Hunger - Ra'av


Hunger - Ra'av

(Excerpt from a Novel)

By Ruth Knafo Setton


Hebrew moves from right to left, forces a complete re-orientation to the page. Being left-handed, I find it innately satisfying. The letters themselves are hieroglyphics, descendants of ancient picture language, symbolic and eerie. I remember how the sight of them in Morocco—over the mellah gate, marking the entrance to a Jewish cemetery—made me tremble. I see why mystics spend their lives studying the possibilities of a Dalet, Gimmel or Shin. And their harsh, guttural sound  is almost painful: yareakh (moon), ekhad(one). Spoken tenderly—a father to his son, a woman teasing her man—it becomes breathless, a language of dreams that speaks in sighs, gasps, moans. Stark, a desert wind, Hebrew was created to probe existential mysteries of the universe, so sacred it cannot contain any curses. I find myself crooning words as I walk home from work, or as I lie awake at night: neshama (soul), mish-mish (apricot), ahava (love), sha’ar (gate), esh (fire) and shemesh (sun). All the way home, all night, the soft, harsh language unscrolls, a narrative without beginning or end, a staircase to the soul.
─ from Annie Mallul’s journal, February 12, 1973
I didn’t want to come to Jerusalem. I can’t sleep here. Like the entire country, I lie awake, night after hungry night. Some forget how to sleep, others are scared of the dark, or worry that the sun won’t rise. I have my own reasons for staring at the white wall of my Indian nun’s cell until morning.
I can’t breathe here either; the odor of sanctity and hypocrisy suffocates. Not one but three male gods, all competing for space. The way I see it: after a day in Jerusalem you talk to God, after a week you hear Him, after a month you are Him. Yes, this city is definitely a man, but to my surprise he’s got a woman’s heart beating inside him. That’s right, Jerusalem is a hermaphrodite; outside the stone walls sprawls the New (improved) male City; but behind the gates broods an ancient crone. Not a ravaged party girl like Tel Aviv, the Old City is a sibyl, the essence of woman: eternal, vengeful, swamp-dark, powerful. A woman who has voyaged eons past blood, babies, and the needs of the flesh—yet is still hungry.
When I walk the cobbled streets, her heart  pounds madly beneath my feet. When I touch a wall, she shudders. Open a door, and she hisses secrets, as if I speak her language. She speaks mine. Figured out my number right away. Not that difficult.
I’m Little Orphan Annie here, facing mortality. The first shock came eleven years ago when my mother, the radiant, gold-hooped Yedida, was ironed flat beneath a bus in Madras, the home of forty-five-lane traffic moving in seven directions at once. It had been Moses, Yedida and Annie for as long as I could remember: three Moroccan Jews roaming the world to prove Dad’s thesis that Beauties and Beasts were named, not born. My parents home-schooled me in French, Arabic and English, made me fluent in yearning and wonder, taught me to speak exile and nomad, myth and legend, heroic tragedy and chivalric romance. I studied lies that are truths and truths that are lies, and practiced shooting the clay feet from under every idol. It didn’t matter that in the eyes of civilization, I was a fat beast. I grew up with Untouchables in southern India, indigenous tribes in Mexico, and Berber Jews in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco: all achingly beautiful to my father, like his two large, lovely women.
After three days in a coma Mom died. She, who let Dad and me test our wings over and over, and who was beginning to fly herself at age thirty-nine. We didn’t have enough time together for me to rebel against her. That night Dad and I left the hospital and walked for hours through the streets of Madras, backtracking and circling, but always heading towards the Indian Ocean. The streets were thronged: kids sleeping under tables, families hunched over belongings, others coiled like snails on narrow strips of cotton, still others lunging at us with desperate cries and clawed fingers. I remember thinking: I am always going to be fourteen, always walking down this street of misery and pain without my mother holding my hand, and it will take a miracle to get me past this moment.
The miracle was my father, Moses Mallul.
