Chapter 10: Hello
Malika’s words still rang out in my head.
“Take me to Moulay Brahim,” she had said when I met her the morning after we parted from our night walk. We were already on our way to the Atlas Mountains when she presented her request.
Before we left, she had asked me to pay her mother for more than one night so we could spend more time together. It had confused me that she wanted to spend the whole time with me when she could have divided her time between clients to earn more money. I couldn’t understand why, but I hadn’t spent too long thinking about it. Instead, I paid Kanza thirteen hundred dirhams for three nights.
“I’ll take Malika for three nights,” I said. “Here’s the money.”
“Why would you take Malika for more than one night when you could have other women and enjoy new experiences?” Kanza replied, her eyes fixed on mine.
I answered her in a gentle tone. “Malika is enough for me.”
“Malika told me your name is Elias.”
“Okay then, Elias. If you got bored with Malika, I can provide you with someone new.”
“Yes, all right. I’ll come to you if I want someone else.”
As I drove the rental car to Moulay Brahim over the unpaved road, Malika had let the wind blow through her hair.
“At Moulay Brahim every dream comes true,” she said, her voice impeded by the wind.
“What do you mean?”
She moved closer and said: “Moulay Brahim gives everyone who walks on his land his blessings. So whoever dreams about getting married will, and whoever wishes to get pregnant will, even if she’s sterile. And the sick will be healed.”
That hadn’t sounded bizarre to me, because in countless villages across Morocco shrines had been established to honor such righteous forefathers. These shrines were a comfort for many shattered souls in this exhausting life.
Through the ages, the hopeless had sought these tombs and found satisfaction and comfort in whatever blessings the dead saints had conferred upon them. People had always believed the death of a saint was a blessing that would grant them long life!
Paradoxes can be found everywhere in my home country. From east to west, among every family and tribe, superstitions dominate, regardless of the age of the shrine’s visitors.
Malika had been full of life that day. She had looked like a young child enjoying an old swing on a sunny day. She had brought a smile to my face whenever I looked at her. I hadn’t been able to work out why she had such an uplifting effect on me, but I was well aware that she was beautiful. Her spirit was radiant and delightful, and it equaled her stunning looks.
“This is Moulay Brahim,” she said as we drew closer.
Standing just outside the Tamazight village at the summit of the mountain, I had felt the rumors in the air. From the first glance at this village, a sense of mystery, simplicity and religiosity captivated all visitors. The crowds, who came from all around, were quite remarkable. They stood in line waiting for their turn to offer gifts and donations on that shrine of Moulay Brahim, a well-known Moroccan Sufi, eager for blessings that would help solve their complicated dilemmas and help them realize their seemingly unattainable dreams.
When the visit to the graves came to an end, the pleasure market would begin. This market paralleled a larger market; the black magic market. At Moulay Brahim’s shrine, the more money you paid, the more likely it was that the dilemma would be resolved; either through a customized talisman or through the services a girl offers to fulfill a man’s desire. The land was similar to El-Fnaa Square around the Koutoubia Mosque, and perhaps to everywhere else. Wherever there were pious people worshipping the deity there were hidden sins committed in the shade of night. Desire envelops the human soul, and despite our attempts to fight it, it soils the purity of the entire universe.
This was why Malika and so many others could be found in the back alleys of El-Fnaa Square selling themselves for other people’s ‘pleasure’. Cheap motels were also scattered around the land of Moulay Brahim; where procuring a girl came at a price, as did receiving a blessing.
Why did we look for blessings in stony chambers and among the dead when the sky, in its great breadth, had been presented to us and its God was listening to our most fervent prayers?
I had looked for an answer to this question throughout the village, but it was Malika who led me to the truth when she held my hand and said to me: “I’m done with my visit to the shrine. Aren’t you going to ask for any blessings?”
“I already did.” I smiled and looked up at the sky.
We had been walking along the narrow roads of the village, which were bursting with traditional rituals, when a woman called out to us: “Here you will both know love, and you will also lose it. But maybe life will bring you together again.”
Malika approached her and asked, “Will I ever leave?”
“You will leave, and you will come back, but you won’t settle in one place.”
“I don’t believe you,” Malika said angrily.
She had taken my hand again, leading me on the rest of the tour between the alleys, which she knew like the back of her hand. Then she said, “Let’s take this road.”
We got back in the car and drove between the mountains. When we arrived she almost jumped out of her seat. “Here! Stop here!”
I had stopped the engine and stepped out next to a very old, simple motel built of clay. Its rooms comprised ground-level living rooms and double beds. The moment we walked into our room, Malika opened the balcony door so the sun that embraced the Atlas Mountains could also grace us with its presence.
“This is one of the few motels in Moulay Brahim that doesn’t sell pleasure,” she said.
“Why did you pick it, then?”
“Because I don’t feel as though I’m being sold tonight, although I know you paid for my company.”
I drew a little closer to her, running my fingers down her soft neck and then her sun-kissed face. She took a deep breath in response to my touch.
