Clark Zlotchew is SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor of Spanish and literature in Spanish language, Emeritus. Only three of Zlotchew’s 17 books consist of his fiction: Two espionage/thriller novels and an award-winning collection of his short stories. Newer work of his has appeared Crossways Literary Magazine, Baily’s Beads, The Fictional Café and many other literary journals in the U.S., Australia, U.K., Germany, South Africa, India, and Ireland from 2016 through 2021. Earlier fiction of his has appeared in his Spanish versions in Latin America. Over 70 scholarly articles of his have appeared in Spanish and in English in learned journals on five continents.
More about Clark Zlotchew at: www.clarkzlotchew.com
By Clark Zlotchew
The beginning? But what really is the beginning of anything? If a man robs a bank, is the beginning of this event when he woke that morning, or when he planned it a month before its execution, or when he lost his job and stopped receiving a good salary? Or was the true beginning involved with the manner in which his parents raised him, their morals and ideals? Or when he was born, with the tendencies programmed into his genes? Or when he was conceived? Or how and why his parents conceived him? And on and on in reverse until arriving at the first homo sapiens? Or to the first homo erectus? And so on all the way back to the first case of a living creature: a one-celled entity? Or all the way back to the ultimate beginning, the start of everything, which some call the Big Bang,1 and others call by the Biblical Hebrew title B’resheet (In the Beginning), or its English/Greek name Genesis. I can see I’ve said much too much, much more than necessary. Well, I’m a garrulous old professor. Retired. Let’s cut to the chase, as they say. For the purpose of this report I feel it appropriate to start only as far back as May 2019 and then reach further back to 2005. And then to one thousand years earlier. And, come to think of it, to almost four thousand years ago. Really.
1 But I have always wondered: How did the material/matter/substance that would explode get there in the first place? And what caused the explosion? These are questions the human brain is laughably too limited to even try to answer. We are the only species that even wonders about these matters and is frustrated by the tragic inability to discover the answers.
May 2005: Levi told me he had signed up to travel with a group of Spanish teachers, professors and students on a Florida State University-sponsored month-long program to travel around Spain. Crossing the Strait of Gibraltar from Algeciras to Tangier for a three-day stay in Morocco, it struck Levi that on this clear day he could see both Europe and Africa simultaneously. He felt –very strongly– that this ordinary fact concealed a hidden meaning –a personal message– submerged in his unconscious, barely tapping at the gates of his consciousness.
He shook his head in wonder when he spied in the distance to the west and to the east the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, respectively. Simple geographical facts, he knew on a rational level. Yet he marveled at this view of two continents and two great seas joining hands, so to speak. He felt odd to be in the very center of this confluence of the waters and the encounter of two great land masses pressing in on him from the four cardinal points of the compass.
I felt like telling him, “Get over yourself, my boy. You’re not the center of the universe.” Naturally, I held my peace.
Levi knew it was foolish to feel this way. People traveled this short route every day; it was commonplace. It took an hour and a half to cross. I could see he was somehow disturbed by this irrational sensation, as he unburdened himself to me. I told him that one shouldn’t agonize over feelings, to just accept them. Perhaps at some later date the meaning of it would reveal itself to him. If it had a meaning.
Then Levi mentioned that when he debarked from the ferry, a tall, blonde, blue-eyed stevedore reached to take his suitcase. The man was attired in wide red trousers of the type worn in the days of Sheherazade, a black sash around his waist and an open black vest over a bare chest. He looked like a Viking disguised as a guard of the Caliph of Baghdad. Or a Cossack. Physically not at all typical of most Moroccans. In fact, he could easily be taken for a native of Norway. Must be a descendant of the Vandals, Levi decided. Interesting. Somehow, he sensed a submerged connection between this dock worker and the near epiphany he experienced on crossing the Strait. I thought he was adding two plus two and arriving at five.