 He and I spent the next few years traveling and doing field work with more “beasts” in Mexico and Morocco. I studied anthropology at NYU for four years, and each summer I flew to join him wherever he was, until classes resumed in the fall. When I graduated, we moved back to Brooklyn. He typed his notes, trying to give shape to his life’s work, Beauties and Beasts. Meanwhile I directed children’s plays at a nearby theater and found that I truly enjoyed working with kids: as I’d suspected, I’d never really progressed beyond age fourteen.
Our next project was to study how Jews from Arab countries were faring in the Promised Land. Before we moved to Israel, we went back to Mogador—now known less poetically as Essaouira—the town on Morocco’s Atlantic coast where Mom, Dad and I were born. Our families had all moved elsewhere, as the Jewish community in Morocco steadily diminished. I remember a blur of sea, sun, Portuguese stone ramparts, howling cats, a street of white houses with blue shutters, torches that flickered on black streets.
“Do you know why I love this town?” Dad asked. “No matter where I stand, I can smell the sea.”
“Jerusalem is the wildest theater on earth,” Dad told me, cupping his palm as if he held the city in his hand. “Imagine. You’re shoved on stage, dead-center under hot lights. The playwright skipped town, the script is in Aramaic, and you have no idea what’s going to happen next.”
“Then why do you want to go there?” I asked, considering myself the voice of reason.
 He fisted his hand and lightly brushed it against my cheek. “That’s why, Anniebelle. You squint into the audience and see that it’s the whole world come to jeer and shout and cheer. And you want to run off and hide backstage but the show must go on.”
“Then go,” I said. “Just don’t expect me to go with you. I don’t like these male cities. Holier-than-thou people praying to walls, too many gods. Fez, Mecca, Toronto.”
His eyes glinted. “Toronto?”
“Don’t laugh at me! Remember that sea of black bowlers and pointed black umbrellas? No place for a woman. Give me Tel Aviv. A Cosmo girl, brassy and edgy, digging her painted toes in the sand, staying up all night because she wants to have fun, dammit.”
Dad smiled, the way only he did, glowing with heat and life, giving off a low hum beneath his breath, under his veins. Mom had once said, “I knew I was in trouble the first time I saw him. If I touched this man’s humming golden skin, I knew my fingers would burn.”
After his funeral I went to the Western Wall—in rain and wind—and added my prayer written on a scrap of paper to the notes stuffed in every crevice. “May we all be free,” I wrote, and signed it “Moses, Yedida and Annie.” I backed off quickly, looking at the Orthodox men in black, separated from the women by a partition. Swaying and moaning, their voices rising above the wind, they frightened me. There was something ancient, disturbing, terribly sad and futile about being a Jew standing and praying before a wall of beige rocks. I wanted to feel inspired; instead I felt crushed by thousands of years of persecution and bloodshed. For the first time I wondered what was behind the wall. A void? A wizard and a tiny dog manipulating levers?
Quick. Let me get this out of the way. A large man—in every sense of the word—large booming laugh, large belly, large hug, soul, heart—boards a number 99 bus opposite Jaffa Gate on a March day in 1973. The bus is crowded but he finds an empty row and sits by the window because he has to see out. Look at him for a moment, please. Curly hair, mustache, beard with the burnished glow of autumn leaves. He and I have the same fiery hair but his mustache and beard are threaded with silver. His eyes—again like mine—are a green so dark they look black unless he is directly under the sun. But his eyes are kinder, more curious, edged with permanent laugh lines. He carries a book in his beige-and-brown woven bag—a gift from a Huichol friend—but he won’t take out the book until he’s certain no one will sit next to him. “The night smells sweeter than any dream,” says Moses Mallul. Or Annie’s interpretation: Even the greatest book fades before the words of real life.
A smiling young man sits beside him. Lovely, thinks Moses. Companionship. Before he can say a word, the young man jumps to his feet as if he has just remembered something, and leaps off the bus. Only problem: he leaves behind a shoebox, the size of a child’s pair of shoes. It must belong to his daughter or son, thinks Moses, and doesn’t hesitate, doesn’t question the power and mystery of an abandoned shoebox on a Jerusalem bus. The large bearded man grabs his woven shoulder-bag and the box—which means he intended to follow the young man and return the box, and in the process knew he’d probably miss his bus—and leaps off in pursuit, just as the bus doors slide shut. He doesn’t go far.
