Chapter 24: Adele's 25
You must be waiting to enjoy the concert just as the others in this book had been: Nadia and her young son; Yaser and his rigid wife; Elias and his long-lost Malika.
They had all been waiting for it, but some had put it behind them and returned home, like Nadia, who couldn’t bring herself to leave and had got off the plane just a few minutes before it departed because she had realized that her freedom was conditional.
She had grabbed her bags and rushed over to her brother’s house. As soon as she arrived, her legs had been unable to hold her any more. She had fallen to her knees and burst into tears in her brother’s arms.
“I couldn’t… I couldn’t…” she sobbed. Her brother embraced her. He had known when she called him from the airport that she wouldn’t have been able to go without her son, especially seeing as the whole trip had been for him. Her brother hadn’t gone sleep that night as he had been waiting for her to come knocking on the door.
Yaser had stood still at the airport, staring at the departing footsteps of his wife and considering the possibility of opening another door to revive an old love through Adele and her music.
He had picked up his phone and called Gilbert. “Gilbert, I’m at the airport. Will you please come with me?”
“Yaser, the plane’s taking off in an hour, or maybe even less! And I don’t want to be the third wheel between you and Mariam!”
“Just come! Mariam went home, she’s not coming.”
“What? She’s not going?”
“No, she’s not. I’m waiting for you. Bring your passport!”
Yaser knew that Gilbert was a reliable friend, and he desperately needed him at this time. The time crept by and Yaser waited impatiently for his friend to arrive; to help him lift the heavy burden off his chest.
“Hey man, I’m glad you made it.”
“What happened?” Gilbert exclaimed, astounded.
“Mariam isn’t coming.”
“And I can’t travel because I haven’t asked for any leave from the hospital,” Gilbert said in a disappointed tone. “Oh, Mariam and her out-of-the-blue decisions! How beautiful Italy would have been.”
Yaser smiled at his long-time friend.
Meanwhile, on the Western side of the planet, in the presence of the majestic Arena Di Verona, Elias had found Malika after a long, tormented journey, which had circulated between charm, love and fear. It was a journey that had witnessed the swaying bodies of the shattah, the charming of snakes and the righteousness of Moulay Brahim. The dead saint hadn’t granted them his blessings, but the fountain of wishes in Rome had; even if it was just an illusion the tourists wanted to believe in.
Elias had finally met her, even though he hadn’t recognized her at first glance. She no longer wore her embroidered scarf and the wild hair was tamed and hung straight down over her shoulders, but her voice still sounded the same.
“Elias!” she called again.
Elias responded passionately. “Malika!”
“I knew you would be here.”
Elias smiled. “Yes, I’m here.”
“You haven’t changed.”
“And you —”
“Did you recognize me?” she asked, interrupting him.
“I only recognized your eyes, even though you aren’t wearing the kohl eyeliner these days.”
She smiled. “The Arabian kohl doesn’t suit me any more.”
“I knew you would be here,” she said again.
“Even after all these years?”
“I became more sure that you would be here when Adele themed time into her songs.”
“What if I hadn’t been here?”
“I still would’ve found you because you promised me, Elias. Your promises weren’t like the promises of Marrakesh and Moulay Brahim, so I knew I would find you.”
“But we have to go in, the gates are open. What’s your seat number?”
Malika looked at her ticket and they realized they wouldn’t be seated together, but they would be in the same section of the auditorium.
She grabbed his hand and dragged him towards the gate. “Come on, we’ll figure it out inside.”
They walked together through the narrow passageway into the theater, which was kitted out with flashing lights and enormous speakers. Right in front of the stage were the red seats for the VIPs, while the fans were seating themselves around the sides, waiting ecstatically for the show to start.
Everyone had been anticipating her famous opening; the word “Hello” that she would direct into the audience, causing the hearts of her fans to quiver as it echoed around the theater and beyond its walls.
Malika stood up, looking at the people in the seats nearby. When she spotted a young man sitting by himself in the seat next to Elias’, she went over to him and said in perfect English, “Sir, do you speak English?”
The man shook his head, so she spoke to him in Italian. “Sir, I came to the concert with my friend, but unfortunately they mixed up the seats and put us in separate places. Would you mind switching?”
Elias gazed at Malika, thunderstruck of the way she spoke English and Italian.
She spoke in a tender tone, which convinced the man to both accept her request and appreciate the love that had brought the couple to the concert together.
“I appreciate your understanding. You’re such a gentleman,” she said, thanking him.
The man smiled at them and left to find his seat, while Elias continued to gaze at the woman standing in front of him, attempting to look for the Malika he had known and longed for. He had felt nostalgic for her lively voice for so many years.
He wanted to tell her everything that had happened since she had gone away; what the past eight years had been like with his love for her erupting in his heart.