He told me that in 2005 Tangier was a large cosmopolitan city, as it still is, in which men and women wearing the latest European fashions unconcernedly mingled with women in hijabs and men in jellabas. This juxtaposition of modern Western garb and traditional North African apparel added to his sense of an impending discovery. As did his hearing the babble of several languages simultaneously. The study group toured the city by bus and on foot, and in the evening went to a club in which they were entertained by local musicians as well as a Spanish dance troupe, and were able to dance to a band that played salsa, merengue and “slow dances.”.
On the third day they took a chartered bus across a thirsty beige landscape to Tetuán, a dusty, sleepy, old-fashioned backwater about forty miles east-south-east of Tangier. Here all the men wore jellabas and clothing that looked like they came straight out of the Alf Laila w’Laila, the Thousand and One Nights. Women were a rare sight but when seen in public at all were wrapped from head to foot in black, the eyes alone visible. He mentioned that their clothing, except for the face covering, reminded him of the traditional garb of Catholic nuns. As the tour group proceeded down a main street, the local men lined up on the sidewalks to simply stare at them, mostly at the young miniskirted women in their group.
Levi started to worry: was he obsessing about some as yet inchoate idea represented by seeing two continents at the same time? Because that crossing flashed into his mind again upon observing miniskirted girls being ogled by men in jellabas.
I interrupted to say, “Well, that’s only logical, my boy. Two continents juxtaposed and then two cultures in confrontation.”
He smiled, nodded and continued. This scholarly young man felt he and the other Americans were being scrutinized the way people watched the antics of animals in a zoo. Except that these Moroccans did not smile or speak to each other; they just stared sullenly, or glared, eyes radiating disgust, he felt, and even hatred. And lust.
“Naturally, Isaac, what would you expect?” I said. “The girls should have been warned to dress modestly there.”
May 2019: Fourteen years after his first visit, Professor Levi had presented a paper at a conference in Seville, and decided to revisit Morocco. He couldn’t explain to me, even to himself, his motive for doing so. “It was just a whim, for old times’ sake, perhaps.”
I thought, but would not say, Come on, my boy. You must be joking. You know the reason, you incorrigible sentimentalist.
In 2019, Levi could not help noticing that Tetuán had a more energetic air. While there were still old sections of town where many still dressed the way their ancestors did, in the bustling downtown area he saw men who wore modern Western clothing, who would not seem out of place in Los Angeles, and women who wore jeans or skirts that reached below the knee, however, not miniskirts. The city was much larger, as well, and had some interesting examples of ultra-modern architecture.
As he explained this, I thought, mildly interesting, but you’re stalling. You are resisting getting to the consequential part.
Levi strolled along a narrow winding lane in the older part of Tetuán, a street that seemed familiar. No vehicular traffic was permitted on this street. An unnecessary regulation: no car would fit into this space. There were no sidewalks; the street was not much more than a dusty path, with two-story buildings of white-washed stucco on both sides. The noise of city traffic and voices of hucksters did not penetrate this remote alley in which a perfect silence reigned. It occurred to him that he probably had been on this very street fourteen years earlier. No, he corrected, not probably: definitely. With her. With the nineteen-year-old student, Jazmine Toledano.
He almost passed it: a small unobtrusive shop. The name was written on the window in black in Arabic and in Roman alphabet: Dar al-Musayr. Reading the name, the American chuckled. Quite an impressive name, Abode of Destiny. A hand-written sign in that window –in Arabic, French and Spanish– announced Curios & Ancient Books. He felt immediately impelled to enter. Curiosity, of course, but something stronger as well. When his eyes had adjusted to the penumbra of this tiny shop, Levi noticed the white plastered walls almost entirely blocked by bookshelves of dark wood loaded with dusty tomes. The pleasant smell of old paper brought him back to his childhood wanderings among the stacks of his neighborhood library. The smell was unexpectedly comforting. The professor had a fleeting vision of Miss Fletcher, the kindly white-haired librarian.
Yes, I thought, he really is a sentimental fellow.
He finally discerned, in the semi-darkness, a distinguished-looking man wearing a mahogany-colored jellaba and red fez, almost invisible at first, chameleon-like, camouflaged by the dark wood behind him. He had a kindly smile on his white-bearded face. The shopkeeper placed his hand on his heart, inclined his head, and greeted the academic with “Marhaba, ya estadh” (Welcome, Professor).