“Yes, tonight you won’t be sold like all the other nights, Malika.”
I wanted to hug her and throw her onto the worn-out bed, but there was an incomprehensible mystery about Malika that stopped me every time the thought crossed my mind. Was it the blessing of Moulay Brahim, as she had said? What had she asked for at that shrine that would have prevented me from kissing her, even though I had paid a significant price to spend the night with her?
Her voice blocked the flow of my thoughts. “Have you ever seen my father in the square?”
“Which one is your father?”
“He’s one of the shattah you saw in the circle the other day.”
“Yes.” She had paused. “I agreed to sell myself so he could quit his embarrassing job, but it didn’t work.”
“Do you hate what he does?”
“I just wish he wasn’t a shattah. People treat him like he’s less of a man, despite his obvious masculinity.”
“Do you think masculinity is measured by the job a man does?” I asked.
“I don’t care how it’s measured. It would just be nice to see people respect my father.”
“Is your job any more respectable, Malika?” I threw out the question without realizing it might hurt her.
“And when you paid to have me tonight, was that an act of respect?” she replied promptly, her gaze piercing into my soul.
She hadn’t given me time to reply. “I’m working to save up the money I need to pursue an education and get a good job so I can leave this place: the market, the alleys and even El-Fnaa Square. I’ll never come back to the place where anything and everything can be sold, including my body.”
“Where will you go?”
“I don’t know… Europe perhaps. Or maybe I’ll stay here and get a decent job that guarantees me a solid future. I don’t want to be a pimp like my mom or a dancer like my dad.”
She had reflected for a moment, sighed and then continued. “I want to see the other side of Morocco, away from our ancient neighborhoods. I want to see it from a broader perspective that transcends its borders.”
“Would you really travel if you had the chance?”
She had become excited when I asked this question. “Yes of course. If I ever can I will.”
“And what will you do there?”
“I’ll find a job that gives me a fresh start in life.”
“And what if you can’t find anything?”
“Who says I won’t? I’ll find everything there. I’ll find life and love.”
“Yes, love! I’ll find love. Maybe I’ll encounter it at work, or on a sidewalk, or even on a bus. I’ll love him and he’ll love me and then we’ll get married,” she said as she looked out at the view from the balcony.
She had been certain that, if she left, everything she had dreamed of would be fulfilled.
I smiled and said, “Would you like to have kids when you find a husband?”
“Definitely. I’ll start a family and maybe have four kids: two boys and two girls.”
I had seen the blooming season of spring on her face. That night, Malika hadn’t been a prostitute who gave away her body to whoever paid for it, but a girl who didn’t perceive her job as shameful. She saw it as the only way to secure a future for herself and her children.
Unlike her parents, who had surrendered to a reality she had rejected, she was working to change her situation; even if she had taken the wrong approach. She hadn’t despaired and wasn’t simply binding her future to a man and a house. Although marriage was one of her future plans, she wanted to love and live her life before she got married. She even wanted to build a future for her kids so they wouldn’t end up in one of those ancient alleys.
If you had heard her speak at that moment, you would have heard the sound of life coming out through her words, and you would have felt the passion she exuded. The future was so bright before her eyes, as if she had never spent any time in El-Fnaa Square.
“You know what? I came here with one of my clients once, and I didn’t know then about the blessings of Moulay Brahim. A lady at the motel told me all about them. I rushed straight out of the room while the client was asleep so I could obtain these blessings. Since then, I’ve been coming here as often as I can.”
“Do your parents know about this?”
“It doesn’t matter to them as long as there’s a client who pays. I ask the clients to come here when they don’t have a place we can go to.”
I wondered at the time why Malika asked for blessings in a place where sin was committed. Didn’t she know that sin and blessing don’t mix? How could a combination of love and happiness fulfill her dreams when her life was so heavily burdened with insurmountable difficulties? The way she revealed her feelings in such a simple yet detailed way had been hard for me to fathom. It was harder still to understand the motivating force behind her lengthy chatter. She elaborated on her dreams to such an extent that I could visualize them all as if they were drawn out in front of me; as though they were her present rather than her future.
“Has it ever crossed your mind that you might not be able to travel?” I asked.
“Yes… maybe I won’t be able to, but until then I’ll spend my time looking for a decent job.”
“Will you stay in Marrakesh?”
“No, I’ll go to Casablanca or Rabat.”
“Really? Why those two cities?”
“Because they’re the capital cities. Rabat is our capital city and Casablanca is the economic capital, so there must be a job for me there.”
I had found it surprising that a girl like Malika was aware of the economic benefits of these two cities, but she seemed to have it all planned out.
She had been genuinely looking for a future away from her ancient neighborhood and its traditions. She had been looking for a path that would grant her a fresh start; something different from anything she knew.
She responded instantly when I asked her: “Do you think you could travel to Europe?”
“Maybe yes, maybe no, but as long as I try I’ll find a way.”
“Why Europe? Why haven’t you thought about other places, like Canada or America or the Middle East?”
