Chapter 7: One and Only
The moment my feet had touched the ground in Marrakesh, the shadow of Malika had begun to haunt me. The familiar spiral of questions hit me again in the room I had rented in the hope of enjoying some peace and quiet. Why had I left her? Had the spell really been the reason? Was Kanza to blame? Or had I drawn away from her due to my Arab chivalry, which could never have allowed me to take advantage of her in any way?
A lot of people think I’m exaggerating when I explain the extent to which I believe in black magic and its power. Some think it’s a subconscious fear because I grew up in a culture in which most women have practiced black magic and fortunetelling all their lives.
Where I grew up, if a woman suspected there was another woman in her man’s life, she would do anything to get him back and protect him, even if it meant resorting to a curse.
Malika was the only mystery I couldn’t unlock. I still felt her presence and smelt her jasmine-scented gypsy hair. Her crazy hair was the most vivid memory I had of her and it was the first thing I visualized whenever I thought about her.
The phone rang, bringing me back from the realm of my imagination. It was Veronica calling from Rome.
“Elias, where have you been? I’ve been looking everywhere for you!” She sounded worried.
“I’m in Marrakesh.”
“What? Marrakesh? When did you leave? And why didn’t you tell me?”
“It was a sudden decision.”
“Why did you go?” Veronica asked.
“I just felt homesick, so I came over for a short visit.”
“When will you be back?”
“I don’t know, but it won’t be long.”
“Okay, tell me when you’re coming back so I can pick you up from the airport.”
“If you’d told me, I would’ve come with you. I’ve never been to Marrakesh.”
“I’ll bring you here one day.”
“I’ll take that as a promise,” she said, her voice brimming with excitement.
“By all means!”
“Okay, see you later then.”
Veronica’s call had energized me a little, despite how tired I had felt beforehand, so I got dressed and left the room.
As the darkness was starting to sneak in, the circles surrounding the street performers had diminished and the smoke from the restaurants had almost faded.
Someone approached me, and I could instantly tell what he was going to say before he spoke. “Are you looking for some pleasure?”
“I can give you whatever you want: young, old, man or woman.”
He was starting to get on my nerves. “I told you I don’t want anything from you!”
He walked away, but my eyes followed his unsteady steps as he searched for clients from all over the world who came to this country for exactly the type of pleasure he was selling. It was becoming more and more common in and around El-Fnaa Square. The night heralded the closure of the markets and shops, and opened the doors for the filthy pleasures that took place in the old city’s squalid alleyways.
It was here that I had encountered Malika the second time. I don’t know whether I should admit to that, but I have never claimed to be a prophet or a saint. I had been just like everybody else during my late twenties – twenty-eight at this point, to be specific – driven by my lustful desires.
“I have a delight that will bring you joy all night long,” a man had said to me; a man not dissimilar to the stranger who had just approached me. They’re all the same, regardless of when they show up. They run after us, thirsty for a client who will pay them well.
“Let me see her first,” I had said that fateful night.
“Come with me.”
We had walked towards a back alley beyond El-Fnaa Square, passing the few people who had remained there longer than the others. We eventually arrived at a little house in the old neighborhood.
He knocked on the door and shouted: “Open the door, I have a client.”
She opened the door sluggishly and examined me closely with her eyes. That was the first time Kanza ever saw me, and how I wished it had been the last!
Then she called out to her daughter: “Malika, come out here. You have a client.”
The moment she appeared I realized she was the girl with the wild hair I had bumped into earlier that morning.
Malika was wearing an old dress. “Where are we going?” she asked her mother.
“Go with him and he’ll take you wherever he wants.”
“How much is it for a night?” I asked.
“Four hundred dirhams.”
Malika fixed her clothes and hair, and then walked straight outside.
She directed her speech at her mother. “I’m off. Give me my share of the money.”
Malika took her money and walked off ahead of me without saying a word. Even then I hadn’t been able to work out why I felt such great joy and desire for her whenever my eyes encountered her sculpted face.
“So your name is Malika?”
“Why would you care about my name? This is only for one night.”
Her snappy reply provoked me to anger, albeit tinged with longing. I quickened my pace towards my room. When we arrived, Malika started to get herself ready for the night. She immediately started to take off her clothes. But at that moment I hadn’t yearned to throw her onto the bed; I had just wanted to chat with her.
I didn’t know at the time why I refused to let her become my bedmate. All I wanted to do at that moment was hold her.
I leaned in towards her half-naked body and hugged her gently. Her cold body gave me chills and a sense of fear ran through my veins. I remember running my fingers through her tangled hair, then bending down and picking her old dress up off the floor. I put it on her, zipped it up and told her: “Let’s go out for a bit.”
My words were like thunder to her; fast and destructive. She was puzzled and I saw that her mind was filled with many conflicting thoughts that I tried to access but couldn’t. She didn’t say anything until she realized I had been examining her. Then she cleared her throat and tried her best to sound cool and confident.
“Okay, but you won’t get your money back.”