“You know, Professor Whitney,” Levi told me, “while there I felt the man looked vaguely familiar. I just realized why.” He gave me a peculiar look.
“You don’t mean he looked like me, do you?”
He shrugged and smiled, then continued his tale. It seems the shopkeeper’s Arabic had a strange accent to it, unlike that of Tangier or Dar al-Baida, or even of Marrakech. It was a pronunciation Levi was not familiar with. A word or two surprised him because he had come across those words only in ancient documents, never in the speech of modern-day Arabs of the Middle East or of the Maghreb. Speaking in Arabic, Levi asked him how he knew he was a professor, to which the antiquarian responded, “Who but an academic or scholar would come to this shop?” He chuckled. “We have no Harry Potter books or comics in my humble establishment.”
The proprietor invited Levi to sit on one of the two chairs, then went into the dark backroom and returned a couple of minutes later with two small cups of strong, sweet coffee. He placed the cups on a small table and seated himself on the other chair facing the young man. They spoke about trivial matters, as was customary, but the elderly gentleman finally inquired if the visitor was looking for something in particular, offering to help. Levi told him he had nothing special in mind, that he was just browsing. The antiquarian smiled and said, “I am sure you will find something fascinating here. Inshallah.” He then retreated into the greater darkness of the back room.
The American stood and wandered around the shop, flipping through dusty old books at random. Levi had been under a strain recently, but somehow felt very much at ease in this hole-in-the-wall antiquities shop. The books were in Arabic, French, English, Hebrew, Aramaic, Spanish and Greek, on various disciplines: navigation, history, geography, astronomy, mathematics, theology, mysticism, philosophy… Even alchemy and magic! All interesting, of course. A reflection from outside flashed for a few seconds on a corner of the room in which a brown folder seemed to be jammed between the end of a bookcase and the wall. It would be an understatement to say it drew his attention; it exerted what seemed like a magnetic attraction on him. Levi walked over to it and plucked it from its cranny. He blew off a cloud of dust, wiped it down with a paper tissue, laid it on a table and opened it. A faint trace of something in the air suddenly sparked a vague feeling of happiness followed by disappointment. The folder held unbound sheets of yellowed paper as well as parchment, all containing handwriting in various alphabets on it. Many of these sheets were prosaic business accounts or advice about health.
Then he saw them: six sheets of sheepskin on some of which was writing in Arabic and others in Hebrew. Some were in the Hebrew language but using Arabic script. As he riffled through these documents, he came upon poetry of a kind he was familiar with: verses written in Moorish Spain from the tenth through the twelfth centuries. They were muwashshahs with their corresponding kharjas.2 He knew that a muwashshah is a long poem in either classical Arabic or formal Hebrew, with a definite rhyme scheme. He also knew that at the end of this type of poem is the kharja, which is a bit of lyrical poetry –probably a popular song– of from two to four lines. But unlike the longer poem to which they are attached, these short verses are in Mozarabic, one of the early Romanic dialects commonly spoken among Christians living under Moorish rule in Spain.
Levi remembered that these verses, which almost always expressed the pain a young woman feels at the absence of her lover, are in what could be loosely called “Spanish,” he thought, or perhaps proto-Spanish, with a sprinkling of colloquial Arabic vocabulary. But, as he saw confirmed by these documents, this early Spanish was written in either the Arabic or Hebrew alphabet, depending on the language of the muwashshah to which it’s attached. He smiled at the thought that the earliest examples of poetry in Spanish language were written in either Arabic or Hebrew letters.3 His simultaneous view of Europe and Africa on crossing the Strait of Gibraltar flashed through his mind for a fraction of a second.
And, he noted, these kharjas, like the ones found in Cairo, continued the same rhyme found in the preceding muwashshah. Levi enjoyed the idea that the kharja was the transcription of a popular song that everyone knew and could be heard on the streets of Córdoba or Granada or Seville a thousand years earlier.4
His discovery of these hitherto unknown muwashshahs-kharjas was an incredible piece of luck! For his career. Then, it hit him like a blow to the gut! A fragrance that stirred his memory seized his heart, causing it to race. The image of a beautiful face in profile, in three-quarters view, in full face, dark hair cascading to smooth shoulders flashed through his mind. His body, his nerve-endings, his unconscious, recognized the intoxicating bouquet three seconds before his conscious mind did. There was no mistaking it. It was her signature scent. Hers, no one else’s.
