Chapter 19: Remedy
I had made up my mind. I would go out and ask after her. There must be somebody who knew what had happened to her and where she might be now. I needed to go straight to the square. There would be someone there who knew a few details about Malika. I was sure that I would find someone now that it was almost dark outside and the smoke from the restaurants was fading. Someone around here must know something!
I walked a long way without finding any clues. When I reached the courtyard of one of the old hotels, a woman spoke to me. “Are you looking for pleasure?”
“Yes, but I’m looking for Malika.”
“Malika…” she said, becoming distracted for a moment. “There’s nobody here called Malika.”
“Not in the whole neighborhood?”
“I don’t remember any girl of that name working for me. But I can offer you someone better than her!”
“No thank you,” I said as I turned to leave.
I roamed the streets again, holding high hopes and looking out for any clues that could guide me to her. Saeed had told me she had boarded a ship and left, which meant that she would not be here, but what if she had never actually left? What if I found her? Would she be a completely different person?
She might have found a job in Casablanca or Rabat, and if I showed up I could potentially shatter her dreams and then have to leave again. So why was I wandering around the old back alleys searching for her? There was no need for all of this. I should just go back to the hotel. Yes, I should go back to where I came from.
“Come on in, I’ll give you all the pleasure you’re looking for.”
“No thank you.”
“I have something different. Just come on in.”
I walked into the hotel, with no clue as to why I had done so. Was it curiosity, longing or need? Maybe my strong affection for Malika was a fantasy my ego had created when I had sensed her need for me; when I had been her anchor amid all the chaos of her younger days. Maybe that’s why I couldn’t let go of her and all our memories. I would keep looking. I had to find Malika.
“Tell me what you’re —”
“Do you know Malika?” I asked, interrupting her.
The woman tried to remember. “I think I’ve heard the name before, but I’m not sure where.”
I was waiting eagerly to hear what she had to say when I heard a voice from the back of the room. “I think he means that lunatic girl who tried to kill Safwan.”
“No, not Safwan,” someone else said.
“Yes, it was Safwan. That’s what I heard,” said another woman as she crossed the hall in front of us.
“No, it wasn’t Safwan. It was one of the clients who tried to hurt her that night. They say she grabbed a knife and attacked everyone with it, and then she ran away.”
I stood there, stunned and speechless. Were they talking about my Malika? No way! She would never have used a knife or threatened anybody. “You must be mistaken. I mean Malika,” I said, my voice shaking in sync with my body.
Someone interrupted me. “Do you speak English?”
“Yes,” I said earnestly.
“Then that explains why you’re looking for her. They must have told you she only picks clients who speak English.”
“What?” I suddenly felt dizzy. Did Malika really pick out her clients these days?
“Yes, she only picks out the clients who speak English. If you want her you can find her at Aziz, the snake charmer’s place, in El-Fnaa Square.”
“Oh okay, thank you.”
I left the hotel and walked a long way without even realizing it. All I knew was that dawn was creeping in, announcing the end of an overwhelming night that I couldn’t get my head around. Maybe these were just rumors. That notion brought me some comfort. I went back to my room to get some rest before I went to meet Aziz.
I struggled to relax after what I had heard so it wasn’t long before I headed out once again.
“Malika? Of course I know Malika!”
Aziz examined his cobra, which obeyed his gestures like a household pet. However, he maintained a slight air of caution, fully aware that it could suddenly betray him.
“You know what? People always wonder how we tame these snakes. Well, the fact is, no one can tame a snake. It’s just two souls uniting; intertwining! It was the same with Malika. She was as untamable as a snake. She was the El-Fnaa Square snake that shed its skin once a day or once an hour rather than once a year!”
He paused for a moment. “Everybody thought Malika was a wild girl with no restraints, but beneath all that chaos she was just a girl who loved life, nothing more than that.”
“I know,” I murmured.
“She always used to sit beside me to talk to the snakes and tell them about her day. Do you know why? Because she knew that snakes were deaf, so they would keep her secrets forever.”
He played with the cobra for a while and then continued. “Malika helped me with the foreign tourists, especially the ones who spoke English. She used to translate what they said for me, and sometimes she translated things I didn’t even say to encourage them to give me more money.”
“So she learnt English?”
Aziz laughed. “Learnt English? She was the only one in the square who could speak English fluently. She became known as the English Malika. But when clients met her, they figured out the only English thing about her was her words.”
So Malika had acquired the English language. My mood brightened on hearing that. Yes, she had fulfilled her dream and learnt the language. She had paved her own way in the square until she became a local landmark.