Three passersby on the street are slightly injured. Only one person is killed.
They call him a hero: He jumped off the bus to save the passengers, among them a pregnant woman and a mother with her three children under age ten. I tell you—as Moses Mallul’s daughter—he wasn’t thinking that far ahead. He was being pure Moses, doing one of his good deeds of the day. Nothing more, nothing less. 
At night I stare at the white wall of my windowless room in the basement of the Rose of Sharon Hostel, and I see his legs blow off, face explode, body shatter—a vibrant, fiery curl twirling like an autumn leaf, a finger wearing the gold wedding ring he never took off, an arm with red-gold hairs, a long tanned foot. “We have beach feet, Anniebelle. Our toes cling to the sand.”
The Israelis are used to dealing with bodies that are in pieces, gluing them back together as if they were a jigsaw puzzle that Daddy lovingly, professionally reconstructed. A puzzle in little pieces to be put together again. A hopeless, terrible puzzle in which the pieces never fit and for which I can’t cry.
The show must go on, he said.
Why? I ask. The curtain has been ripped open to reveal the brutal, grinding machinery. The play will never fool me again. I want only: intermission. Entr’acte. The in-between. That’s where I need to be: in a safety zone between borders, a gray shaded area unmarked on a map, a folded pocket of time where I can rest my head and be invisible. Please. Please just leave me alone, and go on without me.
The Jerusalem crone won’t listen. She’s angry at me, pushes me into doors and walls that I could swear weren’t there a moment ago, and hisses: your parents are dead, not you, and forces me onto the crowded Via Dolorosa—behind Franciscan priests, nuns, pilgrims, hippies, would-be saints. Layer upon layer, a gigantic throbbing heartbeat, the central point of intersection for all tourists traveling through the country. The air is thick with honeyed spices of Middle Eastern delicacies, donkeys and piss, gas exhaust and fumes. Vendors shriek in Hebrew and Arabic, whining beggars work the crowd, a street musician blows on his harp, his blues mingling with the strains of Om Khalsoum from a nearby café. I walk to the market, its smells of fruits and vegetables and herbs and cheap perfumes seductive: a narrow mouth opening to a long path lined on both sides with booths displaying everything from food and clothes to jewelry and toys. Leave the market and walk through Damascus Gate, down the stony road to the railway station, past the rock-hard whores with bold nipples and tongues, the bald man  sitting on a bamboo chair, a timeless pimp smoking and measuring your worth as you pass by. Doing the click-click with his tongue if you rate his approval as a woman. Or smoking impassively if you don’t.  The sun slaps me. Dust-wind and grit. Yiddish and black coats and fur hats, naked, freckled blue-tattooed arms, dark teenage boys eagle-eyeing wealthy tourist women, the mother screaming too sharply when her tiny son wanders away, the matriarch with gold teeth swinging a dead chicken, the planes flying too low, the soldiers patrolling the city walls, melting ice cream cone in one hand and walkie-talkie in the other, the eternal Uzi swinging against a narrow hip.
When is a homeland not a homeland? When is a promised land not a promise? This place hurts me, sticks to me the way the black tar from Tel Aviv’s white beach stuck to my bare feet. “You’ve got to scrub with Sentabon,” everyone told me. The bars were hard, abrasive, they scratched like sandpaper. As I scrubbed the tar from my heels and toes under burning water, I wondered if I’d ever be clean.
Funny, the one thing I never expected: I forget to eat. Forget, the way some people here forget to sleep. Lose my appetite, my sense of taste.
The crone, my self-appointed Jewish Mother, insists I eat. Compels a confused vendor to hand me falafel in pita, another to give me baklava. No subtlety. People will notice, I tell her. At least let me pay.
She laughs her raucous seagull laugh in my ear.
Three months pass, in the between—the demilitarized zone I’ve erected around myself. Sara, the manager of the hostel, watches me with worried eyes, but as long as I pay, she doesn’t question me. Nathan, the American with the flat pancake face and shirt pocket bursting with pens, mini-flashlight and nasal spray, works at the registration desk, and lies in wait. I evade him, weave between people and columns, around corners, up and down stone staircases, as if I were a gazelle.
