Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Back in the Day...

Over the past few months I’ve been working on an essay to submit as part of a proposal for an edited book about the experience of doing research in Morocco. I’m using some ethnographic anecdotes from my work at the Clinic to illustrate how the complexity of Moroccan society’s multilingualism plays out in daily life, and what it all means for someone trying to do research in such a setting.

What follows below is an excerpt from my first draft. After taking a second look at the essay I’ve realized that this section doesn’t quite fit with the rest of the piece. The excerpt describes an episode from one of my very first months in Morocco, and more than a year and a half later, my experiences and circumstances have changed so vastly that this particular little story no longer seems quite relevant to the message I am trying to convey. Yet I cannot bear to simply throw it away. Because relevant or not, this anecdote has become a pleasant memory – and it is a reminder, in many ways, of how far I’ve come (and how much I’ve learned) over the past 20 months.

And so here it is, in blogpost-form

In the fall of 2008, I arrived in Rabat, Morocco, for a period of preliminary fieldwork for my dissertation research. Through a language school in the city’s old medina I arranged for three months of private instruction in Colloquial Moroccan Arabic (or Darija), and a ‘homestay’ with a Rabati family. I came to live in a large house not five winding medina streets away from my school, and became part of a household that consisted almost exclusively of women. At its center stood lalla Khadija,[1] a stout woman in her sixties who came from a time and place where birth dates were not yet recorded, and girls were not yet sent to school. Two of Khadija’s children still lived at home: two daughters, who were temperamental opposites of one another in many ways but shared the common fate of being an unmarried Moroccan woman in her late thirties. The household also included one of Khadija’s grandchildren; her oldest son’s oldest daughter. Together, these four women took care of the cooking and cleaning, and cared for Khadija’s husband, a man about 20 years her senior and no longer capable of much movement.

The lack of privacy in the house facilitated my quick integration into the life of this family. I slept in the living room with the two daughters, assisted with the cooking and baking, helped Asmae, Khadija’s eighteen-year-old granddaughter, with her English homework and wardrobe choices, and spent evenings in the common room, reviewing Arabic vocabulary as the women of my family tuned in to their favorite Turkish soap operas. The family had never showed much interest in my language-learning efforts – until, one evening, my homework material caught the attention of Manal, the oldest of Khadija’s two single daughters. It led to a curious conversation that significantly changed the family’s impression of me and of my purpose in coming to Morocco.

It was about 7 PM, and I was in the living room reviewing flash cards – my preferred method for drilling vocabulary. Manal had just returned home from her small caftan workshop around the corner, and entered the room to change from outdoor clothes back into her pajamas. She said a quick hello, asked me how my day was, and then announced she was going to make us some coffee – but just as she was about to head for the kitchen, her eye was caught by the deck of cards I kept flipping through. Suddenly curious, she turned back to me and asked what I was doing.

“This is how I learn new words,” I explained. “I write the Arabic word on one side, and on the other is the English translation.” I flipped the card over to illustrate.

“Can I see?” she queried, and approached. I handed her a few cards and she studied them intently, a knot slowly twisting across her eyebrows. I remember worrying, self-consciously, that she might not be able to decipher my juvenile Arabic handwriting. Then she shook her head and turned to me.

“This word here is spelled wrong,” she stated in a schoolteacher voice. She sat down beside me on the sdari[2] and reached for the pen that lay on the table in front of us.

“See? There should be a long alif here in between the lam and the qaf,”[3] she corrected. “Like this.” She took the pen and added the alif’s long vertical stroke to the word on the card. I was confused, having just been taught how to spell the word in question that very afternoon. But Manal moved on to card number two. Again, she detected a spelling mistake, and added another missing alif. I looked on, slightly bewildered.

This continued with a few more cards. With each added alif, Manal sighed more deeply, and my bewilderment grew larger. Finally she turned to me. Incredulously, she demanded, “This is what they’re teaching you??”

Then suddenly it dawned on me: she must have assumed I was learning Fusha, or Modern Standard Arabic, rather than the Moroccan dialect. “Oh, wait!” I cried out eagerly, relieved to have identified the source of confusion. “These words are not Fusha, they’re Darija,” I explained, hoping that this clarified the situation.

But she simply looked at me, silently. The knot in her eyebrows showed no signs of disappearing. Then finally she exclaimed, with a mix of surprise and disgust, “You’re learning Darija? Why? Darija is bad, it’s no good!”

A little taken aback, I asked her why. Why on earth would she react this way to the news that I was learning her native language? I had expected at least a little bit of enthusiasm.