2 This type of poetry was first discovered by the scholar Samuel Miklos Stern in 1948 in the Geniza of a synagogue in Cairo. Stern was what was then called a “Palestinian,” i.e. a Jew born in British Mandate Palestine. Stern found twenty of them. At a later date he discovered thirty more. These Hebrew poems with accompanying kharjas in Spanish language, but written in Hebrew script, were the very first ones discovered. Others were found later in Arabic.
3 These popular songs presented a problem for modern translators. One would need to have scholars with a knowledge of Late Latin and Old Spanish as well as scholars of Arabic and Hebrew to try to piece together the meaning. Since the entire composition was written in either Arabic or Hebrew script, in which there were no indications of vowels, some educated guesswork was necessary.
4 Many scholars believe the song preexisted as a popular unwritten ditty, familiar to everyone, and that the poet composed the muwashshah in Hebrew or Arabic based on the kharja.
May 2005: Nineteen-year-old Jazmine Toledano had been one of the students on the tour in 2005. As they traveled with the group, she and Isaac began to pair off at the end of local day tours. They spoke of their academic interests, favorite movies, music, languages. They agreed that Bogart and Bergman in Casablanca was a masterpiece. They danced in clubs and went for long walks in the evening. After the first two weeks, she and he had fallen in love. It was there in Tetuán, on that very lane transformed into a white ribbon by the full moon, that Levi had told her he loved her.
She beamed with delight and looked into his eyes. “I love you, too, Isaac.” Her smile then morphed into a frown and she looked down at the ground.
“That’s wonderful!” he said. He noticed her change of emotion. “But why are you staring at the ground, looking so sad, Jazmine? We love each other. Aren’t you happy?”
She looked up at him with tears in her eyes. Her voice cracking, she said, “Isaac, my grandparents were born in Baghdad. My mother and father still follow the old customs.”
“What does that have to do with anything?”
She spoke rapidly, as though to spit the words out and be rid of them, “They’ve arranged a marriage for me. To a man I don’t even know.” She sobbed. “I can’t go against their wishes, Isaac. I can’t.”
Levi stood speechless for a moment. Then, “Jazmine, this is 2005. You don’t have to go along with that ridiculous custom. Tell them to break off the engagement! I want to marry you. Tell them you’re in love.”
“I can’t, Isaac, I just can’t” She sobbed. “You don’t understand.”
When Levi told me this, it struck a chord. Years ago, an uncle of mine told me that when he told his father he was in love, his father had seemed annoyed and said, “We were just talking about your going to be married. We’re talking about marriage. Why are you talking about love?” So, I understood the girl’s plight. I mentioned this to Levi.
“Dr. Whitney,” the boy said, “with all due respect, this is my story, sir, not your uncle’s.”
Levi continued with his story. Jazmine broke away from him and ran up the lane that now looked to him like a trail of spilt milk.
The next morning the group was boarding the bus for the ride to Ceuta, a city although physically on the North African coast, was an integral part of Spain. (When he mentioned this fact, I, Drew Whitney, had a flash of seeing Europe and Africa simultaneously. Good grief! His obsession was rubbing off on me.) As the bus closed its doors, Levi yelled for the driver to wait, then asked the group leader where Jazmine was.
“She took the first flight to Madrid on her way back to Seattle.” He shrugged his shoulders and said, “Said it was a family emergency.”
May 2019: And now this scent, her personal bouquet, issued from one of the parchments. Levi had an attack of vertigo and had to sit. He quickly found the document on which this scent hung heaviest, the unmistakable bearer of this sharp reminder. He extracted it from the pile with cold hands and placed it on the table. He had to calm down, regulate his breathing. The shopkeeper watched the American intently.
