2 out of 4 stars
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‘Keys to Tetouan’ by Mois Benarroch is a captivating and intimate novel about the Benzimra family, and their connection to the city of Tetouan.
The Benzimra family is a family of Sephardi Jews who, after the expulsion from Spain in 1942, settled in Tetouan, a city in the northern part of Morocco. Over time family members leave Tetouan and spread all over the world, settling in places such as Israel, Venezuela and Brazil. Others go back to Spain or settle in France.
The story begins when Fernando Benzimra finds out that he is Jewish. This is quite a revelation for him and he decides to go to Tetouan, back to where his family is from. The book continues to tell the stories of different members of the Benzimra family, about their lives and their connection to Tetouan. Some chapters are written in the form of letters, others are dialogues, and other chapters are narrated from a third person perspective. Themes like exile, a sense of belonging and identity are woven through the story.
I really liked the story and the explored themes of exile, identity and belonging. Especially the question of belonging is exposed in an interesting way. When a family moves from Tetouan to Israel, they do so to be in the country where they belong, a Jewish country. However, this dream does not quite come true, and is beautifully said by a young boy: ‘there we were Jews, here we are Moroccans’. This is probably true for many immigrants and exiles, and it is an interesting reality to explore.
I also learned a lot about Sephardi Jewish culture and about the state of Israel, and why this country is so important for Jewish people. I felt that the intimate style of the book was beautiful.
However, I did struggle with the style of writing, and I am not sure if this style was used on purpose, or if it happened accidently in the translation to english. A lot of comma’s are used, making sentences very long. I sort of got out of breath when reading. At first I thought this belongs to the style, but then in the chapters ‘David Sananes 1996’ and ‘El Itihad Maroc’ the style starts differently, with shorter sentences and then changes again after half a page. Therefore I am not sure if this is a clumsy translation or part of the writing style. But because of the different writing styles in different chapters, this is not a problem through the entire book. The chapters with the numbers, in which a child holds a dialogue with his parents, are beautifully written, both in style and in content.
I did struggle to keep track of all of the characters, and started to take notes whilst reading, so that I would not loose track. Maybe a family tree as an appendix or something would have been helpful.
Whilst reading I came across a lot of errors. Other reviewers mentioned typo’s where the space between the words was missing, this was not the case in my version of the book. However, I came across grammatical errors and spelling mistakes frequently, here a few examples: ‘the whole the Benzimra family….’(p 5) ‘Esterica who gave birth you…’(p 22), ‘married her because the other Coti….’(p 22), ‘being a Jew means marring a Jewish wife’ (p 43).
I rate this book 2 out of 4 stars. The story is beautiful and interesting, and I recommend this book to anyone with an interest in middle eastern or Jewish culture, literature or history. But I did struggle with the writing style in a lot of the chapters, which made it hard for me to be motivated to continue to read the book. And I could not really get into the story because I could not keep track of all the characters and how they were all related. A glossary would have been helpful, I was unfamiliar with quite a number of words and concepts related to Jewish culture and religion.
Keys to Tetouan
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