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Essay

Living Between Question Marks


"I have come to the heart of the heart of my heart. A new country. I don't remember this hotel, café, street of blue torches. I have been in this city a thousand times: I have never been here. I say words I must have said before, but they blister my tongue and ache between my teeth until I utter them, raw and unformed: a new language."
   —from The Road to Fez

I dream in French, write in English, mysteriously know Spanish, curse in Arabic, cry in Hebrew.

I was born in Morocco, spoke French before English, and didn't learn Hebrew till I was in my twenties, but instantly felt a profound affinity to languages that move from right to left, notebooks that move from back to front. I entered my new country—English—through books, word by word, letter by delicious letter. At fourteen, I made a decision that seemed climactic even then: I chose English as the language in which I'd write. French retreated to shadows in the corners of my room, memories that felt like wind on my cheeks and that smelled like the sea.

But in the beginning, French was music—a song punctuated by hushed Arabic—the language my parents refused to teach us, the children, and kept as their secret language. They told jokes in French, intricate, elaborate stories embellished with myths, legends and historical facts that built to a final punch line always delivered in pungent, concise Arabic. When we kids begged for a translation, they'd say, "Sorry, it can't be done." I'm sure that affected me: growing up hearing amazing jokes, stories and narratives, and not getting the last line, the final wry twist that brings it all together. In that sense it was a very postmodern childhood, straining to grasp stories that emerged in fragments, whispers, gestures and facial expressions—tongues clicking, eyebrows raised. And the final realization that the ending is a promise that isn't always fulfilled.

It makes sense that I exist between languages, roam between countries, write between genres—poetry, fiction and nonfiction—and that in a sense I'm always writing in translation. Growing up, I heard my parents speak four languages in a single sentence. When I wrote my first novel, The Road to Fez, my editor agreed: no italics. After all, which language was the foreign language?

It took me a while to understand that my parents' groping toward English, and mine toward a complete identity, the crazy jokes and fractured tales of a life in North Africa, were all songs of exile and yearning. Songs of diaspora. Songs of the between.

* * *

I'm about three in the last photo taken of me before my parents and I leave Morocco for the United States. Curly blonde hair pulled back in a ponytail. Tiny white dress, sturdy bare legs. Light 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.

What happened to that girl? Did she live a parallel life to mine in the dim, powerful Morocco of my memory? Did she study? Was she married off early, as soon as her blood came? Was she afraid? Did she fall in love with a boy at school? Sneak out to meet him at the souk? Did she walk along the sea with him?

I want that girl, I want to smell her flesh, to kiss the back of her knee, to see if her ears are dainty whorled seashells like mine, her eyes as wide, her hands as yearning. What became of her? I feel the pain of exile. I was ripped from her. The girl who crossed the ocean is already the shadow of myself. Right now when you think I am looking at you, I'm looking for her—across the mountains and seas—wondering if she even knows I exist, if she misses me at all.

Sometimes I think I've been writing her story all along, the girl I might have been, the girl who could have been me.

* * *

My grandfather is my first memory: he twines a flower around my ear. A border-crosser, he was a poet who wrote in classical Arabic, a musician who played the oud at both Arab and Jewish events, a man who took over the rooftop, traditionally the woman's space, and created his own refuge there with books, flowers and two enormous brass cages where he kept fifty homing pigeons. I picture him on that roof, refusing to lock the cages of his pigeons, painting their wings to create beauty in a dark world, attaching messages and prayers to their legs and watching them fly off to places he, as a Jew, could not go to. Oddly—or maybe not so oddly—the pigeons always returned to him.

On the wall of my grandparents' house hung a brass key to their old house. My grandfather described the house in intimate loving detail: birds singing in the blue courtyard, sparkling fountains, orange tree....

It wasn't until much later that I learned that the house my grandfather described was the house in Toledo, Spain the family had fled during the Inquisition!

Time passes differently in the East. It circles and bites its own tail. It stands still for hours, then leaps into the future, and somersaults into the past. As Godard says, "Every story has a beginning, middle and end, but not necessarily in that order."

