Chapter 16: First Love
It wasn’t unusual to hear Adele’s songs every once in a while in El-Fnaa Square or near the local hotels as so many foreign tourists listened to her songs.
The upcoming tour was Adele’s first since 2011, and her fans had been waiting for so long for it, especially seeing as the lyrics from her latest album had touched on such a mix of emotions regarding age and time. So many people could relate to these themes; her fans felt almost as though the songs had been specially written for them or even about them.
I was no different. Her songs weren’t just music and lyrics to me; they were vivid memories in my mind whenever I imagined Malika on the Atlas Mountains.
One day we had decided to take a walk through the magnificent landscapes rather than driving through them.
Malika had looked so lively as she wrapped her arms around mine. “Elias, do you love Marrakesh?”
“Of course. No one can help loving the city once they’ve seen it!”
“Why don’t I love it, then?” Malika asked.
“Are you sure about that?”
“I don’t know, but I don’t think I’ll miss it when I leave.”
“Maybe that’s because you’ve only seen the old city.”
“But they always say that it’s the old city people miss.”
“Not its own people, darling.”
“Because they only see its charm. That charm isn’t tainted by the sweat of the street performers. They only enjoy what the locals have to offer them, while the performers merely seek the visitors’ money to feed themselves.”
“You’re right,” she said, sighing.
Malika wrapped her arms around my waist, holding me as she dodged between the rocks and bushes, trying not to fall.
I grabbed her shoulders and asked her, “What will you do when I leave?”
“Leave?” She stopped as if she had been bitten by a snake.
“I have to go back. There’s work waiting for me.”
Malika hadn’t seen that coming. Tears dropped onto her soft cheeks. As I glanced at her, a sudden fear surged through my veins.
“Why are you crying, Malika?”
“I thought you were going to teach me to speak English!”
I smiled and wiped away her tears. “I’ll teach you until I have to leave. Deal?”
She clung to my shoulders. “Deal.”
Then she had tiptoed across the ground, walking in front of me.
“You know, Elias, when I was at school I asked my teacher to help me learn English, but she told me the most widely spoken language was French, not English, and that I shouldn’t bother. So I decided to find another way to learn it, but I couldn’t figure out how to pronounce the words properly.”
“If you want to learn a language you have to speak to the natives.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, the more you talk to native English speakers the faster you’ll learn it.”
“That’s the technique, then! Okay, I will,” she said, running off in front of me.
We stopped for a while. We suddenly realized we had been climbing the mountain without even noticing. We threw ourselves onto the raw mountain soil and gazed up at the sky.
“Is Rome a beautiful place?” Malika wondered aloud.
“It’s as beautiful as all the other ancient cities.”
“Does it embrace the same sort of pain as other ancient cities?”
“Since civilization is a human endeavor, it must be tinged with pain, my love.”
“Why?” Malika asked.
“Because it was built by humans.”
“There are people who contribute to that human endeavor, yet cause no pain. Moulay Brahim is a good example. He bestows happiness on others even though he’s dead.”
“Can death offer happiness to the living?”
“The dead people are the ones who give away happiness because they have known both life and death.”
“Is that what you believe?”
“No, that’s what’s widely known. Moulay Brahim and Moulay Bouazza are both dead, but their graves still grant blessings.”
“But these blessings are bestowed upon people by Allah. They are not a human favor,” I said calmly.
“But it is Allah who granted them these privileges and blessings.”
“Exactly, you just said it. That means it’s from Allah, not people,” I said.
“Right,” she replied, as if she were trapped, “but Moulay Brahim will grant me his blessings and then I can leave!”
I smiled. “Fine, let it be, then.”
Malika stood up and threw herself down over my prostrate body. Her hair covered my face, shading my face from the sunlight, and said: “And you? Do you have to leave?”
“Yes I do,” I answered, running my fingers through her dark hair. She had laid her body over mine without realizing that I was burning with passion beneath her.
“That’s unfortunate,” she replied.
I hugged her and let my hands run across her body softly. “Would you come with me?”
She got up suddenly; surprised and excited. “What?”
“Would you like to come with me?”
“Yes! Yes I would!”
She remained silent for a while and then laid her body over my chest again. “Will they allow me to leave without my parents when I’m only thirteen?”
She was thirteen! She was just a child. Malika was a thirteen-year-old child! I wasn’t a pedophile, but… what was going on?