While Elias was still gazing at Malika, the audience started applauding and screaming with excitement. Adele’s voice started to fill the air as she entered the stage and started singing her biggest hit ‘Hello’.
Waleed woke up the next morning in his mother’s arms.
When he saw her next to him, he cried: “Mom! You didn’t lie to me!”
Nadia smiled at him. “No dear, I didn’t… and I never will.”
Her son hugged her tight. “I love you, Mom.”
Nadia knew she would have paid any price to see that smile on her son’s face, even if it meant restricted freedom. All she wanted in her life were those words, “I love you, Mom”, and to see that the fear that had appeared in his eyes as he left the airport had vanished, never to return.
She just couldn’t walk away from him. He was the sole reason for her survival and she would never leave unless he was accompanying her.
She prepared a birthday cake for him so they could celebrate together. The following day she would have to go to work, but in the meantime she needed to spend some time with her only child.
Time was only a matter of moments, which later turned into memories, as Adele always sang.
“It doesn’t matter that Adele was singing live in Verona yesterday,” she said, smiling at her son and knowing that no memory could be more precious than these moments with him. “All that matters is that we’re together. Happy Birthday”
Yaser had given Gilbert the tickets and waved goodbye.
“Go, man, and enjoy your time. I’ll cover for you at the hospital,” he had said reassuringly.
Gilbert hadn’t been able to believe his luck, but he had gladly taken the tickets. “Are you sure, Yaser?”
“Of course,” Yaser had replied calmly. “Go and do all the things I could never do.”
“Go, and don’t worry. Everything’s arranged, even the hotel reservation.”
“But Yaser —”
“The plane’s taking off in thirty minutes. Just go!”
Yaser hadn’t given his friend a chance to think it through. In Gilbert’s excitement he had seen his own lost soul, which had been trapped in that cup of coffee he had given Mariam years earlier. While she had survived her choking fit, he had been almost suffocating to death ever since.
Although Mariam had spoken out and expressed her hidden agony when she reproached him, he knew she would still be sipping the same old coffee as she watched TV and browsed Facebook and Instagram, looking for the ring she hadn’t swallow but had never truly found.
“How did you know it was me?” Elias asked Malika.
“My memory could never erase the man who created the English Malika!”
“But I didn’t intend to make you the English Malika.”
“Neither did I, remember?”
“We don’t always have a choice when it comes to being who we want to be.”
“Why have you done all this, Malika?”
“To make it to the concert.”
“To see me?”
“To come to the concert. That doesn’t mean it was to see you,” she replied.
“How were you so sure you would find me?”
“Because of your tears on the Atlas Mountains.”
“But —” He looked at her, taken aback.
She interrupted him. “You had to come back, Elias. If it hadn’t been for me, it would have been for yourself.”
“Yes, because you saw Marrakesh and its magic in my eyes, and I saw the West with all its modernity in yours.”
She kept quiet as she gazed at the stage. Then she continued: “I wanted you to find me, Elias, so that I could see you as you looked into my eyes and realized that nothing stays the same.”
Malika uttered these words in a bid to convince herself that she was sure of everything; that she still knew what she wanted; that she was still walking the path she had long planned for herself. But deep inside, she knew that the only certainty in her life would always be her doubts.
“Why would you say that, Malika?” Elias asked.
She smiled. “Because the stage here is for songs, not for death any more. There is no place for myths, darling.”
“But why are you in Italy if you don’t believe in myths?”
“To make sure that myths don’t exist.”
Elias didn’t know how to respond. She was right that myths weren’t true, but since when had Malika stopped believing in them? Hadn’t the love she had dreamt of finding on the sidewalk or at a train station been a myth?
“El-Fnaa Square is a myth, Moulay Brahim is a myth, even you and the Atlas Mountains are myths. What have I gained from these myths, Elias? That’s why I’m here, where all the myths fall naked in the heart of Italy. Where all its polytheism and myths of the gods are eradicated and replaced by the Vatican, where there is one God and church.”
Elias couldn’t take his eyes off Malika, who carried so much passion, although it was no longer related to El-Fnaa Square or Moulay Brahim.
“I was in Marrakesh…”
“Then you must have seen my mother.”
“I did, and I saw your father too.”
“He’s still a shattah, isn’t he?”
“Yes. I also saw Saber and Aziz.”
She looked at him with a distant sparkle in her eyes. “Does the snake still hold my secret?” She paused. “I don’t think so, or you wouldn’t be here tonight.”
“Aziz told me you had whispered your secret to the snake.”
“I told her you would come back, and that when you did I wouldn’t be there.”
“You really aren’t there, Malika.”
She smiled. “I’m not, Elias. When I stopped going to Moulay Brahim to get his blessings, I stopped existing and you were reduced to scraps of papers inside the box of life.”
“Why did you come, then?” he asked again.
