Chapter 4: Chasing Pavements
As I stepped out of the airport I was immediately accosted by Marrakesh’s bitterly cold wind; a wind that carries with it the cruelty of the desert and the harshness of the snow that summits the Atlas Mountains. These mountains, which surround the town, embracing it, give Marrakesh a sense of paradox that is influenced not only by the geography, but also by the vibrancy of life created by its residents and visitors, and even by the food, which ranges from roasted animal heads to tiny shellfish.
These delicacies can be found in the many restaurants of El-Fnaa Square; a square that swirled up a storm of nostalgia within me the moment I stepped foot inside it. Its charm captivates the souls of tourists, and somehow maintains its hold on the souls of the square’s current and former residents.
Once used as a court to display the might of armed troops and the fierceness of the enemy, it had become a yard for entertainers, storytellers and comedians, each presenting their own satirical narratives. These narratives swung between sorrow and laughter as they expressed the facts of daily life in this magical city.
Arabs and foreigners alike flocked here to enjoy the diverse stories, despite the fact that they often didn’t quite understand them due to the local dialect or the context of the stories, which was unique to Marrakesh’s ancient traditions and modern perspectives. The halaiqa (storyteller) kept his spirits up by trying his best to entertain the crowd, hoping to fill his hat with a few dirhams.
However, while these visitors’ pockets were just as well lined as those found on the streets of Rome, they gripped their coins equally tightly, reluctant to drop them into the hat of an unknown street performer.
Meanwhile, the scents of traditional food emanating from the restaurants surrounding the square, enticed visitors to sample the many local delicacies. There were few fancy restaurants with formal arrangements of chairs and tables but the greatest joy was to be found in grabbing whatever could be sampled straight from the food wagons.
The tantalizing smoke produced by these culinary delights gave the square an added layer of mystery, slightly obscuring the bodies of the street dancers as they swayed to the sound of the flute and the hand drums played by the talented locals. As visitors moved closer to these dancers with their dazzling veils and enchanting belly dance moves, they soon discovered that they were actually men, known locally as shattah. They had been forced to learn to dance this way simply to put bread on the table for their families each day.
It was against the backdrop of these swaying bodies that my story with Malika began. I had seen her for the very first time as she tried to hide behind the spectators gathered expectantly in a circle to watch the show.
Her beauty had been undeniable. Her skin had been tanned to a dark brown as she had spent so many hours standing around the square. She had attempted, unsuccessfully, to tame her thick, black, wavy hair with a little scarf.
She had bumped into me as she tried to dodge between members of the crowd. Almost out of breath, she had briefly apologized before quickly scurrying away. That moment remains as vivid in my memory as if it had happened yesterday.
As soon as the music stopped, the crowd scattered. I reached for the only shattah I recognized and said: “Saeed! How are you?”
Still wearing his dancing gear, with a hip scarf concealing his slim figure, he exposed a little of his face under the veil and said, in his usual raspy voice, “Who are you?”
“It’s me. Don’t you remember me?”
He came a little closer, lifting his veil so that it rested on top of his head, and exclaimed: “Elias! What are you doing here?”
“I came…” I began, but I couldn’t find the right words. What could I tell him? That I had come to look for a break-up spell cast by his wife and buried here in El-Fnaa Square?
“I’m here on a business trip.”
Saeed sighed and gathered up his belongings. “Come on, son. You’ve been gone for so long! What brings you back?”
“Yes, I have.” I was suddenly overwhelmed by a wave of nostalgia.
“How is Malika?”
The tone of Saeed’s voice swept a thousand conflicted emotions of fear and love into my heart.
“Yes, Malika,” I finally managed to reply.
“Didn’t you know that Malika has moved away?”
“What? What are you talking about, Saeed?” I felt a pang of disappointment, struggling to believe she had really left.
“Yes, Elias, it’s true.”
He stepped closer to me, an anguished smile on his face. “Malika couldn’t handle her heartbreak or the disgrace of my job. These two misfortunes forced her to leave.”
“Where did she go?”
“I don’t know. They told me she left on a big ship to sail the seas.”
“But how come…” Again I was unable to finish my sentence, but this time it was due to the noisy crowd that had formed a circle once again.
New faces had gathered to listen to the traditional melodies and watch the dancers. Saeed, Malika’s father, was almost fifty and he had been dancing to entertain these crowds since he was a young boy.
As the music started, Saeed fixed his veil back over his face and I retreated, dodging through the crowd. I couldn’t block out the scent of Malika’s jasmine scent, which somehow permeated the square’s smoke-saturated air.
How was that possible when Malika was gone?
I turned around to find Kanza Malawi standing in front of me. She hadn’t changed at all, despite the eight years that had passed. Her grace and beauty were timeless. However, a few scattered wrinkles on her face bore testament to the many sorrows she had experienced.
“Elias!” she exclaimed apprehensively.
“What are you doing here? Malika’s gone!” She spoke hurriedly and was clearly hoping to make a quick exit.
“I came to meet Sidi-Malwa-Hasib.”
Kanza was obviously rattled.
“Sidi-Malwa-Hasib. Do you know where I can find him?” I tried to interpret her body language and facial expressions as I spoke.
“No, I don’t… I don’t know.” She took a few steps away from me as she answered and then faded into the crowd. “Don’t dig up the past, Elias!” she shouted. “Leave everything the way it is. It’s better for everybody.”
I quickly ran after her and was just able to grab her arm. “Why did you do all this, Kanza?”
“You know perfectly well what you’ve done!”
“I didn’t do anything!”
“Then why did you panic when I mentioned Sidi-Mawla-Hasib’s name?”
“I didn’t. I have no idea who he is.”
“Yes you do. And you know the Diyar ground,” I said as I stepped closer to her.
I could see that she was struggling to breathe.
“What do you want, Elias? Why did you decide to come back now?” Kanza asked after a moment of reflection.
“Why did you want to come between me and Malika?”
She stuttered. “Me?”
“Yes, you. Go ahead, tell me.”
She stuttered again. “Elias, stop! It’s been such a long time since all that happened.”
“So you used black magic to break us apart?”
She replied, trying to justify her actions. “I bewitched you so that you would love me.”
“Do you really think I could ever love you when I’m in love with your daughter?!”
She pulled her arm out of my grip and suddenly disappeared.
I couldn’t even catch a glimpse of her; she had completely vanished. For a moment I wondered whether I had been talking to some sort of apparition.
A few moments later I felt a hand tapping my shoulder. “Are you looking for Sidi-Mawla-Hasib?”
“Yes,” I answered hesitantly, staring into the man’s eyes, which were hidden beneath his veil.
“You’ll find him in the mellah, the Jewish quarter. Ask for him there.”
The man returned to the circle, leaving me overwhelmed by all that had happened in such a short space of time.