“Yes, I know that. I paid to spend my night with you however I want to.”
“As you wish.”
I held her hand, which was warmer by this point.
“Let’s take a walk across the square,” I said. “The sun’s about to rise and it will still be quiet and empty.”
She gazed into my eyes, captivating me in a way that I still feel and remember now.
“As you wish,” she had said again.
Back then I wondered why I hadn’t been able to touch Malika and why I hadn’t felt a burning desire for her that night. What had driven me to pay four hundred dirhams for a walk with a girl at dawn rather than reveling in her sweet, curvaceous body? Why had my only desire been to hold her in my arms as we walked around, surrounded by the cool breeze of dawn, and to witness the break of sunlight with her, which would spark into life the hustle and bustle of the square?
As the sun rose, an urge had driven me to draw her close to me and whisper: “It’s been a beautiful night. Thank you, Malika.”
I hugged her and touched her exotic face. “You are very beautiful.”
Having remained quiet for a long time, she said: “I don’t know your name yet.”
It felt as though her voice was echoing against the vast mountains on the horizon when she said: “Elias, would you like to meet me again?”
I hadn’t had a chance to answer as she threw the question out as she was walking away. She quickly added: “Meet me tomorrow at this time.”
I can still hear Malika’s voice in my head as if it were yesterday. I knew that I couldn’t go on like this; I would lose my sanity! I needed to go back to Rome, but first I wanted to get a few things off my chest.
My phone rang again, but I didn’t want to talk to anyone, even if it was Veronica. I rushed out of the hotel directly into the mellah to look for Sidi-Mawla-Hasib.
The moment you see balconies outside the buildings you know you’ve reached the mellah. Muslims tended to have open courtyards set back from the road, but these balconies protruded outwards, overlooking the street in the traditional Jewish style.
I approached a man who was sitting on the sidewalk. “Do you know where I can find Sidi-Mawla-Hasib?”
“Turn right at the corner ahead. You’ll find him next to the perfume shop.”
The scents from the city’s perfumeries, especially those in the mellah, could be smelt from miles away. Perfume, leather goods and spices had been the prevailing trades for many years, although the products weren’t always as genuine as they seemed.
As I got closer to the perfumery, weaving my way through the ancient alleys, a man called out to me from a distance.
“Are you looking for Sidi-Mawla-Hasib?”
“He’s in there.”
This stranger guided me, without knowing where I had come from and without me having to tell him who I was looking for. My considerable experience with these narrow, ancient alleys had made me aware that their residents were very alert monitors. They watched anyone who came into their territory, trying to work out the newcomer’s purpose and destination. Then they would either help you or try to guide you to one of the shops, enticing you to buy some of the artificial perfumes, oils or spices they made.
As I walked towards the narrow end of an alley, I reached an old, brown, mud hut with high arcs.
A voice from inside called, “Come in!”
I replied: “Hafiza sent me, and I carry her greetings to Sidi-Mawla-Hasib.”
“Okay, wait a moment.”
I waited for a few minutes until the boy who had spoken came out to tell me that Sidi-Mawla-Hasib was ready to see me.
I walked into a humble room, which contained several mattresses on the floor and a round table, behind which an old man was sitting. He was wearing his djellaba, the traditional Moroccan robe, and was holding a string of rosary beads between his fingers.
He looked at me curiously. “You say Hafiza sent you. Where did you see her?”
“She sends her greetings from there?”
“Yes, and she guided me to you so you could tell me about a black-magic break-up spell buried beneath the Diyar ground.”
The old man stared at me and then said, “And have you found Malika?”
I felt every nerve in my body quiver as he asked the question. “No I haven’t,” I replied.
“You may never find her. You must go to the beach and wash yourself with sea water. That way the curse will be rinsed away.”
“But won’t you guide me to the buried talisman?”
“Didn’t Hafiza tell you that it’s buried in Diyar ground?”
“Yes, but what is Diyar ground?”
“The land where Malika lived; where you took your first steps together.”
I was suddenly speechless; unable to utter a word.
He gestured to me to leave, so I did, still dumbstruck. My feet took me back to El-Fnaa Square, where the Koutoubia Mosque can be found. The irony was that the square that contained the largest mosque was the same square in which pleasure was sold. Everything lay under the same sky.
The shattah and halaiqa were still bargaining with the tourists, and the smoke from the restaurants was blurring my view of the locals in the background, burdened as they were with all sorts of agonies, hallucinations and even bewitchments.
The snake charmer always won the hearts of the visitors with his thrilling and dangerous shows, especially when he revealed that he could speak to the snakes. The visitors’ hearts were stabbed with fear at that moment!
They were openly curious about the way these snakes were compelled to follow the orders they couldn’t hear, and to know why they didn’t spread their poison by biting the man who had wrapped them around his neck.
But the charmer believed his snakes would never betray him. Although a similar cobra had taken the life of its owner at one of the shows, in front of a large crowd, the other men in the business still believed it had been a one-off and that the deceased was simply unfortunate.
