2 out of 4 stars
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How does it feel to live in this world without any knowledge of one’s ancestral background? I can imagine how disconnected the slaves from Africa and elsewhere felt when they found out that they could no longer trace their ancestral roots. Written by Mois Banarroch, Keys to Tetouan is a novel in the historical fiction category and the first of what is called “The Tetouan Trilogy.” It delves into the life and predicaments of the Benzimra family, who seek the keys to fully unearth their ancestral background.
Born in the city of Tetouan, Morocco, the Benzimra family migrated to Madrid, New York, Paris, the Amazons, Jerusalem, Greece, and wherever they find fit for human habitation. But this fact is unknown to Fernando Benzimra, the lead character of the novel. He has been living with his father in Caracas for a very long time. But after his father died, he discovers a letter left by him (his dead father), revealing that he is of Jewish ancestry from Tetouan. The unbelievable thing is that Fernando had all along thought that his father had migrated from Madrid in Spain. The new discovery tears him apart as he ponders over how to tie the loose ends together. Picking up a clue from the letter his deceased father wrote, Fernando searches through a phone book for the address of his uncle, Moshe Benzimra, who will be the starting point of his search for his Tetouan roots.
But why would Mimon Benzimra, Fernando’s father, hide this sensitive information about their Jewish identity from his son? And why would Fernando himself hide his own son’s Jewish identity from Mimon, his father? Well, although all those background information was missing in the book itself, one could tell that the author aims at exploring the predicaments of the Jews during the Spanish Inquisition through the view point of the fictional Benzimra family. Extra research beyond the scope of Keys to Tetouan reveals that the Spanish Inquisition was established in 1478 by Catholic Monarchs Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile, who, in 1492, decreed that Jews and Muslims convert to Catholicism or leave Spain. Although some complied by the decree, others migrated elsewhere. Most of the author’s ancestors, being Jewish, went to Tetouan in Morocco, which is about 100 miles from the boundaries of Spain. This is the historical context of the novel. Fearing persecution, some of the Jews in diaspora (who refused to convert to Catholicism) hid their Jewish identity. This explains Fernando’s dilemma.
Empathizing with the author, I can feel how disillusioned and detached he felt with his ancestral home as the themes of discrimination, disappointment, and oppression are explored. He identifies a prodigious crack between his expectations and the reality. While he ponders over how sad it was for his people to be expelled from Spain, he finds it even more worrying when his own Jewish people in Israel regarded them as foreigners. Why should they change their names to Jewish-sounding names before they are accepted in Israel? The Benzimra family’s desire to find a homeland and the uncertainty of being of Jewish ancestry in a world which continues to point its hostility to Jews appear to keep the Benzimra family on a never-ending, and perhaps unachievable, mission.
I think the author has not met my expectations. In fact, I find it tough connecting the issues discussed. The ideas were relayed in a confused manner, making it difficult to understand what really the speakers are trying to say. Sometimes, I feel like the speakers have verbal diarrhea (excuse my language, please!) as very long and winding sentences, or even paragraphs, are written without a single full stop. Some may argue that this may be the style of the writer, but it didn’t appeal to me. Question marks are missing, and many unpardonable mistakes are detected. For instance, sentences like “all of the my living children” (pg. 97), “we should have went” (pg. 136), “he saw a women wearing black” (pg. 201), among others, would have been corrected if a proper editing had been done (please, note that the page numbers cited are based on the ones generated by the pdf format of the book since the book itself has no page numbers). If this book is intended for the generality of the public, then I will advise the author to define the Jewish terms mentioned therein so as to give understanding to the reader.
I was mostly frustrated reading this book. But my yearning to learn something new about Hebrew or Jewish culture sustained my interest to read on. I feel that if the author reorganizes his thought and writing ability, and adds some professional editing touch to the book, this book will be one of the informative books telling about the plight of the Jews during the Spanish Inquisition. I will rate the book 2 out of 4 stars, and I will recommend it to those who are interested in Jewish culture.
Keys to Tetouan
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