“Because it just is. Fusha is just better, it’s the ‘true’ language,” she explained, accompanying her words with heavy arm gestures to convey to me some of the solidity and weight that Fusha seemed to carry in her mind’s eye.

“Darija isn’t spoken right,” she then elaborated, and added an example. “It shouldn’t be tlata; it should be thalatha.” And as the hard ‘t’s of her colloquial dialect made room for the lyrical ‘th’s of Standard Arabic, the scowl on her face smoothed over into an expression of deep satisfaction.

In fact, the differences between Fusha and the Moroccan dialect are many. Fusha, or Modern Standard Arabic, is the contemporary version of Qur’anic Arabic. It is the lingua franca of the Arab world, but native language to none. As is true for all Arabophone countries, the language of daily communication in Morocco is a dialect – a form of Arabic weathered by the test of time, foreign influence, and the transformative process of linguistic evolution. Moroccans refer to their particular dialect as ‘Darija’, and its most noticeable departure from Fusha (aside from the addition of French and Berber loan words) is arguably its pronunciation. To the untrained (and even to the beginning student’s) ear, it often sounds as though speakers of Moroccan dialect have eliminated all vowels from their words – which would explain Manal’s diagnosis of a deplorable lack of alifs in my spelling.

Moroccans agree that no dialect is as far removed from the standard Fusha as their own – and that, in consequence, it is all but incomprehensible to other speakers of Arabic. Nevertheless, most Moroccans deny their dialect the status of ‘real’ language – a sentiment reflected by the late king Hassan II’s choice to designate Fusha, rather than Darija, the country’s official language.[4] As Manal’s comments illustrate, Moroccans consider their dialect to be somewhat of a bastard child. It is the language of mundane, daily activity. Of bargaining at the market, of chatting about the weather, of light banter with friends. Fusha, on the other hand, is reserved for discussion of loftier issues such as religion, literature, or politics – communicative settings perhaps rare enough to have withstood the effects of linguistic evolution. Darija has no literary tradition of its own, and has no official rules of grammar and orthography. Despite my attempts at spelling Moroccan vocabulary, Darija is, in fact, very much an oral language. And by extension of all this, learning Fusha is considered a highly respected endeavor (because it is the gateway for knowledge of the Qur’an, of literature, and of Islamic jurisprudence), while most Moroccans do not consider their dialect worthy of real study.

In consequence I was unable to explain to Manal my reasons for choosing to learn the dialect – at least not in a way that satisfied her strong feelings on the matter. She was not swayed by my purported wish to be able to “talk to Moroccan people.” Why not talk to them in Fusha, she offered in rebuttal. Moroccans would be able to understand, and as an added bonus I’d be able to talk to people outside of Morocco, as well.

Despite her disagreement with my choice, Manal did finally seem to accept the fact that I was learning Darija, and shared the news with the rest of the family later that evening, at dinner. Although the rest of the women were less outspoken about the issue than Manal had been, I still received no positive reinforcement – until Assia, Manal’s younger sister, declared, “well, this means that we can speak Arabic with you now.”

Though I had occasionally tried out my newly learned Moroccan vocabulary on the family, they had, until that moment, always spoken French to me. But Assia’s pronouncement occasioned an immediate departure from that: for the rest of the evening they resolutely addressed me in Darija, and tested my vocabulary by pointing to random items on the table and asking me for a definition. Every answer, right or wrong, led to great laughter and comments of encouragement.

That night, as I wrote in my field notes, I tried to make sense of this strange interaction. What did Assia mean, that now they could speak Arabic with me? Was Fusha not Arabic too? In fact, didn’t Manal’s reaction suggest that Fusha was much more ‘real’, as far as Arabic goes, than Darija? Why did they want to speak Darija, but not Fusha, with me?

As I came to discover in the months that followed, the answers to these questions have to do with the particular role that language plays in Moroccan culture, politics, and constructs of identity. I am not a linguistic anthropologist, and the purported topic of my future dissertation is quite unrelated to the issue of language. However, living in Morocco over the past eighteen months has taught me that language, in this society, is intimately connected to definitions of what constitutes authentic ‘culture’, to notions of status, and to decisions about who belongs, and who does not.

My host family’s reaction to the discovery that I was learning Darija reveals a love/hate relationship with their dialect. It is not considered ‘real’ or worthy of study, but nevertheless it is theirs, it is the language in which they are most comfortable, and it is intimately connected to their culture and traditions. Though Fusha is often placed on a pedestal as a kind of ‘pure’ and ‘ideal’ Arabic, it is a language that the average Moroccan only masters passively. It is taught in school, and it is heard on radio and television; most Moroccans will thus understand anything said to them in Standard Arabic. Speaking it, however, would be the equivalent of an American speaking Shakespearean English. Fusha, one might venture to argue (from a linguistic standpoint at least), is no more ‘their’ language than French would be.