The only poisonous bite I had ever felt were the words Sidi-Mawla Hasib had just spoken.
Had Kanza really cursed me? Or was it just the mysticism of Marrakesh getting under my skin again? How could I believe all that stuff? Maybe I had been crazy to travel from Rome to look for a long-lost love I had buried eight years earlier.
I was thirty-six now and fast approaching my forties. Over the years, Rome had changed my skin, or so I thought. I had become an Italian with Moroccan origins rather than a Moroccan with Italian citizenship.
Rome had enchanted me from the moment I laid eyes on the city, and the modern European mindset had refined my mentality to the extent that Marrakesh and its chaos no longer affected me. At least, that’s what I had believed until my feet had traversed El-Fnaa Square once again. Since then it had dragged me back down into its black-magic spells and mythical fallacies, even though I knew many of them weren’t true.
I knocked on the door. She opened it and exclaimed, “Elias!”
“Yes, Kanza, it’s me.”
“What do you want?”
“I want to know what you did to me eight years ago.”
“And since when do you believe in Moroccan spells? Haven’t you adopted a European mentality? It seems you still can’t let go of the Arab psyche. Haven’t you been immersed in secular Western thinking? How could you still believe in black magic?” she asked as she lit a cigarette.
“Since I met Sidi-Mawla-Hasib.”
I could visibly see Kanza’s anxiety as she asked, “And what did he tell you?”
“He told me the spell is here, in your house.”
“That’s not possible!”
I decided to take advantage of Kanza’s weakness regarding religious leaders and their insights and blessings. “He is Mawlana Sidi-Hasib, Kanza! A religious leader! You don’t want his wrath to fall upon you.”
“Sidi-Mawla-Hasib would never have said it was me who did it,” she replied, her voice shaking.
“That’s exactly what he told me, and he told me I would find the talisman buried somewhere close to your house. Dig it up, Kanza! It’s pointless now and Malika has already left. Why all this stubbornness?”
“Because I love you…”
Whenever Kanza said those words so vehemently I felt my heart pounding relentlessly in my chest, like a man with vertigo standing at the top of a mountain peak. Her professions of love caused me great distress. How could a mother be jealous of her own daughter?
“And I loved Malika!”
“But it was you who decided to leave.”
“But wasn’t it you who decided to separate us?”
“No, I decided to make you love me.” She paused and puffed smoke into the air. “But you didn’t love me and you haven’t found Malika. She left, Elias. Let her go.”
Kanza walked into her room as she was finishing her sentence. She was gone for a long time; so long that I thought for a moment she had gone out the back door and left me standing there.
Then she came back and put her hand in mine. “You’re right, she’s gone, so this doesn’t matter any more.”
I gazed down at my hand, which held a small, well-wrapped, square-shaped talisman. It was covered in freshly dug soil. I left the house with it still in my hand. I walked across the square once again, dodging absent-mindedly through the crowd, looking at the item in my hand every once in a while.
I wanted to blame Kanza and the talisman I was carrying, but I knew that it wasn’t her fault. I couldn’t blame her for the decision I had made to leave Malika. It had been a well-considered choice on my part. Through all this, I had discovered that we humans always look for an excuse to hold others responsible for our misdeeds and wrong decisions, although often we made them during rational moments. I sometimes wished I hadn’t been so rational back then.
I was hungry. That’s what I felt. I put the talisman in my pocket and took a seat in one of the local restaurants, tucked away in a corner of the square. There was everything imaginable there to satisfy my hunger: from fresh juice to ghoulal (snail soup).
I ordered one of Marrakesh’s famous tagines and drank some mint tea after I had eaten. Then I dipped into the life of the square once again. When UNESCO had announced this square to be a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity, it must have been well aware that the spoken language here involved gestures, dancing, songs, rituals and even the smoke and the food that permeate the sixty food courts around the square. It had its own spoken language without anyone uttering a word.
The henna tattoos on the hands and arms of the tourists represented the type of self-documentation the city’s visitors pursued. They waited for neither time nor history to record their journeys through life. At such moments, in spite of its paradoxes, I felt as though El-Fnaa Square was unique due to the simplicity and kind hearts of its people, who lived according to the mindset they were raised with rather than for show.
As I walked through the square, I noticed a woman standing in the shade in an isolated corner. “Give me what you are carrying,” she instructed.
“What do you mean? I’m not carrying anything.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll bring you back the person you have lost. Just give me the talisman that is in your pocket.”
I looked at her, astonished, and gave it to her without saying a word. As she tore it open, I could see that my name was clearly written on it with some burnt hair and black sand, which looked more like coal, and various written talismans and complex drawings. I stood there, puzzled, watching the shawafa practice her bizarre rituals.
I didn’t know exactly how I felt. Did I genuinely want her to bring back the person I had lost? Did I really want Malika to come back? Or was I just confused about what I did and didn’t want?
I felt as though I wanted to erase all my memories of the past and the present, so Adele was my temporary remedy. I put my headphones on and listened to ‘One and Only’.