Then I asked Aziz, “Did Malika really try to kill a man?”
“Of course she did! And from that moment on, no one could control her. She became her own master; no one could buy or sell her. She decided who, when and how much.”
“Is she still working here?”
“Of course not. She left.”
“Where did she go?”
“I don’t know, to be honest, but Saber and Camilia would know.”
“Camilia, the henna girl, there.” He pointed towards a girl who was sitting in the corner drawing on the hands of passersby.
I thanked him and gave him some money before I left, but as I turned to walk away he called out to me. “Elias…”
I turned back to face him, astonished. How had he known my name? Had Malika really talked about me? She still remembered me! I was about to go back and ask him how he knew my name, but the tourists had crowded around him and were pushing me away.
I shouted so he would hear me: “What?”
“You were the secret Malika was whispering to the snakes about,” he called back.
I walked over to Camilia, who was stretching and trying to get some rest as a couple of tourists left her corner.
“It’s henna art. Would you like me to draw you something?”
“No, I just want to know where Malika is.”
“Elias!” she gasped, as if she had seen a ghost.
Yes, Malika had definitely been talking about me! I had occupied her mind, her heart and her memories. I’m not going to lie; I felt happy when I heard that.
“Yes, I’m Elias,” I answered.
“I thought you were a hallucination. She used to tell me about you every day, but I thought you were a figment of her tired imagination.”
“Where is she now?”
“I don’t know.”
“Did she get married?”
She smiled a bitter smile. I couldn’t tell what she was thinking about, but my question had clearly thrown up memories of Malika’s hopes and dreams. “Married? Life has worn her out. It’s aged her soul.”
“So what’s she been doing for the past eight years?”
“She’s done a lot. She was like a butterfly flitting joyfully around, telling us about your experiences together and about the life box you gave her.”
The box! Malika still had the box. She had carried a piece of me inside her heart, just as I had carried her in mine. I was a memory in her mind, and she was the memory that was brightening up my present.
I suddenly felt exhausted, so I sat down beside Camilia, took a deep breath and said: “So she still has the box, and all the tales it bore witness to!”
“Over all those years, the box remained her only tale.”
I smiled. “So why did she leave?”
“I don’t know, but she said you had promised to meet her one day at the concert of some singer.”
I stood up impulsively. Malika was sticking to my promise! It seemed impossible that she was still hoping to meet me at an Adele concert. Had my promise been so genuine that she had truly believed we would meet again there?
Camilia also stood. “Come with me.”
I followed her without asking any questions. We walked through the narrow roads of the old city and past the mellah.
When we came to a little house, Camilia knocked on the door. A young man, who looked to be in his early twenties, opened it.
“Hi Camilia. Do you need something?”
“No Saber, but I have a guest.”
“Okay, come on in.”
Camilia and I stepped inside the house, which was completely empty apart from a mattress on the floor.
“What’s the matter?” Saber exclaimed.
“This is Elias.”
Saber stared into my face. “Elias? That’s impossible!”
“It’s true!” Camilia said.
“Oh, Malika. How crazy I thought she was! She told me you’d come back for her one day, but I thought she was delusional.”
“Where is she?” I asked Saber impatiently.
“She left. The only thing she wanted from life was to leave the square and its sorrows to pursue her own plans under her own conditions. Despite all the offers she had to travel to Europe, just as she had always dreamt about, she always refused. She didn’t want to be the same Malika in Europe. She wanted to be someone else; someone who couldn’t drag her past and the old city along with her.”
Saber paused. “A man offered to take her to France to work in a nightclub there. He told her he would pay her $1,000 a night, but she turned him down. All she wanted was to learn English and leave, and that’s what she did.”
Saber gazed at me absent-mindedly. He was probably thinking over what Malika had told him about the week we had spent together. I could tell he had had a strong friendship with Malika and that my presence had triggered a sense of longing in him.
He walked out of the room and then returned with my old wooden box. He gave it to me, and the moment I looked at it I had countless flashbacks. It still looked the same. In spite of the eight years that had passed, there were only a few scratches on the sides.
“This is where you’ll find Malika, with all her dreams and episodes. Here you will discover why she refused to leave as Malika the prostitute, but as Malika: an independent woman.”
It really was the box I had given her! The box that held her dreams and my memories. I couldn’t believe it! I didn’t want to open it there. I had to leave.
“Saber, may I…”
“It’s yours,” he said reassuringly.
I rushed out of the house with the box in my hands. I quickened my pace as if I was going to meet Malika for the first time. I arrived at my room and sat down, staring at the box. It was right there in front of me and I was incapable of opening it. All I felt was fear. I was dazed by all my thoughts and assumptions.