There are clues. I misread them. I am certain that without Moses and Yedida—my wings—I am literally shrinking, like the Wicked Witch disintegrating in a puddle on the floor, shedding every vital sign that made me human. I never look at my body, rarely wash, get nauseated at the thought of food, spend hours every day tramping through the city in my long, black embroidered Bedouin wedding gown. I’m beginning to reek but I wore this dress the last time I saw Dad, and I know that when I take it off, once and for all, it will be a final goodbye. Wild and filthy she-creature, I wander the city—old and new.
A middle-aged couple, the man in a clerical collar, stumble on the gravel and stones outside the railway station. “I can’t believe it,” the man says to the woman. “I still can’t believe it. Prostitutes in the Holy Land. What is this world coming to?”
I look at them in disbelief, and for the first time in weeks, rouse myself from my stupor and walk the few steps to them. I know I look fierce, my hair uncombed. I haven’t washed or changed out of my black dress in days. “This is a real land,” I say to the man, my voice rusty. I clear my throat.
The woman puts a hand to her heart, as if to ward me off. I see the pink powder cracking on her cheeks. “Ernest,” she says feebly.
“Now see here,” says Ernest.
“Now you see here,” I say. “This is a country like any other country. What did you expect? That people don’t live and eat and die here? That you were entering a paradise, a middle-eastern Club Med where Jews put on sandals and suddenly become characters out of the Bible? It’s a real country. The air gets polluted. People steal from one another and screw one another’s wives. So what if there are prostitutes here? You’ve got them back in Arkansas or wherever you’re from. Israel doesn’t just exist in your dreams.” I stare at their amazed faces for a second, then walk away, my heart pounding. Why did I do that? What’s it to me if the Reverend Ernest sees a whore? What do I care? I laugh suddenly and start running. Bitch, I tell myself. You’re still alive. 
Dimly, I notice men turning to watch me. Gorgeous soldiers, dark curls flopping over narrowed eyes, tongues clicking. When the bus driver outside Jaffa Gate leans out the window to ask for my phone number, I’m certain he wants to ask about life in America, or if I know any pretty blondes.  
It’s not until I take off the Bedouin wedding gown that falls shapeless to my ankles and put on my old jeans that I look down and return to my body in absolute shock. Three, maybe four inches of space between the denim waistband and my pale belly. A lifelong struggle, magically over. I sink to the floor and finally cry—for Dad, Mom, the Jews, Israel, the Arabs, me. I will never see my father again. Life will never be the same. Nothing I do or say will ever be the same.
The next day I wash, clip finger and toe nails, put on makeup, and go downtown to shop. Quick reality check: next to slender Israeli female bodies, I am still large. I fit in their “large,” the equivalent of an American size ten. I tuck a t-shirt into a pair of jeans for the first time in my life. I buy a sleeveless purple-and-gray dress, diagonally striped, with a belted waist. The skirt swirls around my legs. I buy bell bottom jeans and a jeans miniskirt. T-shirts and tank tops. I need new underwear. Mine look like floating sails. And sandals—sexy, sturdy, black-strapped Nimrods like the female soldiers wear. I go to a gleaming white, futuristic beauty salon where a sloe-eyed beauty refuses to cut my long, dark red curls, but shapes and trims them to shoulder length. She waxes my eyebrows and redoes my makeup. Then she shoves a mirror in my face. “Aht chatikha,” she says in sharp Hebrew, then translates into English, “You’re pretty.”
I have a chin and cheekbones. My eyes look huge and lost in my newly thin face.
When I emerge hours later, lugging bags of all sizes, wearing my thigh-length mini skirt and Voice of Peace t-shirt, white with navy trim—nothing happens. Bemused, I return home to the Old City, up the Via Dolorosa, left on Aqabat Er Rahbat, past Aqabat Bustami towards Herod’s Gate. Nothing happens. No one makes rude comments, no Jewish mother clucks disapprovingly and tells me how pretty I’d be if only I lost weight, no one avoids my eyes or gestures exaggeratedly to move out of my lumbering way. I take exactly the amount of space allotted to normal, average human beings—and no more. I am no longer a beast but a beauty. Dad’s last gift.