She had spoken fast, filled with pure excitement. “I don’t know. Once I watched a movie set in Austria. It was about a young couple who met at a railway station and spent a long day together. At sunset they exchanged promises to meet again at the same spot on the same date the following year.”
She had paused and smiled with joy as she turned her face toward me, daydreaming about all the possibilities a European country could offer her.
Then she said: “Love and madness can be found together in Austria!”
“Are you talking about Before Sunrise?” I asked, still gazing at her shining face in the setting sun.
She jumped up enthusiastically. “Wait, what did you say? Say that again!”
I stared at her. “What do you mean?”
She held my hand passionately, dragging me over to the chair on the balcony. Then she sat in front of me. “Repeat what you just said. Is it the name of the movie in English? Do you speak English? Aren’t you Moroccan? Are you educated? Repeat what you said!”
She fired these questions at me without even giving me time to answer. I was so surprised that it took me some time to respond. “Yes, I’m Moroccan, but I live in Italy. I only came here for a visit.”
She jumped again and then remained quiet for some time as she floated around the room like a butterfly.
Then she said, “Oh, Rome!”
She had come closer and dragged me towards her again. “Tell me about Rome. What’s it like? How did you learn English? Do they speak English there? Or do they only speak Italian? How can I learn it?”
She paused for breath. “Wait… Tell me the name of the movie again. In English, please. I tried so hard to memorize it, but it was difficult for me.”
As soon as my lips started to move, she put her fingers over them and said, “Wait, I’ll try. Bafor sanreez.”
I smiled on hearing her pronounce it like a baby learning its first words.
“No, repeat after me: be…”
I adjusted my posture. “Before.”
“Good,” she repeated after me.
We had laughed hard and she had thrown herself into my arms. “Keep going… Beeeefooor”
“Sun,” I said.
I shook my head as she sat on my lap. “No! Say sun.”
“Yes! Sun rise.”
“No. Sun rise.”
I clapped my hands and kissed her on the cheek. She hugged me tight and repeated, while looking directly into my eyes, “Beeefooor sssun rrise.”
“Great job, Malika. You said it exactly right.”
She stood up and started dancing around the room, chanting, “I will learn English, I will learn English.”
“You will, don’t worry.”
“Yes I will! And then I’ll leave.”
“You will learn it and leave, my love.”
I had paused, staring at her as she stood there looking absent-minded. Perhaps she had been imagining herself speaking English in a European country.
Then I asked: “But if you did travel, what do you think you would find there?”
“Security. Just like right now.”
As she uttered these words, she was blissfully unaware of how mesmerized I was by the sensuous curves of her lips. I had longed for them.
She was unaware that beneath the apparent calm of my fixed gaze lay the flames of desire that consumed my heart. She had certainly been deluded by the sense of security she felt in my presence.
Malika had no idea that the thought of sleeping with her in front of those Atlas Mountains had pervaded my mind every single moment she stood in front of me. Yet that sense of security she had felt built a protective shield around her that kept me at a distance and prevented me from placing my hands anywhere but around her slim waist.
Despite her profession, she obviously had a rather innocent view of men, failing to realize that a man was simply a vessel of burning desire; unlike her, who believed love was a moment of security that transcended her shamelessly sold body, which was inevitably hidden behind a sloppy dress.
She probably thought I hadn’t touched her out of decency, but she had no idea that the reason was entirely different. I hadn’t even understood it myself. How innocent she had been to misread my intentions and fail to realize that all I had hoped for was to ravish her body, to discover and to dwell on every inch of it just as I had explored every inch of Moulay Brahim that day.
She had repeatedly failed to read the thinly disguised feelings displayed on my face. Unlike her, I had read her bright, glowing eyes clearly as she drew closer and kissed me. The sunset was fading and dusk had begun to set in.
Her kiss was full of respect and innocence rather than enthusiasm or desire. I felt myself sinking in a vast ocean of darkness, my desire defeated by her spontaneity. My mind had been left in a continual torment that day: had I fallen in love with Malika?
My phone rang, recalling me to the present. It was Veronica. “Elias, how are you?”
“Good, and you?”
“Good. Alberto asked me to pass on a message. You have a business meeting in Milan next week.”
“Did he tell you which day?”
“No, he didn’t. I’ll let you know as soon as I hear.”
“Okay, I’ve got to go now. The metro just arrived.”
I hung up and put the phone down on the table next to me. The melody of flutes announced the awakening of the square after a short nap. As soon as I walked towards the door and opened it, I saw her standing there.
The second I spoke her name, I saw her torment and thought back over the previous eight years. I saw in my mind that Malika’s dreams had been crushed by her mother. Malika still lingered in my memory like a butterfly that had fallen, defeated, in the burning glow of my memories of Kanza.
Had Malika fulfilled her dreams? Had she found love and life? Had she got married and had four children, as she had wished? Had she learnt English before she left? Had she taken the first step of her long, ambitious journey by leaving Marrakesh?