Suleika and Me

Fierce African sun burns on my head as I weave my way between tiny white tombs packed helter skelter, nearly on top of each other, half-hidden by stray grasses and tall weeds blowing in the hot wind. A white dome, about eight feet high, rises above Suleika’s tomb. The inscription is painted in childlike black letters. The first four lines are in Hebrew. Underneath, in French, are these words:

Ici repose Mlle Solica Hatchouel
Nee a Tanger en 1817
Refusant de rentrer
Dans la religion is-
lamisme les Arabes
L’ont assassinate a Fez
en 1834 Arrachee de sa
Famille tout le monde
Regrette cette enfant

(Here rests Mile Sohca Hatchouel, born in Tangiers, in 1817. Refusing to enter the Islamic religion, the Arabs assassinated her in Fez in 1834. Tom from her family, all the world mourns this holy child.)

It is July 1981. I am 4 months pregnant as I stand before her tomb, I cannot explain the urgent desire that led me here to the Jewish cemetery of Fez. A name in a book that suddenly illuminated the page as if it were a medieval manuscript. The letters shone with the promise of mystery, magic, secret. I touched her name on the page the way I used to touch pictures in books as a child, hoping to get sucked into that other world. Already wanting to penetrate every border, open every door.

She was a bad girl. Her mother couldn’t stand the sight of her. When she laughed, her mother wanted to shut her up. When she dreamed about the future, her mother swore there wouldn’t be one. Suleika was no angel. She knew her mother hated her and she figured: I can’t do anything right anyway, and whatever I do I get beaten, so I might as well do what I want. She got into trouble every day, hung around with the Arabs. In Tangiers, Jews and Arabs lived side by side, but still, there was a high wall that separated them. It was dangerous for Jews to break through the wall. Only someone desperate like Suleika would take the chance. Once you crossed over to the other side, you were in their hands—completely.

The risk was the only thing that made her feel alive. By the time she turned 17, she was hard and bitter. She’d been beaten so many times it left her numb. She didn’t care about anything anymore. Then her mother sold her in an arranged manage to a 60-year-old widower with six kids. Ugly as a sardine, with bulging eyes and a red nose that dripped snot down his shirt.

The wedding was coming closer and closer. She got wilder. There was only one thing that kept her going. In the evenings, she sat in her courtyard and listened to the music that came from the courtyard next door, where an Arab family lived. She heard the sound of a lute, and a man’s voice, singing in Spanish or Arabic, sometimes just humming the melody. The music made her cry. It made her dream.

One night, about a week before her wedding, her mother realized she was going to lose her slave, and she beat the hell out of Suleika with a broom, leather belt, everything she lay her hands on. Crying, Suleika ran to the courtyard. The music was coming from next door. She went to the stone wall, feeling with her fingers for a hole. She saw a gap in the wall, where a stone had fallen out, and looked through. Taleb sat cross-legged, lute upright between his legs. His eyes were closed, and he was singing. This was the first time she’d really seen him. He’d been away at boarding school. When he was home, he didn’t go out with the others; instead, he spent his time playing music in the courtyard. He was about her age, but different, quiet. And very handsome.

Every day after that, she watched him. I want this boy, she thought. I’m going to mess with him. But her plan back fired. One day she whispered his name through the hole in the wall, and he saw her. He came to the wall and stared at her for a long time. That night he sang a new song. She pressed her face against the hole in the wall and watched him. Every string he strummed vibrated inside her. When he finished, he came to the wall and touched her face with the same fingers that had played through her. “That was for you,” he told her. From now on, they’ll all be for you.”

After that, it was impossible to stay in her old life. Her mother’s beatings, the old dripping cousin. She begged Taleb to ran away with her. He was engaged to marry, too. Another arranged marriage. He’d never seen the bride, but it was too late: there was no room in his heart for anyone but Suleika. One morning, very early, they ran away to the Kasbah of Tangiers, where people who have secrets go to hide. They got married. The only way they could do it was if she recited the Shahada, the Formula of Conversion: La ilaha illa Allah, Mohammadu rasoul Allah. There is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is His Prophet. If it meant they’d be together, she’d have said anything, They moved into a beat-up old shack, but they were happy. They were together. He played his music at a nearby club, and when he was done, he came home to her.

After a month, he was on his way home from the club when two men jumped him. The brothers of the girl he’d jilted. Suleika was at home, waiting for him. She knew something was wrong when he didn’t show up. At dawn she went to look for him. She found him on the ground, lute smashed at his side. She threw herself on him, covered his body with hers. She howled like a beast in pain. People came running. She clung to him, but they pulled her away. She stood and looked around and realized she was completely alone. Lost. She didn’t know what to do, where to go. She wanted to die with Taleb, to go with him wherever he went. She stood alone that day, waiting for a sign from him. After a long time she heard a low hum. Taleb’s hum. It came from far away, and it drew her. It led her back to her family’s sla (synagogue) in the Fuente Nueve. All the Jews were there, praying. When they saw her, most of them threw stones at her. They called her a whore and a traitor. Her mother threw the most stones. “I’ve come home,” she told them. But the Arabs from the Kasbah had followed her. “We don’t think so,” they said. “Did you forget the words you spoke? You’re ours now.” A fight broke out. They nearly tore her in half In the end, the Arabs killed her.