Levi examined this kharja, which was written in Hebrew alphabet. He could tell that this parchment was a palimpsest.5 This fact alone drew him back to that fateful moment in crossing the Strait of Gibraltar. He transliterated the kharja: g’r sws dbyn’/ydbyns blh’q/g’rm knd my brn’d/myw hbyby ‘yshq. The young man concentrated and was able to perform in a half hour what should have taken at least twice that amount of time. He filled in the vowels that made sense in context and came up with: Gare: sos debina?/ E debinas bi-l-haq?/Gar-me kand me bernad/Mio habibi ‘Ishaq.6 In English this would mean: Speak: Are you a fortune teller? And do you prophecy correctly? Tell me: when will my friend (lover) Isaac come to me?
This kharja rocked the American. True, the Isaac in the text could not possibly refer to him; it would be madness to think it did. But how did the unmistakable fragrance come to cling to this manuscript? And why would it be strongest on this particular document? The slight residue of scent on the ones surrounding it were no doubt the result of being contaminated by being in close contact with this palimpsest.
The shop keeper had been watching him keenly. He murmured, “I see these muwashshahs interest you.”
Levi took a moment to snap out of his reverie. “Ah… Yes, they do.” He hesitated for a moment. “What will you ask for these six?”
“They are extremely valuable. For a museum or similar institute, I would ask 50,000 dollars each, for a total of 300,000 dollars or 3,000,000 dirhams.”
Levi hung his head.
The shop keeper continued, “But that one, the one you hold in your hands… I see that your soul cries for that one. It should belong to you. I could not possibly ask for money.”
Levi started to say something, but the antiquarian cut him off, saying, “I know you can’t afford to purchase the other ones. You can request your university to acquire them. And they, through the British Government, are well able to afford the price.”
Levi stood, tears in his eyes, and embraced the old gentleman. He looked back as he opened the door to leave. The old man bowed slightly and said “Ma’ salami”
5 A Palimpsest is a parchment or other document which has had an original text erased, scraped off, for a newer text to be written over it. Usually, the erasure is not perfect, and traces of the original can be detected.
6 The phrases bi-l-haq, habibi and the name ‘Ishaq are Arabic. They mean, respectively: legitimately; my friend or lover; Isaac. (‘Ishaq is the Arabic from the original Hebrew Yitzhaq.)
September 2019, Oxford: Levi, in a red polo shirt, jeans and grey tweed jacket, stared glumly through the window at the dark and dreary Oxford campus with its decaying sixteenth-century buildings. A heavy rain propelled by wind pelted his office window, sounding like a machinegun being fired. At him. He became aware of the wet dog smell of his damp woolen jacket. Oh, yes, Merry Olde England, was his wry thought. He looked back at his computer and checked his email. The usual: messages from friends and colleagues. Political ads asking for contributions. He saw one with an unfamiliar sender address: firstname.lastname@example.org. He felt as though an electric current surged through his midsection.
Jazzto…? Could it be? No, why would she… His heart rate was elevated, his hands had turned cold and he imagined catching a whiff of that special, intoxicating perfume. Oh, come on, dammit, stop hypothesizing and just click on to the email and see for sure who it is. He did so.
It was indeed from Jazmine. She was going to be in London for a conference from October fourteenth to the seventeenth. Could he come down to London. She needed to talk to him. He began to perspire. Why would she want to see him after fourteen years, and she, a married woman? What the hell! He wrote back in unemotional tones that yes; he could do that.
On the evening of the fourteenth he met her at seven o’clock in the crowded little lobby of the Regent Palace, on Piccadilly Circus. She hadn’t changed that much, even though she was now thirty-three years old. He had the urge to run to her and hold her in his arms, but he told himself to simply smile and say “Jazmine, how good to see you.” He took one step toward her, but on seeing Levi she ran to him, flung her arms around his neck and pressed her face against his jacket lapel. Levi felt as though he were melting like a wax statue next to a bonfire.
He found his voice and stammered, “Jazmine, how are you?” What a lame thing to say.
