Chapter 1: Hometown Glory
They say that Rome can evoke a million memories, and that its sprawling alleys refresh the soul. You cannot escape the beauty of the city, and you could never get bored of it. But despite the fact that I was physically there, my mind was wandering somewhere else; somewhere far, far away from Rome.
Nostalgia had captivated me. On this calm evening – with the streets gradually emptying as the night approached its zenith – the soft roar of passing cars, the music of amateur street performers and Veronica’s chatter were unable to hold my attention.
“Elias, are you listening to me?” Veronica asked while we were walking, though she already knew the answer.
“Oh yes, I am,” I answered in a vain attempt to convince her.
“How come you left her?” she asked curiously, wrapping her arms around mine.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, since you loved her so much, why did you leave her?”
The problem was, I couldn’t confess why I had left her. There was a valid reason, but there was something that still drew me to her. Was it the mysterious love hidden between the walls of the glorious old city of Marrakesh? Or was it the contagious absurdity of the city’s famous El-Fnaa Square? I couldn’t honestly determine why. All I knew was that I had been unable to let go of her. I could still hear her gentle whispers in my ear and smell her sweet scent, which surrounded me wherever I went.
Jasmine had been her favorite fragrance. Although it was nothing more than a mixture of essential oils perfectly concocted by Marrakesh’s skilled perfumers, her fragrance had been more alluring than any fancy French scent.
Veronica’s question had ignited some complex emotions within me that I hadn’t dared to face all this time. The turmoil within me reflected the mood in the crowded Pantheon Square, which we passed as we headed home. My mind was floating in an ocean of confusion. If I genuinely loved Malika, why had I left her the way I did?
I knew that I had lacked the courage to face up to the obstacles that stood in the way of my crazy love for her. At the end of the day, I knew that love and sacrifice were two branches of the same tree.
Veronica knew me so well. She knew all the paradoxes I carried within me. She knew how tender my heart was, despite the strong, masculine Middle Eastern image I pretended to convey.
Breaking into my flow of thoughts, she smiled and said: “I didn’t realize my question would puzzle you to this extent. We’ve arrived at my place without you even noticing.”
I smiled back at her. “I was busy thinking. I just left her, I guess. We don’t always have a justification for the goodbyes we say, my dear.”
“Take care of yourself.”
“I will. You too.”
As she turned to open her front door, I added: “You’re amazing, Veronica.”
She turned to face me with such grace that she looked as ravishing as Rome in the morning. “And you’re crazy!” she said, laughing.
With a smile on my face, I continued my way through Rome’s alleys; the alleys that had once witnessed the emperors’ desire for love and blood all at once. On nights like these, the sidewalks reminded everyone who traversed them to begin their search again; whether it was a search for love, oblivion, a new opportunity or even money. Whichever it was, there was an urge to fill each individual’s personal void.
There was an artist on one of the sidewalks trying his best to attract passersby with his paint palette and canvas. His hands and eyes might have been focused on the painting he was trying to perfect, but he was clearly concerned by the empty hat laid out on the ground in front of him. He had hoped it would attract a few cents before he headed home, but these passersby were too cheap to give.
I walked past this scene, which had become a familiar part of everyday life here in Rome. On my way home I saw something I hadn’t expected to see anywhere but in El-Fnaa Square in Marrakesh. She looked like a typical shawafa in her gipsy garments; occasional threads of silver hair were visible beneath her scarf, and heavy, pendant-laden chains dangling across her chest.
She was a fortuneteller, or shawafa, as she would have been called in Morocco. Her game was to gamble with the emotions of the many strangers that approached her, who would pin their hopes on her predictions. Back in El-Fnaa Square, visitors of all nationalities and ethnicities would crowd around the shawafa to catch a glimpse of their present or future, or even to retrieve buried moments from the past.
Some of these visitors sought magic spells that would dramatically change their lives through the interference of a sorcerer’s powers. They would return home feeling younger, healed from an illness, or hoping to gain a long-awaited opportunity. In the shawafa’s territory, anything was possible.
Interrupting the flow of memories running through my mind, she approached me. “You are from my home country, in spite of your foreign tongue,” she whispered to me in Arabic, although I hadn’t uttered a word in either language.
I couldn’t hide my smile. “Yes, I am.”
“Give me your hand.”
Everyone around us was gawping, as though they were watching the final twist of an exciting film.
“Will you read my palm or my cards?” I asked.
“All right, there you go,” I said, thrusting out my right hand.
She studied the lines on my palm with her wrinkled fingers and said: “Your heart is still attached to her, despite your sin.”
I instantly pulled my hand away and said: “I’m sorry but I don’t believe in this!”
She replied in a whisper: “Even if I told you that I saw her in your palm?”
“You may have seen them all,” I said.
She came closer, oblivious to the crowd of onlookers, who continued to stare cluelessly. To them, our foreign words were just like the talismans displayed on a piece of cloth that had been tossed onto the ground nearby.
Then she added: “No, I only saw her. Kanza Malawi…”
I felt a quiver in every nerve of my body and exclaimed: “Who are you?!”
“You should know that she is the reason the solo bird has flown away from the flock.”
“How did you know her name?” I yelled, partly in fear and partly in surprise.
The spectators observed the terror on my pale face. Their curiosity sharpened and tainted by fear, they followed every sound and move she made with grave attention.
“It’s the lines on your palm. They say everything. They narrate your past and present.”
“Liar! There can be no doubt that you know her.”
“But I’m not from Marrakesh, my dear,” she said. “If you still carry this deep love within you, go to El-Fnaa Square and look for her, and you shall find what you are looking for. It was there that your fortune was sealed and only there can it be unsealed. Sidi-Mawla-Hasib will help you. Just tell him that Hafiza sends you her greetings and tells you that beneath the soil of Diyar lie the burned papers and a black-magic break-up spell cast by Kanza Malawi. Do this and he will guide you.”
I stood, transfixed, as if I had heard the whisper of an angel of death. As she walked away, the crowd followed closely behind her. Apparently, my reaction had given them the green light to believe whatever she had to say. They had realized that she and her mysterious charm could revive the hope in their souls, provide a long-lost resolution or satisfy their ears with a story they would be pleased to hear.
From that moment on, I stumbled all the way home.
I couldn’t get her voice out of my head. “I only saw her. Kanza Malawi.”
Kanza Malawi, El-Fnaa Square and a black-magic break-up spell cast with talismans and burned papers. How had all this happened in one night?
Rome’s ancient buildings did nothing to soothe my burdened heart. As I walked the streets, I overheard a street performer singing Adele’s ‘Hometown Glory’, with his violin on his shoulder.