Oh, my head is pounding so much that I can’t continue to relate my story! I had loved her. I had loved that thirteen-year-old child even though I had been twenty-eight! There had been a difference of fifteen years between us; a huge gap between me and her; between my and her mindset; my world and her gracefulness.
She had carried all the joy and beauty of life in her voice at that young age, so I had loved her and I still love her. Maybe this was the sin I had committed in the land of Marrakesh’s blessings and righteous men. I still felt sick to my stomach whenever I remembered that moment.
I needed to wash my face. No, I needed to leave Marrakesh! I had to leave El-Fnaa Square and its never-fading smoke, which blurs so many stories with its changing atoms. Yes, I needed to leave… I needed to call Veronica… I needed to calm down. That’s what I had to do right now.
I still felt the same shiver that had passed through my body that day whenever I recall my reaction.
“What? Thirteen?” I had exclaimed.
I felt like I had been stung. I had been unable to move or speak. How had I fallen in love with a child? How filthy were the alleys of the old city? Had I bought the body of a child from her own mother? Had my home country reached such a degrading level of human trafficking?
It was true what the Italian tourists said: that you could have sex with people of any age or gender you desired. Anything and everything was available in El-Fnaa square. I hadn’t been able to believe that it was possible before that moment.
The idea had stunned me, drawing me to my feet and causing me to push Malika aside. I had walked up the mountain seeking somewhere to catch my breath and process what I had just heard.
Malika followed me. “What’s wrong? Are you okay?” she asked me apprehensively.
I hadn’t been able to look at her for a while, but when I did I saw her as a child for the first time.
“Yes, I’m all right.”
It was at that moment that I understood why Malika had flitted around me like a butterfly, and why she was so excited about the idea of traveling. I understood why she was so sure she would find true love at a train station or on the sidewalk. I fathomed why she loved the way English words sounded and why she had loved Before Sunrise so much. I finally realized why I had barely been able to touch her delicate body.
“What’s going on, Elias?” Malika had leaned in towards me as she asked the question.
“Nothing, I’m fine. Don’t worry.”
“If you’re thirsty, there’s a water spring at the end of the road.”
“No, it’s not that, my dear.”
“Nothing, I’m fine now.”
She took my hand. “Would you like to continue our walk?”
“Sure,” I said, smiling at her.
“Okay, let’s go,” she said, grabbing my arm again.
“How long have you been working as a prostitute, Malika?”
“Ummm, I can’t remember. Maybe a year and a half.”
I had been speechless when I heard that.
As soon as we finished our short tour, I drove her back to her mother’s house. Just as I was about to drive away, Saeed knocked on the car window.
I opened it and he said, in a dry tone: “She’s been talking about you so much I was curious to meet you.”
I hadn’t known what to do. The situation felt so awkward for me.
“When are you leaving, Elias?” he continued.
“Soon,” I replied.
“That’s for the best. She’s beginning to believe you’re not like the rest of her customers.”
I had wanted to defend myself, to tell him that I wasn’t and I never would be, but I heard a bitterness in his voice that only a helpless father could understand.
I had gone back to my hotel and thrown myself onto the bed that day, bursting into tears like a little kid. I had cried because I loved her back then. I still loved her now. I hadn’t known at the time that I was falling for a child, and even now I can’t forget that child.
Two days later I had gone back to see Kanza, given her some money and taken Malika back to the mountain. I no longer perceived Malika as someone I could share my life with. Thoughts raced through my mind; the memories of us flashing before my eyes, but nothing was strong enough to erase the fact that she was only thirteen.
As we took our time walking through the beautiful surroundings, I felt the urge to tell her about a decision that had kept me awake all night long.
I wrapped my arm around her shoulders. “Malika, I’m leaving tomorrow morning.”
“What? You told me you would stay for a while.”
“I know, but I can’t.”
Her face turned pale and she started reproaching me. “Didn’t you promise to teach me English? Didn’t you tell me you would take me to Rome with you?”
“Yes… I did,” I stuttered.
“So why won’t you take me now?”
“I can’t,” I answered, feeling uncomfortable.
“Why? Must I be older to leave without my parents?”
Her question had been like a breeze across the mountain. She really had just been a child back then. She had known nothing about life; all she had were her dreams.
“Yes, you can’t leave the country without your parents when you’re so young.”
“Okay, then we’ll take my parents with us.”
“I wish we could.” I smiled and hugged her.
She pushed me away petulantly. “You lied to me! Go away!”
“I didn’t lie to you, but I can’t stay. I have to go back.”
“Why did you ask me to come with you when you can’t make it happen?”