She tore her face from his chest and raised her eyes. There were tears streaming down her cheeks, and a wide smile on her face. “Can we get out of this crowded hallway and go someplace to chat?” she murmured.
They were seated at a small table for two at the Brigantine Public House, a dimly lighted pub. The walls had murals depicting eighteenth-century sailing ships in full sail before strong winds, with foam-tipped waves crashing against bows sending spray into the air. In the distance was painted a lighthouse with a beacon that flashed on a timer.
“It’s a good thing I’m not troubled by motion sickness,” Jazmine laughed. She turned serious and explained, “Isaac, I’m a widow. My husband died five years ago. We had no children.”
“I’m sorry, Jazmine.” He really did sympathize with her, but at the same time felt a weight slide from his shoulders.
“Isaac, have you ever…” She hesitated, seemingly not sure if she wanted to finish her sentence.
“Have I ever…what, Jazmine?”
She reddened, then, “Not important.” She looked down at the table.
“Oh, come on, Jazzy. What did you want to ask?”
She sighed. “Have you ever been back to Tetuán?”
He cocked his head. “Yes, actually, I have. Why?”
“Really?” A smile brightened her pretty face. ”Well, I was there on a side trip from a conference in Tangier last March. And, remember that narrow street where we…” She hesitated.
“Where you rejected my offer of marriage, and then fled?” He immediately regretted the harshness of his tone.
She nodded. “Don’t be like that, please, Isaac.”
Gently, he murmured, “Sorry, Jazzy. Go on.”
“Okay. I found this tiny little shop just packed with old books and documents in different languages. At one point, as I was browsing through it all, the proprietor, a distinguished-looking gentleman in a jellaba and fez handed me a folder, and said, ‘Here, miss, I think you will find these interesting.’ It contained a few ancient parchments. I recognized among them some poetry of the kind you told me were muwashshahs with their kharjas. One of them leaped out at me. It was in Hebrew letters but the language was an early Spanish dialect. The narrator, a young woman, wonders when her lover will come to her. I know it’s silly, but the name ‘Ishak struck me.
“There I was, on a street in which I had tearfully left you and broke my own heart, so long ago, and there was a woman, a thousand years ago, with my name, impatient to see her Isaac. It was as though that long-gone Jazmine and I were together in that room, although separated by a millennium. The tenth century and the twenty-first right there together!” She stopped and looked at him. Her face burned. “Like I said, it was silly of me. But…” She shrugged.
The image of Europe and Africa visible simultaneously, his passing from one to the other, between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, flashed in his brain. This time the Biblical phrase, “passing between the pieces,” an act referring to a solemn agreement, came to mind.7 He stared at her.
After a moment, she said, “What?”
“You just said it was a woman with your name?”
“There’s no woman’s name on the document I have.”
“Wait… You have the document?”
“I was in that shop last May. I couldn’t believe it, but…”
“Your perfume wafted off the document.”
Jazmine’s eyes widened and she smiled.
“The proprietor gave me the document as a gift.” Seeing her wrinkled brow, he explained, “He could see I was emotionally affected by it, and just gave it to me.” Levi shrugged.
Her face softened and she laid her hand on his. “Incredible,” she breathed.
“Yes, but Jazmine, no woman’s name appeared in that kharja or anywhere on the document. And it’s not customary in those poems.”
She closed her eyes in concentration. “But I saw it. I read it. The last line of the kharja said, ‘Spira Yasmin sanna alf.
Levi said, “Jazmine waits a thousand years! First two words in that old Spanish dialect, the last two in Arabic.” He mopped his brow with a napkin. “How can that be? It isn’t on my parchment, but your fragrance is. It’s the same document you read.”
She smiled and said, “It’s a question, all right. There are a lot of questions. Maybe it’s kismet. But the most important question, Isaac, is where do we go from here?”
I didn’t have to ask Levi. The answer seemed obvious.
7 Referring to the carcasses of sacrificed animals cut in half and the covenant between God and Abram. “When the sun had set and darkness had fallen, a smoking fire pot with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces.” Genesis 15:17.
Text in this post: © Clark Zlotchew
Published with the permission of Clark Zlotchew