In a Sephardic legend, a family returns to the house in Spain after 500 years away, turns the key in the lock, and the door opens. After my grandfather's death, the brass key disappeared.

Someone later claimed it had never been on the wall, and that I'd imagined it.

* * *

Punctuation is a matter of grave importance to me, as a writer of course, but also as someone whose life is a hyphen. It shouldn't be surprising that my favorite punctuation mark is the dash, that I do my breathing, thinking, writing, living between the certainties. Not the period. So arrogant, so final. Not: this is it. Not: this OR this. But this AND this. AND this too. AND throw that in as well. For me there's always more, always another way of looking at life, another window or door, another perspective. My writing, like much Sephardic writing, is composed of multiple points of view, fragments, dislocated narratives linked by dashes.

And from the first moment I saw the Spanish question marks—one inverted and one right side up—that bracket questions, I shivered with pleasure. I thought, I can live between these question marks. There is something very Jewish about Spanish question marks. Maybe something female too. They question the very essence of the question and make concrete what is implicit: that the inner mystery is contained, almost protected, within the two question marks. Like the Moroccan courtyard, in which the truth is turned inward. Like my grandfather living between two worlds—the historical reality of Spain and the imagined reality of the future in Jerusalem—while standing on his rooftop.

* * *

We are Jews with a Mediterranean accent who carry the memory of the sun in our hearts. Enter our houses in the mellah or juderia, and go directly to the soul—the tiled inner courtyard crowded with women and children—like us, hidden, secretive, restless. Dance with us: flamenco guitar and hypnotic desert oud, drums that pound like bare feet running on a beach, nostalgic and mournful yet always with a beat that circles on itself. Look at our family photos: men wearing tasseled fezzes and djellabahs, women with painted icon faces and pointed babouches beneath silver-threaded caftans. Eat with us: bstilla, with its exquisite commingling of sweet and savory, fragrant couscous, salads vivid with color and wit, and flaky orange-scented desserts that tingle your senses with their beauty and then melt on your tongue. After the meal join us in the salon arabe for mint tea or cardamom-spiced coffee, and discuss the destiny of the Jews, the concept of home and identity, and tell Johra stories in Arabic, French, Hebrew, Spanish and English—all in the same sentence. Laugh until you cry. Remember the sun.

* * *

I'll close with a recipe, which is fitting since Moroccan Jews translate almost everything into food.

RUTH'S IMMIGRANT STEW

In a large pot, stir misconceptions, superstitions, dreams, fears, excessive closeness.

Throw in a handful of fresh wild mint your grandfather grew on the rooftop ... the carrots and broccoli your mother swore would sprout from your scalp if you didn't shampoo your hair ... sardines freshly caught in the net and grilled in olive oil at the port ... the stone your father used to set on the seat of a bus leaving his hometown, Safi, and pretend it was him traveling away ....

Add a pinch of exile, that spice that ensures that no food will ever taste as good as your grandmother's, no sunset appear as beautiful as the one back there, no house as homelike as the one you left behind.

Season with cumin, garlic, onion, turmeric. Rub fresh kzboor between your palms & scatter.

Stir with a brass key.

While you breathe in the aromas, listen to your mother explain the art of cooking: Don't be obvious. Mix the unexpected: chicken, eggs and almonds baked in phyllo dough and sprinkled with confectioner's sugar; jam made from sweet baby eggplants and walnuts; tagines simmering with saffron and za'atar. And my daughter, never forget the importance of cinnamon.

And your father's words: you can go anywhere, be anything—but stay invisible.

And your grandfather telling you before he died: You are my roots. You and your children will plant the seeds of my memory in your words.

Stir until the stew boils and froths out of the pot. Write the recipe in four languages, leaving out one crucial ingredient (because you're used to doing it in your head, not on paper).

Serve with complaints and self-deprecation: if you had tasted this in the old days, when I had the right herbs and the eggplants were the tiny purple ones, not these huge hulking ones with no taste, and of course, the couscous was pounded by hand and steamed in a couscousier....

Before your guests have finished eating, insist they take seconds. Hover over them like a human question mark. Reach toward them like a dash—


© Ruth Knafo Setton

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