“I thought I could.”
“You’re a liar!”
“Yes, I am…” I murmured.
I pulled out a small, wooden box, which I had brought from Rome to give one of my friends during my stay.
I stood beside her. “Take this.”
“I don’t want to.”
“Won’t you look at it so you know whether you want it or not?”
“I don’t want to look at it!”
“But you’ll love it, look.”
She took a sneak peek at it and then instantly looked away. “No, I don’t want it.”
I opened the box and brought it closer to her. “Look, Malika, it’s a box that will help you learn English.”
Her face brightened and she inspected the box. Inside it she saw some papers and discs in plastic wrappers.
“I don’t want it. You promised to teach me English yourself.”
“But this will help you. You won’t need anybody else.”
“But how will I know if I’m pronouncing the words properly, like we did before?”
She took the box from me and I pulled out the CD player. “This device will help you listen to these CDs, which have simple English lessons on them.”
Her eyes glowed in a way that I will never forget. “How?”
I took the device from her and started to teach her how it worked. She was as happy as a child the night before Eid.
When I had finished showing her, I asked, “Do you think you can use it now?”
“Yes, look.” She switched it on, placed the CD inside it, put the headset on, and then smiled beautifully. “Listen! It says ‘neim’, which means esem in Arabic!”
I laughed and corrected her. “It’s ‘name’.”
“Yes, name… name,” she said coyly.
I remember taking the CD player from her again and pulling out the Adele CD and some papers. “I brought you this too. It’s an album from the singer you heard in the car on our way to Moulay Brahim the other day.”
“Really?” Her eyes sparkled again.
“Yes, I’ve brought it for you to help you learn English. I’ve written out all the lyrics and translated them into Arabic so you understand what you’re listening to.”
“For real?” She hugged me tightly and kissed my cheek. “Thank you!”
Then I handed her some money. “This is for you.”
“What’s this?” she exclaimed, trembling.
“It’s some money so you can leave this place.”
“You’ve already paid for these nights. What’s this for?” she asked, pushing my hand away.
“I wasn’t paying for the nights. You’re not for sale, Malika!”
“Of course I’m not for sale! I’m just saving up some money for when I leave.”
“And this money is for when you leave.”
“But you’ve already paid my mom.”
“And now I want to pay you. Will you please accept it?”
She stared at me, dazzled by the thoughts in her head. I wish I could have known what she was thinking.
Malika sighed, looking out at the mountain in front of us. She had taken a few steps on ahead of me and, trying to avoid eye contact, asked: “What shall I do for you here on the mountain top?”
I cringed when she said that. “Just walk beside me, as we are now.”
“Okay,” she said enthusiastically.
She had walked along cheerfully and then, looking taken aback, she suddenly said: “I’ve been happy with you these past few days.”
“Me too. You have been my happiness, and I believe you always will be as long as your memory accompanies me.”
She remained quiet for some time and then asked, “Won’t you come back again?”
“Maybe I will…”
“How will I see you then?”
“Do you remember the movie?”
“Well done! You memorized it well!”
She nodded her head.
I continued. “They agreed to meet at the same place, isn’t that right?”
“So I’ll meet you at an Adele concert one day.”
“Yes. Every time you hear her sing, remember that I’ve promised to meet you there one day.”
“What if there is no concert?”
“There will be.”
“Will I see you then?”
“Yes, and maybe even sooner than that. Just know that I will see you whenever you’re thinking of me and listening to these songs.” I hadn’t been sure whether I was reassuring her or myself when I said that.
Malika had hugged me one last time. It was painful. Her arms embraced me tightly, leaving me breathless. I could tell that she felt safe in my arms and that her worries had vanished like a fine mist in the morning light. We melted into each other, unable to hear any noise or even the silence that prevailed in the mountains. I had felt at peace within her breaths. I felt no worry and no fear in those moments; only calm and reassurance.
My heart fluttered as her body pressed against mine. I hadn’t wanted the moment to end, but it had, just like a beautiful dream gradually fading away. The more you tried to hold on to such a dream, the more it floated out of your grasp. She had looked at me and then left me in the mountains as she boarded the bus that would take her home. That was the last time I ever touched her.
That was why leaving Malika had been my decision. It hadn’t been Kanza’s talisman. I had decided to leave so that my heart wouldn’t be attached to a poor, unsuspecting child’s.
Eight years had passed, but even now as I listened to Adele’s ‘First Love’ in my old rental car, I could still hear Malika crooning along in her attempt to pick up some of the English words.