, when revealing one's true self can mean death? But I wonder: were Dad, Mom and I freer in America? I think we were even more afraid, hiding behind our disguise: three newly minted Christians from Paris, sprouted from nowhere. I thought we were rootless. I forgot we'd ever had a home.

    I picture Dad at the airport: smaller and frailer than I'd ever seen him—as if he were shrinking since Mom died. Dark glasses, as always, masked his eyes. Suddenly I couldn't listen to his warnings, or even look at him for another second. I turned and ran to the plane. Staring out the window, I imagined him already back in the silent apartment, the black and gold globe of the world finally still. Like Mom. Like my heart. Not even a flutter. I kept seeing her hands smoothing over the layers of wallpaper and hearing her voice singing me to sleep, "Le rêve bleu" the song she always sang when I woke up from bad dreams: Léger, mystérieux / Comme un oiseau / S'envolant dans les cieux. I tried to keep her there, safe in the blue dream, far from pain and memory. But she clicked her teeth against her tongue, the way she did when I exasperated her, and I ran and ran from the sound, even though my feet were locked under the seat before me and the seat belt held me firmly in place. The blue dream surrounded me. Her song, the sound of her teeth clicking against my tongue, the way her childhood dream of a blue man had entered my dreams when I was a girl—until I forgot whose dream it had been first. He was all blue, she told me, head to toe, and he came through my window when I was growing up, long before I met your father.

    When she'd told me about the blue man in Horsens, our hometown in Pennsylvania, I didn't understand how a man—even a blue man—could enter a window, but here, in El Kajda, when I stood at the window of her childhood room, I saw how easy it would be for a man, for anyone, to enter the tiny room, no larger than a closet. The window was nothing but a hole punched through the stucco wall. No screen or glass, no blinds, nothing to provide privacy, open to the inner courtyard and the sweet smell of the mimosa tree. I leaned on the window—more a circle than a square—and waited for the blue man to enter. He'd entered my dreams in Horsens—and there, the window had been protected by glass, blinds, curtain. Every night for a week after I arrived in E1 Kajda, I waited for him. And then, on the seventh night, I heard the hum for the first time. And on the eighth morning I woke up and saw Gaby leaning in my window, smiling at me.

The next day, after a frantic, whispered discussion with Zahra, I offer to do the laundry. Without a word, Mama Ledicia pulls me down the hall to Gaby's blue door. I tremble, being so near the forbidden place. She narrows her eyes and mutters in Arabic, "Do you think I was born yesterday? Sheba's girl, he's not for you. You will not put a spell on him!"

    I'm nearly crouching, staring at her. I don't even attempt to lie to those knowing eyes. "Because he's my uncle?"

    She stands on tiptoe and fixes me with eyes like black fire. "In old times girls married their uncles or cousins. And had sick babies. Now and then a primitive family still does it. But not this family. And definitely not this girl. Or this uncle."


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Diane Johnson

Wonderful. ... such an interesting, scary, intense world, filled with passion and compelling characters, the mixture of cultures, and of the real and magic.

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