And yet in one of the many odd notes in her tale, Arab women worship her today as a saint. They come to her tomb in the Jewish cemetery in Fez, bringing plates of couscous (even a dead girl needs to keep up her strength), bunches of wild flowers, a lucky hamsa, a magic coin. Meanwhile the Jewish women light a candle and place it in one of the niches in the white dome over her tomb. The niches are filled with remnants of white candles, burned prayers. The women chant, pray, sing, cry, beg her to hear their voices. Usually they ask her for a baby, or help in getting pregnant, or avoiding a miscarriage. Our Suleika, who never had a child of her own, is the secret ingredient of successful pregnancies. She has become a woman’s saint. In saint hierarchy, that means a saint too minor (too female) to have her own hiloula (or, for Jews, a festive pilgrimage on Lag ba’ Omer), relegated to birth, illness in the family, menstrual cramps, you know; women’s stuff. “Her baraka is still strong,” the caretaker of the cemetery assures me. “She is still as powerful as ever. The women never stop coming to her. “

Arab women. Jewish women. Side by side. Praying to a dead teenage girl. In death obliterating the border that in life she couldn’t cross.

Which Suleika do I show you? Bad girl or good girl? Arab, Christian, Jewish version: take your pick. Over 300 at last count. Want her to be dragged against her will next door to the Arab house? Then go with the Jews and Christians. Their Suleika is an angel, a martyr-in-the-making. One writer calls her “a white rose of virginity.” Another puts words in her mouth: “Dying is the only good I wish for!” Not exactly my idea of a fun date. But the Arab next door wants her. He’s fat and leering and in the market for a second wife. No, we can do better than that, He’s young and handsome, and tells his mother: “Yo Mama, get me one of those.” Too hackneyed, too Romeo and Juliet? Get Tahra in here. She’s the Arab woman next door, an actress of unusual range and passion, an interested party pulling strings on Taleb’s behalf. Whether she’s the widow yearning for a daughter, or Jealous Wife #1, or the mother who wants to make her son happy, or a girl the same age as Suleika, she throws herself into the part and carries it to its utmost limits.

She needs a worthy adversary. Most Suleik as are too flat and passive—sleepwalking towards death—to take Tahra on. Enter Simha: bitch-mama extraordinaire. Mommy Dearest is Simha on a good day. She gave Cinderella’s wicked step- mother advice on how to raise her daughter. The husband, as in all these stories, is weak, inconsequential. He’s holed up somewhere studying Torah, arguing with dead rabbis while the drama of life unfolds around him. “You know best, dear,” he says and returns to his texts as Simha chases Suleika through the house with a weapon of her own invention: a stick to which she’s attached a donkey tail. Her goal: to slap the unearthly beauty off Suleika’s face. Some commentators, unable to comprehend the extent of Simha’s viciousness, transform her with four letters—from mother into stepmother, a worthy addition to any fairytale.

So here’s the scene: you’ve got Suleika in the middle, between these two Amazons of jealousy, selfishness, brutality. The climatic moment occurs during Pesach 1834. Suleika is 17, daydreaming at her chores. Simha finds her, and with a scream that chills the heart, races after her Exhausted and desperate, Suleika runs outside the house and stops for a second. Where to go? What to do? Mom is gaining ground, sounds like Godzilla tramping down the stairs. Tahra opens her door, beckons: “Suleika, come to me! I’ll be your mother, sister, best friend, (fill in the blank).”

One night in a dream, I counted the steps between the Jewish house and the Arab house. There were 22. Twenty-two steps that span an eternity, a Sahara of yearning and ignorance.

Suleika hesitates between the two houses. Behind her, misery, another sure beating. Before her, who knows? She cries: “Your house will be my house!” and runs to Tahra, who pulls her inside and slams the door.

The next time we see Suleika she’s facing the Caid of Tangiers, swearing she did not say the words. “I was born a Jew,” she insists, “and I will die a Jew.”Tahra steps in: “No way. The girl’s a bar. She converted, and now she’s recanting.”

What do we do with a recanting Jew? Throw her in the dungeon, of course. And that’s where she’d have languished and died, if rumors of her beauty hadn’t traveled to the Sultan in Fez. This jaded, restless ruler sent for her

The voyage from Tangiers to Fez takes several hours today. For Suleika in 1834, on mule, it took 6 days. She wasn’t allowed to speak (the danger of words, especially a woman’s words). Twice a day the guards allowed her to get off the mule, get down on all fours, and lap milk from a bowl like a cat. This voyage parallels a fairy tale heroine’s journey into the woods. She emerges at the end, changed. When Suleika arrives in Fez, she’s no longer a passive, bland, beautiful teenager She’s Joan of Arc for the Jews, Esther defending her people, Ruth embracing the God of the Jews and refusing to return to the wilderness. She is now a gorgeous parable.

