Book Review: The Road to Fez, by Ruth Knafo Setton

Exile literature finds its raison d’etre in the tone of nostalgia. Unlike travel literature, which evokes wonder and estrangment in exotic places, exile literature finds itself haunted by familiar places in strange locales. The literature of exile is built on the expression of an absence, on the proliferation of regret and on a world irretrievably lost. The writers working in this genre make their explorations in the vessel of memory, often arriving at a lost and idealized paradise that celebrates the narrator herself and her noble origins. Yet while travel writers, especially in the nineteenth-century, confidently celebrate the superiority of their own cultures, exile writers find their idealizations ensnared in the shadows of uncertainty and doubt.

Ruth Knafo Setton’s The Road to Fez is a work of fiction, yet it is set in Morocco, a real place with a particular historical context and with a distinctive history as an object of Western scholarship and scrutiny. The historical discourse on the place of Jews in Arab countries, and specifically in Morocco, has always occupied two poles: the first and more traditional historical school has argued that Jews were never allowed full integration into Moroccan society and were in fact abused and victimized by the dominant Muslim rule. The second, more recent historical trend has sought to show that borders were less clear-cut and definitive between the two societies, that arrangements arose between Jews and Muslims making the life of the former less harsh than once believed, and relations between the two communities also smoother and more fluid.

Though it is a novel, The Road to Fez is animated, not to say haunted, by the tension between these two visions; but because it is a novel, The Road to Fez refracts this polarity into new forms of thought and feeling – completes them, as it were, without defining them. Mostly avoiding explicit politics, the novel is a multi-voiced and complex reflexion; Setton portrays the thorny and much written about themes of immigrant and exiled identity in a new and compelling way.

The Road to Fez is the story of Brit Lek, a young Jewish Moroccan girl living in Pennsylvania who, after her mother’s death, returns to Morocco where the rest of her family lives. While the secret purpose for her journey is to see her uncle Gaby, with whom she is perilously in love, the explicit reason for her trip is a pilgrimage to the tomb of the Jewish saint Suleika. Both these motives are two halves of Brit’s dilemma of exile.

Suleika Hatchuel was a Jewish girl who lived in Tangier in the early Nineteenth-century. Mistreated by her mother, she fled her family and became a Muslim, later regretting and recanting her conversion. Refusing to acknowledge the Islamic faith, she was thrown in jail by the Sultan and then decapitated in Fez at age 17 in 1832. The deeper reasons for her conversion remain unclear, and the many versions of the story prove the fascination it has always held for the storyteller of Jewish folklore. In these retellings, she fell in love with her young Muslim neighbor Taleb; or she was seduced by her Muslim neighbor Tahra, who was scheming to make Suleika the passive toy for Tahra’s restless husband; or she became the object of the Sultan’s mad desire.

Obviously intending to use Suleika’s story as a mirror of Brit’s, Setton makes Suleika’s tale a kind of busy existential crossroads. It represents the hazards and enticements and fatalities of crossing cultural borders; comments on both the power and arbitrariness of taboos; invites us to consider history as if it had the hidden patterns of art, and to search this fiction for the historical pressures that drive it. Because Setton is out to accomplish so much, and on so many different levels, she has rooted the novel’s action not in a dynamic plot, but in sharp and vivid fragments. She includes after each chapter the excerpt from a memoir of a foreign traveler to Morocco or an archival account, an oral testimony or a popular song, each of which recounts an aspect of Suleika’s story.

These are interlaced with scenes from Brit’s inner and outer life: her memories of her life in Pennylvania, themselves described as elements of future memoirs, or archival accounts, or oral histories, or popular folklore. There is the neon sign hanging from the pretzel factory across the street from her home, a sign which reads like a Talmudic lesson: “17 reasons why” (to eat a pretzel); or almost dreamlike scenes that capture the leaps and bounds of her identity: throwing a spell to her uncle Gaby to make him love her; remembering her experiences with sex and drugs in emancipated America; being scorned in Morocco for not knowing how to make mint tea; feeling estranged from the blonde, picture-perfect world of her American neighbors. The shift in some chapters to Gaby’s narration of his life-Brit’s future recalling his past-only intensifies the novel’s many-layered jumble of time-frames and voices and places, as if Brit’s identity, an exiled identity, were the equivalent of fluid life itself.

