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Return to Fez

"If you want to see Jews in Morocco today, you have to go to the cemeteries." The speaker, a professor of history at the University of Rabat, was joking. The Muslim professors in the audience laughed. The Jews and Christians gave strained smiles.

* * *

I stood in the Jewish cemetery of Fez and thought of how that bone-chilling comment reflected the truth. In the seven days my husband and I had been in Morocco, we'd visited three Jewish cemeteries. Ironically, they seemed to be the most vibrant repositories of seven centuries of Jewish life in Morocco.

We had come to attend a conference sponsored by the American Institute for Maghreb Studies, "Rethinking Jewish Culture and Society in North Africa." I'd been invited to read from my novel, The Road to Fez, and to discuss the historical/legendary figure at its heart: Suleika, the beautiful seventeen year-old Moroccan-Jewish girl who was beheaded in 1834 for refusing to renounce her faith. The conference participants were a mix of Jews, Muslims and Christians from Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Israel, Spain, France and the United States. Our panels and talks were held at the American Legation of Tangier, a charming building with flowering courtyards and arched doorways, within walking distance of Suleika's birthplace.

* * *

The first cemetery my husband and I visited was in Safi, my birthtown. In Safi itself, a stark town built on a cliff that arched over the Atlantic Ocean, there seemed to be no Jews at all. Even the shrine to the seven Zmirrou brothers, saintly figures for the annual hiloula pilgrimage, was maintained by an Arab. In the wild, fierce cemetery, where graves are packed helter-skelter and choked by weeds, I paid my respects to generations of Knafos, Cohens, Cabessas, Ohayons. From the highest point I looked down at the glittering sea, and pictured my ancestors' voyage as they fled the Inquisition in Spain and found refuge across the Strait of Gibraltar. As we left the cemetery, I brooded over the rusted gates, weeds, scattered stones and fading inscriptions, and wondered what would happen to the tombs after a few more years of neglect. The sole caretaker, an Arab woman who lived in a hut inside the cemetery gates, was so old my father remembered her from his own childhood. She could barely walk, let alone care for the tombs.

The second cemetery we visited was with the conference participants on a field trip to Tetuan, a small white town in the mountains overlooking the Mediterranean. I was curious to visit this former site of one of the most dazzling Jewish communities of Morocco, its famed juderia the home of Jews who studied Kabbalah and spoke Spanish and Ladino. It was the last day of the conference, and we were all a little sad at the knowledge that tomorrow morning we would disperse. There had been the inevitable awkward moments, particularly when Israel was mentioned—its mere name a trigger to volatility—or when Jewish and Muslim memory and experience collided. But there were unexpected moments of piercing sweetness: when we caught each other's eye as a boring speaker droned on, when we shared food and insisted the other try a certain spice, and especially when we laughed. On the bus to Tetuan the Arabs told Arab jokes and the Jews told Jewish jokes, all poking fun at ourselves. We wondered when we'd have another opportunity to speak to each other openly, without hostility, as we groped toward a common language.

Not a Jew remained in Tetuan. The juderia, like most mellahs (Jewish Quarters), had been taken over by the Muslim population. Here and there, faded Hebrew lettering and the ruins of a synagogue reminded us of the past. We visited a tiny synagogue that was being painstakingly rebuilt. For whom? I wondered. I began to understand the professor from Rabat who had made the bitter joke about Jews and cemeteries. He had confided to me that despite the few thousand Jews who remained in Morocco, most in Rabat and Casablanca, "Jews have become ghosts. We must imagine them." He also told me that his colleagues at the university were baffled by his fascination with Jews, particularly with their departure from Morocco. "Why study Jews?" they asked him. "Why now?"

* * *

The day before, in a large sunny room of the Legation, I had read from my novel and spoken about Suleika. In one of the odd twists to her tale, today she is worshipped by Jews, Muslims and Christians as a saint, her tomb the site of pilgrimages. However, each group worships a different Suleika. The Christians pray to a holy virgin martyr; the Arabs to a girl who converted to Islam and then recanted, a crime punishable by death. The Jews see a potential Esther whose beauty so entranced the Sultan that he offered her a place in his harem, then marriage. In exchange she had to recite the Formula of Conversion—fewer than a dozen words. She refused: "I was born a Jew, I'll die a Jew."

Which Suleika reflects the truth? My twenty year search had uncovered a Hall of Mirrors of Suleikas, as well as the keys to my own truth, my roots in Morocco. When I finished speaking several of us were near tears. I'd never imagined myself reading from the novel in the country where both Suleika and I were born, less than a mile from her birthplace.

Monsieur Levy, the crusty leader of the Jewish community of Casablanca, who had earlier insisted that Jews should return to Morocco, stood and shook his fist at me. "But why bring Suleika up now? After all this time? And why with such passion?"

* * *

The Jewish cemetery of Tetuan was enormous, white tombs even more tightly packed than the ones in Safi, so close together we had to walk on the edges of the tombs themselves. Benzaquen, Nahon, all the Spanish-Jewish names, were scratched, partly worn away. Many of the tombs were inscribed with mysterious anthropomorphic symbols that resembled ancient drawings of wheels, waves, suns. Even though we had several anthropologists and archaeologists with us, no one could make sense of them. A Spanish Jewish writer and I stood on one of the tombs, staring at the patterns. "When I was in Syria," he said, "I searched for signs of Jewish life. A man told me, 'There are no more Jews. They are extinct.'"

* * *

On our last day in Morocco, my husband and I stood in the Jewish cemetery of Fez and stared at the tomb that always made me think of a little house, with its familiar cupola topped by three green flames, each shaped like an inverted tear. Inside the dark niche were burnt candles and stones, remnants of prayers to Suleika. To one side of the cemetery crouched rows of bleached nameless tombs where victims of the cholera epidemic of 1955 were buried. Iron-grilled balconies—of houses in the former Jewish mellah—hung over the cemetery. After a reading I gave in Toronto, a Moroccan-Jewish woman told me that she used to lean over her balcony and watch the pilgrims, mostly Jewish and Arab women, pray at Suleika's tomb. Her husband, who had also grown up in the Fez mellah, recounted how as a kid he played hide and seek in the cemetery, and once tried to hide in the niche of Suleika's tomb. Three times he extended his leg to enter the tomb; three times his leg froze in place. "She wouldn't let me in," he said.

Unlike the other cemeteries I'd seen, this one was blindingly white-washed and clean. Edmond Gabbay, the Jewish caretaker, the last remaining member of his family in Fez, informed me that where there had been thousands of Jews worshiping in Fez's thirty-five synagogues, 120 remained. Gabbay had created a small museum in the cemetery, a surreal storehouse of kitsch and heart-wrenching memory. One wall was crammed with photos depicting the vanished world of Fez Jewry; another was devoted to Suleika. Next to her alleged portrait and pictures of the famous tomb hung two long swathes of blonde hair. "Hers," said Gabbay. "But they're blonde," I pointed out, "and Suleika had black hair." "Sun and time," he said serenely.

* * *

Why bring her up now, Monsieur Levy? With such passion? Because if I don't, I kill her for a second time. Because if I don't, I kill something in me. Because on some level she is me and I am her. And because sun and time are already at work erasing us both.

When I left the cemetery I didn't say goodbye: I simply carried her with me.

© Ruth Knafo Setton

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