Now here’s the choice. Play the game and see what you would choose, if the price is right for you. Door #1 or Door#2: you decide. Behind Door #1 is the sultan, Moulay Abderrah man. In his 40s, with a vast harem to choose from, he sees you and falls instantly, irrevocably, in love. He promises you everything. Jewels, silks and brocades, a life of ease, power. And most important, love. He asks you to marry him. He vows to take care of you forever. Still not enough? Let’s up the ante. You fall in love with him too. Why not? He’s good-looking, gentle in the way only the truly powerful can be. He wants you the way no one has ever wanted you before. His nearness makes you tremble. Stack the deck a touch more. He gets the Grand Rabbi of Fez, Rabbi Serfaty, to come in and talk to you. The rabbi himself tells you to play the Marrano-game. Survival, it’s called in various corners of the world. Convert on the outside; believe what you want inside.

Wealth, security, love, your own faith in private. Count me in. Oh, you have to pay an entrance fee? How much? A pittance, a trifle, 11 words to be exact. It takes less than a minute to say. And does God really care if you call Him Yawveh or Allah?

Behind Door #2 is—what? The void our words attempt to cover? A cold, sharp wind blowing from beyond. The edge of a cliff. Is God waiting for you there? Arms open, saying: “Come home, my child. Come here and be warm” Or is there nothing? A long tunnel that opens onto endless night?

The moment of truth. Solica Hatchuel, come on down! Which will it be? Door #1 or Door #2? And you in the audience: which door do you choose?

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.

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 of the Arabs? Mistreated for being a Jew? Did she fall in love with a boy at school? Sneak out to meet him at the souk? Did she walk along these a 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 whirled 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. Which door would she have chosen? Which would I choose?

The girls of Tetouan in their snow-white juderia sing songs of warning: “Girls, don’t do what Suleika did, don’t trust the Moor”; and songs in which the Sultan remembers his lost love:

When you saw me, you felt it, too, 
Heat, light, fire—
You sang it with your voice, your hands:
There’s no more than this: to be joined to you.
What do riches and honors matter to me?
What use is my throne without you ?
I only wanted to live inside you.
And after tasting you, to die.

I wander through the desert, searching for her,
My angel, my delicious love
I’ll never see you again.
What good are my hands
If they can’t touch you ?

On a July day in 1981, I hurry across the Square Bab-Dekaken on my way to the cemetery. As fast as I can move, considering how hot is it, how pregnant I feel, how I’m dreading the moment of seeing her grave. I’m still an innocent, haven’t drowned yet in the quicksand of Suleika’s story, where every possibility, every version, opens yet another door—until it’s not merely choosing between Door #1 and Door #2 but between infinite doors, each opening onto another, each offering yet another way to be or not to be.

The square is bounded on all sides. In one corner a man has set up a tired flea market: old appliances, used clothes, a broken chair toppling on three legs. The large brass doors of the Sultan’s Palace gleam, touched by the long fingers of the afternoon sun. Next to the palace is the entrance to the mellah, a gaping mouth that swallowed centuries of Moroccan-Jews and spit them back out as newly minted Muslims. Deceptively large and light, the mellah hides its dark decaying heart, like a woman wearing make-up to conceal ravages of time and grief. At the end of the square is the Jewish cemetery. Beggars claw and shriek like raucous seagulls. The Hebrew letters carved in iron, twisted and wailing, curl to the sky. They moved the cemetery about 50 years after Suleika’s death. Witnesses swear she smelled like fresh-baked bread when they dug her up. They also swear that a white dove flew up at the instant of her death. And that the Sultan couldn’t move his arm until he went to her tomb in the mellah and rubbed his arm against the cool stone.

Yeah, well.

I don’t even have to close my eyes to see the square filling with the curious and the bloodthirsty. Mountain men, warriors from the Rif, Berbers from the Atlas Mountains, Blue Men from the Sahara. Dancers, sword swallowers and storytellers. Jews—barefoot and in black, as the law requires—filling in. They bring Suleika in on a mule. Dressed in the coarse white haik she wore on the journey from Tangiers to Fez. Gone are the satin and silk dresses the Sultan lavished on her. The executioner slices the air with his sword. Slashes the veil from her face. The crowd gasps at her beauty. She stares through them, beyond them. She kneels at the block while he teases the back of her neck with the point of his sword. “The Sultan asked that you be given one last chance to change your mind,” he says.

She can’t move her head. She’s pinned to the block. But her voice rises: “Shema Yisra—”
Her head flies at least 10 feet away.

I break an unwritten rule as I stand before Suleika’s grave. “Never enter a cemetery when you are pregnant,” my aunt warns me. “The souls are waiting there, desperate to live again. They steal into the fetus and take over the baby’s life.” I don’t know yet that the child I’m carrying is a girl, that she will grow up to be as wild and rebellious as the Suleika of Arab legend, that I will look back with longing and pain at this moment. The moment before she kicks inside me for the first time, a sign of life in the house of death. The moment before I hug the tomb as if it were a living, breathing woman. The moment before I choose to follow her to the inevitable promised end. Twenty-two steps. An eternity. Or a breath on the back of my neck. I wheel around. The door opens.

Ruth Knafo Setton, a Sephardic Jew born in Morocco, teaches at Lafayette College and has completed her first novel, Suleika.