Appropriately, there is a hallucinatory quality to Setton’s style. Flashes of thought or glimpses of other times have the effect of breaking the flow of linear narrative. Her writing is pared-down, feral, elemental, as if after scouring identity for universal traits she has finally stripped it down to the raw universality of desire. For Brit is seeking both her mother-who before her death asked Brit to make a pilgrimage to Suleika’s tomb-and her mother tongue. “I nod. Words can’t exit my mouth. Not yet. I am undergoing a strange metamorphosis. More than the webbed animal hands. My teeth are sharpening, cutting through my cheeks. I want to bite. To devour. To slash and kill. Lydia? Or Gaby?” (page 31) The pure reduction is like a search for absolutes that is embedded in the physical facts of life. It is as if Brit were looking to stabilize the swirl of cultures and history around her in biology itself, as if her incestuous passion for Gaby were the perfect fusion of culture and biology. If Setton seems blithe about this darkest of all taboos, it is perhaps because incest is a staple of romantic literature, in which desire always transcends cultural and historical limitations. And it is perhaps also because Setton wishes us to see, for all her hopefulness about such a transcendence, its impossibility as a total success.

Indeed, the novel is built through poetic correspondances operating like a soundbox where each image echoes another. It is like the stylistic counterpart to incest. Animal images alternate with religious and cultural ones throughout the novel.
“On the terrace”, says Gaby, “we wrote our wishes on small pieces of paper: to be free, I wrote. I wound the paper tightly around a red pigeon’s bamboo stalk leg and watched him rise in a flurry of wings and rustles. I saw myself gripping his wings and flying behind him, a Jewish Icarus, soaring to places Jews weren’t permitted to go.” (page 70)
The cage image recurs throughout the book : there is the cage built by the Sultan which he offers to Jews in order to protect them from persecution, an ambiguous cage also used for wild beasts; or the open cage for Papa Naphtali’s fifty pigeons which ironically always come back; or the metaphorical cage of destructive passion built by Estrella, Gaby’s wife, for her husband.

These animal images are, in turn, refracted into ever higher meanings of freedom and bondage, culminating in the description of Passover, the Jewish festival celebrating the end of slavery. Shifting from poetry to history, Setton reflects on the position of Jews in Morocco, on their status as a minority non-equal to Muslims. In yet another aspect of this novel, Brit’s identity periodically yields to the author’s own. Setton is almost explicit about her uneasiness over the subservient place of Jews in a Muslim society: She has Suleika say: “this is my land, but not my land. An exile, ground slipping under me as I stand. They used to call us the lowest of the low, make us wear black and go barefoot.” (page 183)

In the end, the novel is a cry asking for the freedom to transgress borders, to tear down the walls. Setton’s beautiful image of the braiding motion, also a leitmotiv, expresses poetically more than politically, the dream of opposites merging into each other.

Yet it is only a beautiful dream. If the novel fantasizes about the collapse of the borders between identities, it also demonstrates their hard durability. Although the narrator spins phantasms of integration, she also realizes the precious and intractable nature of culture and tradition: the strong and complex identity of Moroccan Jews, their love and hate for Arabs, their perplexity in the face of the modern Western world. For cultural identity ultimately rests on the puzzle of individual identity, and that is a “pretzel”-the antithesis to the harmonious braiding motion-with at least 17 different explanations. One recalls that in the Kabala, the crowning spiritual achievement of those Spanish Jews who eventually fled to Morocco, the number 18 means ‘life.” Beyond all our attempts to give reasons for who we are, Setton seems to be saying, lies existence itself, the restless, fluid, fragmented, swirling, multi-layered existence that she has captured, a little earnestly, but with great vividness and complexity in The Road to Fez.

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