I was dying to know what was in the box, but at the same time I didn’t want to open it. I was afraid that I might find scattered pieces in there that would make me blame myself for betraying her. I was scared that the moment the box opened my story would end; that this would be the last chapter. I had never experienced that much anxiety, apprehension and curiosity all together.
Time had passed so quickly. I had to open the box now; I couldn’t leave things at a standstill. My hands were shaking, but it was fine. I could wait until I had taken some deep breaths. I would open it now. Yes, I had to open it now.
“What have you been doing all these years, Malika?” I said aloud.
I took out every object I found in the box: the CD player, which still had Adele’s 19 album inside it, and all the papers with the lyrics I had written out and their translations. The box also contained Adele’s other albums, 21 and 25, with other papers bearing the lyrics, which she had written herself.
“Today I learnt the words ‘Good morning’. It means ’Sabah al-kheir,” she had written.
“A client told me that ‘sunrise’ means ‘shorouq al-shams’. I forgot to ask Elias when he was here.”
“Today I whispered to Aziz’s cobra. I told her I was leaving.”
“Adele, I acquired the English language through your songs, so thank you.”
“My dear Elias…”
The piece of paper slipped out of my shaky fingers. I couldn’t read it. Why had she written to me when she knew I had left for good? Did she know that her charm and her dazzling looks had been deeply imprinted in my memory? Was she aware that her beauty, both external and internal, had a more powerful sway over my life than the whole of Marrakesh put together?
I bent down and picked the sheet of paper up. I opened it and folded it back. Why couldn’t I read it? There must have been something she wanted to tell me. I had to read it! After hesitating for a moment, I started reading.
My dear Elias
Camilia once told me that you are just an illusion I made up, affected by the Western tales I used to dream about. She doesn’t know that such realities cannot be forgotten, and that you are the only reality in my life.
It’s been eight years since we first met, yet I can still remember our visit to the mountain, Moulay Brahim and every living memory in between.
I stopped visiting Moulay Brahim shortly after you left. His blessings didn’t provide me with a decent job, not even money, so I decided to spend my time in the square trying to earn money and learn English. I learnt it until people starting calling me the English Malika!
My dear Elias, in the last eight years, I have learnt that ‘sunrise’ means ‘shorouq al-shams’, and that sunset is ‘ghuroob al-shams’.
I also learnt that in the second part of Before Sunrise the hero and the heroine didn’t meet. It was just a promise that was carried away by a moment of passion, and it vanished with the smoke of the train. During these eight years, I realized that the square can never let go of its people, so the residents of the square can only love, marry and plan their future within its borders. As a result, I decided not to love!
I pinned all my hopes and dreams on the box of life. That’s what Saber used to call it. I listened to Adele and learnt the language. I bought all her albums, wrote out all the lyrics and sang them because you told me you would see me whenever I listened to her.
I cried listening to 25 because I realized that when we age, time can never be replaced, and that time and age are a lover’s greatest enemies. I realized that when you got up to walk further up the mountain, you weren’t thirsty, you were hurting! I hoped you would come back one day, but you didn’t, so I gathered up everything I owned and decided to leave.
By the way, I didn’t leave because my father was a shattah. He had a heart of gold despite that. After all these years, I’ve realized that each one of us is a shattah, only in different attire. Still, being a shattah is an art that sophisticated people can’t comprehend.
I’m not leaving because my mother is still looking for the love she lost beneath the veil and the shimmering waist scarf either. No, I won’t go to Europe to look for a job or for the love that I hoped I would encounter at a station or on a sidewalk.
I won’t leave because of all that. I will leave because, despite my lack of faith in the blessings of Moulay Brahim, I still have faith in the promise you made me when you said you would meet me at the Adele concert.
The letter fell at my feet and I started to cry. Why was I crying? Why was I still there? Why do human beings love such heartbreaking stories?
I still couldn’t figure out how I felt about Malika. I couldn’t understand the reasons behind the fondness I had for her, despite only having really known her for a week. I couldn’t comprehend the idea that I had been carrying this pain around for eight years for a relationship that had barely lasted seven days!
My eyes were raining tears and I could see that they had almost made the words of the letter fade away. I knew that I hadn’t come back to Marrakesh because of Hafiza and her predictions, or because of Kanza and her buried talisman. I had come to find out whether Malika had achieved her dreams. I had come here to be certain that Malika was real and not just a figment of my imagination. I had finally found my answer. She was and always would be a reality. I had come to discover that I had truly loved Malika and that I still do.