I return to the theater of life with a vengeance. That first week I sleep with three guys: a Yemenite dancer from the Israeli cast of Hair, a dark-eyed soldier who guards the Western Wall and wears a peace sign on a pendant around his neck, and a guitar-playing French hippie staying at the hostel. In the mornings I stand on tiptoe and examine myself in the mirror over the sink in my room. That’s the difficult part. No matter how often men call me “yaffa” or “bella,” I see the same girl in the mirror, and I can’t tell if she’s the lovely, large-souled girl Dad saw, or the enormous beast everyone else saw.
Jean-Marc, the French hippie tourist, keeps pushing off his departure date, and after a month of hanging out together, I receive my second marriage proposal (the first was from a Moroccan man who said I had the head of his grandfather and we should mate immediately.) I lead Jean-Marc by the hand to the lobby of the Rose of Sharon—we are not allowed co-ed visits in our rooms—and under Nathan’s wistful eyes and drizzling nose, I show him old photos: Annie, at ten, on the stoop of our apartment on Ocean Parkway. At thirteen, arm in arm with Mom and Dad in front of the Taj Mahal. A freshman at NYU, where my roommate nicknamed me Thunder Thighs, a name that stuck for four years.
Jean-Marc laughs at the photos in disbelief, then apologizes. “So how much did you lose?” he asks. “A hundred pounds?”
“About forty,” I tell him.
We go to his friend’s apartment above a disco. After sex, he studies my body with newly curious eyes, touching the stretch marks around my belly and thighs. I understand: he sees the phantom-fat I carry like a Saturn ring around my middle, making it difficult to maneuver. I gesture too widely, give myself more room than I require, instinctively seek out X-large sizes in boutiques, turn around to see who the attractive guy is really smiling at. Jean-Marc doesn’t see me. No one does. I don’t see myself.
This is the point in the play when I should pack my bags and return to America. I can’t keep using my savings, I need to get a job, have to go back to our old apartment in Brooklyn and pack up Dad’s notes, our things. An overwhelming, painful task I’m not ready for. I’ll suffocate in memories.
I put on my new purple-and-gray striped dress, buy the Jerusalem Post, and sit at a café on Ben Yehuda and read the news for the first time in weeks. Maybe months. It feels like years. June 27, 1973. Everything seems new, yet unchanged. The same problems, the same shit—now Lebanon, now Syria, now Iran, now Egypt, now the West Bank—but here on Ben Yehuda, the sun is shining and women flirt, soldiers stare, children laugh, tourists snap photos. Drinking black coffee thick as mud, I tell myself: Okay, you’re back, Mallul. Maybe not in top form, but you’re back. Now . . . time to find a job. Go to an advanced Hebrew ulpan, beyond the six-month basic course. Communicate with people, make friends. I feel a twinge of excitement. On the back page I see an ad for a job:
English teachers needed, no experience necessary.
Makhon leSafot Tzion, Zion Language Institute
The address is nearby, about a fifteen-minute walk.I pass cafés and exclusive boutiques, moving towards a more residential area. Two skinny boys sharing a single bike, each using one pedal, skim past me. Here it is: Zion Language Institute. I go inside, climb the flight of dark stairs. and enter a large airy room, filled with people at student desks, scribbling. A freckled blonde gives me an application form. “English teacher?” she asks.
“Fill it out and bring it back to me. Then wait your turn. You’ll meet with the director, and he’ll let you know if you’re in.”
NAME: Anne Mallul  
DATE: June 27, 1973
ADDRESS: Rose of Sharon Hostel, Old City, Jerusalem
DATE OF BIRTH: March 4, 1948
PLACE OF BIRTH:Mogador, Morocco
EDUCATION: B.A. from New York University (Major: Sociology/Anthropology)
WORK EXPERIENCE:Director of Grimm Children’s Theater, Brooklyn;
anthropological field work in India, Mexico & Morocco, during which I taught English to
students of all ages; co-editor with Moses Mallul, Beauties & Beasts (work-in-progress).
“How long will it take?” I ask her.
“At least two hours. There’s a long line of people before you. Go and eat. Take your time.”