She turned to look at Adele on the stage and said: “To listen to her.”
Elias gazed at the stage, following the trajectory of her sparkling eyes. She had carried the nights of Marrakesh, the red city, on her shoulders and eventually become the English Malika; not just Malika as she had planned. He hadn’t met the English Malika before. He was still looking for the Malika he hadn’t found.
It was Adele’s live rendition of ‘When We Were Young’ that made Elias realize age was simply stolen ticks of the universe’s clock.
Nadia walked into her office the following day to find a sealed envelope on her desk. As soon as she tore it open, she smiled, then laughed, then cried. The envelope contained the chairman’s approval for her unpaid leave, and without any salary deductions.
Adele had been singing about love, time and agony in Verona, while Nadia now sang for freedom; the freedom she could never fully enjoy.
Yaser had finally arrived home two days earlier. He stood on the doorstep of his cold house, where the sounds of laughter from his kids playing in the backyard made him realize there were more important things in life, and that they required sacrifice.
Despite all her strictness, Mariam had demonstrated her forgiveness. Her forgiveness was manifested as a result of her belief in God, who called himself ‘the merciful’. She had even forgiven him for denying her God.
Yet she hadn’t realized that, by forgiving him, she had opened a door for him to find repentance. He knew that life couldn’t be created from lifeless substances, but he had wanted to rebel against her God because he hadn’t been able to rebel against her.
“You’re back!” Mariam said, opening the door with a smile on her face.
“Yes, I’m back. I couldn’t travel without you. You were the memory I was trying to revive.”
Mariam hugged him fondly for the first time in many years. “Oh Yaser.”
“A person who has never had doubts could never truly know faith, my love,” he said.
He entered the house that had once served as his prison. Although he had always perceived Mary, or Mariam, to hold the chains of every desire, sin and freedom he sought, he now looked fondly at his kids and maybe at his wife. He couldn’t know for sure.
Malika had looked into Elias’ eyes in a similar, searching way at the concert.
As he turned to leave, he said: “I looked for Malika but I found you.”
“Two Malikas can’t exist inside one body, Elias. I’m the English Malika now.”
“Yes, and I’m still looking for the Malika I knew.”
“Then you are still on the Atlas Mountains.”
“Yes I am, my love.”
Elias left the arena, taking a final glance at Malika from a distance. Then he walked away, leaving her and all his memories of her behind him.
At that moment she looked back at him and watched each step he took out towards the exit. Despite all the music and the applause, Malika heard his footsteps echoing clearly in her mind.
Then Malika danced like a bird stalking across its narrow cage, her wings crippled and unable to fly her through the past she had shared with Elias. She sang Adele’s lyrics in harmony with the singer, emitting a fearful yet joyful trill. She danced away the Atlas Mountains and their breeze and she danced away Moulay Brahim’s empty blessings.
The caged bird of her abandoned soul knew that her memories could never be revived, and that neither the present nor the future had to be based upon the past. She was dancing away the memory of the shattah and of Kanza. She was swaying her slim body and straight, black hair away from the box of life and the scrappy, handwritten lyrics.
She was dancing to accept the promise that had stolen the Moroccan Malika and turned her into the English Malika, whom Elias had left without saying goodbye. She gave everything she had to get the torment out, to soothe her frail soul. She danced feverishly, allowing the memories of people and events in her life to flow forth freely.
Malika danced for a certainty covered in doubt. Her swaying moves shivered in the cold breeze around the Arena di Verona, her thoughts racing through the amphitheater like a thunderstorm striking a peaceful village, destroying everything in seconds. She saw a new reality creeping slowly over her aging soul.
Although Adele’s music was slow-paced, Malika danced hysterically. She didn’t care that her dance moves weren’t in sync with the beat or at the right tempo for the piano notes. She didn’t care about anything or anyone. She felt free, and she didn’t care whether that freedom was restricted to or conditional upon a haunted love she couldn’t let go of.
She knew that El-Fnaa Square was her amphitheater, and that Elias, Kanza and the shattah were the only performers in it. She knew that on her stage she had found her way out of every entrance and every exit. And although Elias had played a huge role, his presence could be summed up in a three-minute Adele song.
Malika danced like she had never danced before. She danced until she couldn’t dance any more. And suddenly she couldn’t hear a word Adele was singing. She felt as though the whole universe had frozen and time had stood still. She felt as though time had washed her away. She was drunk with the dance.
She danced until the last grain of her physical and mental ability was exhausted. Eventually, she threw her exhausted body onto her seat and sat there, motionless. She felt as though taking one more step would have been an extravagant effort.
The audience became more animated as the orchestra started to play the opening to the iconic, Oscar-winning ‘Skyfall’. Adele had her eyes closed. She moved in harmony with the lyrics as she crooned:
“This is the end…”