I go outside the Zion Language Institute. At a corner stand, I buy falafel in hot pita. As I eat, I explore the area. The houses here are shady and secluded, with inner courtyards that remind me of the riads of Morocco. Staring at a lush pink flower, I tear it from the branch. Intoxicatingly sweet, it dizzies me, makes me think of walking through Central Park in the spring. I rip it apart with my teeth and chew, only to discover its secret, a bitter heart.
Back upstairs, a handful of applicants remains. All from the States, we sit on the narrow balcony outside the classroom and talk about our impressions of Israel. Over six feet tall, Tyrone is nineteen, came to play on a basketball team, but almost immediately went broke, so his coach advised him to try for a job.
“Do you know anything about teaching English?” I ask him.
“Nah.” He grins. “I just got out of high school.”      
Meggie is twenty-three, a college student who dropped out and is drifting through the world, taking odd jobs everywhere she goes. 
Wes and Rachel met as volunteers on a kibbutz in the south near Ein Gedi, and decided to try life in the city. They are old-timers, already in Israel over a year. “It's intense,” Wes says. “I mean, the mood here is so fucking intense. You feel like you’re on the edge of an explosion any second.”
I shudder, turn away.
“Besides,” Rachel adds with a wink, “now that they've got a MacDavid's in Tel Aviv—you know, like McDonald's—there's no reason to go back, right?”
It’s after five when Tyrone is finally called in. He comes out ten minutes later, slinging his backpack. “No sweat, as long as you speak English.”
Wes and Rachel are next. They come out, grinning with relief.  “This'll keep us going till we decide what to do,” they tell Meggie and me. “Good luck!”
The freckled woman calls me next. I go down a narrow hallway to an office where a bald, stocky man sits, impatiently ruffling papers. He glances at me for a moment, then indicates a chair. He studies my application. “Oh, you're Anne Mallul.”
“Yes?” I don't understand his tone. An air of subtle disapproval.
“You're twenty-five.”
“Yes.” Is it my age? I’m only a couple of years older than the others.
“I see you graduated from New York University. A good school.”
“Yes,” I say again.
“Anne Mallul.” He studies me uncomfortably. “I'm sorry. We have no openings. Thank you for coming.”
“Wait a minute.” I feel a slow rumbling deep inside me, almost like a train roaring through my body. “I was under the impression that you had quite a few openings—”
“Miss Mallul,” he says, emphasizing the miss, “your qualifications aren't what we're looking for. Shalom.”
I sit stubbornly. “My qualifications aren’t sufficient, but a high school graduate’s are? What exactly are you looking for here? What is this all about?”
He sighs, toys with his pencil. “Miss Mallul, shall I be honest?”
“I see here that you were born in Morocco.”
“Yes.” I’m in a tunnel, still can't see the light. “So?”
“So, I know Moroccans.”
I stare at him blankly.
“Don't get the wrong idea. Some of my best friends are Moroccans. You're warm people. Fun-loving people. Religious. But not reliable. Not good workers.”
“Not good workers?” I echo his words. “What the hell are you talking about?”
“Miss Mallul.” He stands up. “I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”
“Just a minute, Mr. . . . Mr. . . .”
“Mr. Goldberg.”
“Mr. Goldberg. I left Morocco when I was seven years old. But what does that matter, anyway? I've studied English. I’ve taught the language to people all over the world. I'm afraid I still don't understand.”
“Then let me spell it out for you, Miss Mallul.” He leans over his desk, a twisted smile on his face. “I don't hire Moroccans. Is that clear enough for you? Now, shalom. I have work to do. And please send in the next applicant.”
I want to take his smiling red face and smash it against the wall like a fruit. And scream at him: That’s your Moroccan, here's your Moroccan, you son of a bitch! But I’m
somewhat civilized for a Moroccan so I walk out silently and gesture to Meggie to go in. Out of the corners of my eyes I see her staring at me, but I’m incapable of stopping to say a word. I go down the stairs and walk, without stopping, back to the Old City, my familiar stretch of the Via Dolorosa.
I take the long way around the city walls. The sky is on fire by the time I arrive at Lion’s Gate, the coral sky shedding gold-red light over every stone, every face. The Via Dolorosa is as crowded and busy as ever. The smell of frying fish and ripe tomatoes drifts from the café down the road.
I walk down the cobbled street slowly, memorizing. This is goodbye. I’m finished with this country, this city. I’m going back to America. I know that Mr. Goldberg is probably an aberration. The Civil Liberties Union in America would have a field day with him. I know—I know—Israel has prejudice and whores. My words to the Reverend Ernest boomerang and return to slam me between the eyes. What a strain to put on a land, to call it promised. There are no promised lands, no promised endings.
I stop dead-center in the middle of the road, facing the Jerusalem Pottery. Dad is gone, Mom is gone, but I’m here. They’d hate to see me wallow in self-pity.
Oh God, Mallul, are you finally going to open your eyes and see the void?
I take an unsteady step forward and blink. That’s when the crone pulls the last trick out of her bag.  
I see an arched wooden door with brass lintels, a blue-black-and-cream sign obviously made by the Armenian tile-makers: Bookstore.
A few doors past the pottery. I stare for a full minute before it hits me: I’ve never seen this door, this sign, this store. I move closer and peer into a glass window. It is a bookstore, lined with shelves, crowded with shoppers.
Hand pressed over my heart, I turn my head. Nothing has changed or moved. I’m on the street I’ve walked on five hundred times in the past four months, the street I could walk blindfolded. From Lion’s Gate past the Ecce Homo Arch to the mysterious Convent of the Sisters of Zion, where the gray-eyed nun watches me the way I watch her, as if we each know a secret about the other. The way the street shifts at the corner of Haggai, where the Austrian Hospice sits. The Jerusalem Pottery, run by the friendly Armenians who create brilliant, colorful tiles. Abu Shukery, known for the best humus in the Old City,  whose grinning waiter makes me Turkish coffee with cardamom. The pilgrims file by, taking flash photos of themselves posing at each Station of the Cross. In all the places I’ve lived, I don’t think I’ve ever gotten to know a neighborhood the way I know this part of the Old City. The corner where the breeze ruffles my hair, the instant when Abu Shukery’s spices fill the air, the precise spots where cobbles tilt and tiles are uneven. Do you understand? I know this street in my bones. And I have never seen this bookstore.
The wooden door bursts open, and a frail old man with wispy white hair and a nut-brown face steps outside, peers up and down the street, then at his watch. The White Rabbit. Yeah, and I’m Alice. With a sigh, he turns and faces me. The deepest, softest eyes I’ve ever seen. “You wouldn’t”—he begins in Hebrew, then shifts to English—“you wouldn’t be in search of a job, would you?”
Staring at him, I’m suddenly afraid. Not of the network of wrinkles crisscrossing his dark face but of the startling hunger in his eyes. It doesn’t die, does it? It stays and grows until it eats you alive. It doesn’t matter if you’re a man or a woman, old or young. A low spark, nearly forgotten, bursts into life.
“Do you love books?” he asks. “Words? Even those we’ve lost because we think we don’t need them any more?”           
I don’t answer, but he smiles slowly, and I know he sees the hunger in my face, mirroring his. Not for food, not for money, not even for love, but for oneself. Hunger that will never die, not until it’s fed.
With a bow and a flourish, he ushers me inside. “Welcome to the Blue Bookstore.” 


I’m not committing to anything. I just want to see. As I enter the long turquoise-and-gold-lit room, a raucous laugh, like sea wind, blows in my ear. Then the door shuts behind me, and I’m on the other side.


Copyright © Ruth Knafo Setton 2015

Ruth Knafo Setton is the author of the novel, The Road to Fez, and the recipient of literary fellowships and awards from the National Endowment of the Arts, Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, and PEN, and writers’ colonies, including Yaddo and MacDowell. Her poetry, fiction and creative nonfiction have appeared in many journals and anthologies, including Women Writing Desire, Becoming Myself: Reflections on Growing Up Female, The Schocken Book of Modern Sephardic Literature, Best Contemporary Jewish Writing, Arts & Letters, Tiferet, and The North American Review. She teaches courses in Jewish Literature and Creative Writing at Lehigh University and Semester at Sea, and is working on a new novel. Her website is:

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