Moroccan Arabic, in contrast, is entirely ‘theirs’. It may not be a real language, but speaking it signals a kind of cultural belonging, or insiderness in a way that Fusha cannot. I had noted this difference in value before, when I first came to Morocco in the spring of 2005. I was in Fès for a period of three months, and took an intensive course of beginning Darija, followed immediately by an intensive course of intermediate Fusha. Whereas topics of discussion in the colloquial class included Moroccan customs, traditions, and superstitions, the Fusha classes focused on pan-Arab politics, Middle-Eastern history, and Qur’anic theology. Feeling a growing disconnect from the Moroccan context during that last course, I remember regretting my decision to switch from dialect to standard Arabic.

In late 2008, the shift in language of communication likewise brought with it a shift in subject matter. Communication with my host family became at once much more extensive, and much more context-related. Whereas before they had answered my curious questions about Moroccan customs only superficially, the women now began to explain things to me with enthusiasm, and to include me in their activities – claiming that it would be a ‘learning experience’ for me. Before the shift, they had warned me that I wouldn’t be able to handle witnessing the sacrifice of a sheep during the upcoming ‘Eid leKbir. But now, now that we were speaking Darija, I was not only allowed to be present, but was in fact charged with documenting the whole day with my digital camera. It was, in short, as though a door had been opened, and I was finally allowed inside the private life of this family. The realization that I was learning Darija seemed to have utterly changed the family’s impression of me. Before, I had simply been another foreign student, here to learn a language and then go back home. Their preference for speaking French with me at that time suggests an a priori assumption of an insurmountable communicative and cultural divide; a fundamental difference, an inherent outsiderness on my part. The fact that I was studying Darija, however, seemed to have led them to discern in me a potential for immersion, learning, understanding, and perhaps even integration. Perhaps my interest in Darija confirmed for them the sincerity of my interest in Moroccan culture – and their ability to speak to me in dialect allowed them to talk to me about it in its own terms. Darija may be no Fusha, but it is the vehicle of Moroccan culture.[5]

[1] Lalla is the Moroccan word for “lady,” or “mrs.” It is commonly followed by a first name. All first and last names used in this paper are pseudonyms chosen by the author.

[2] A sdari (pl. sdader) is a Moroccan sofa: a thick and firm mattress-like seat that rests on a wooden base, and a back rest of loose cushions. Sdader typically line all four walls of a Moroccan sitting room.

[3] An alif is an ‘A’, a lam an ‘L’, and a qaf is a ‘K’ pronounced deep in the throat.

[4] History books argue that this choice was driven by a desire to align Morocco with pan-Arab political movements that were emerging at the time in the Middle East.

[5] This was again confirmed a few weeks later, at a friend’s wedding. I had commented to Manal on something, and had switched back into French because I was unsure of the right Arabic word. She turned to me and told me in no uncertain terms that we had to speak ‘Arabic’ right now, because we were at a wedding, and that was a ‘Moroccan’ event. French would thus be inappropriate.

Friday, June 18, 2010

In Need of a Listening Ear

“Charlotte,” she calls out. “Charlotte, shoufi,” look at me.

I turn towards her and she stands there in the middle of the room, a seductive smile on her face as she dances to the sound of Egyptian pop. She’s feeling the rhythm with eyes half closed.

“Like this, see?” she says and puts her hands on her hips for emphasis, swaying back and forth to the beat. She motions for me to join her. “Come here, try it. Leave your jacket.”

I get up off the couch, and join her in movement. She regards me critically as I attempt to imitate her movements, then laughs. “Hey, come and see!” She calls out to people walking by outside. “Charlotte’s belly dancing!”


I first talk to Rachida one Wednesday morning, two days after her hospitalization. On the day of her admission she’d been wearing a black Saudi-style abaya* with matching headscarf; twenty-four hours later, the Islamic clothing has been replaced by a leopard-print track suit. Diamond studs across the chest spell out “Chanel.” She has joined the other patients’ regular grooming activities, and now walks around with her hair blown out into large curls, her lips painted a deep pink, and her eyes accented with heavy lines of kohl.

Within ten minutes of meeting her, Rachida has filled me in on the pertinent parts of her biography. She lives in a southern Moroccan town with her husband and three children, and she is a housewife. With regard to that last fact, there are three things I need to know. First of all, that she is highly intelligent – she could have pursued a higher education, had she been given the opportunity. Secondly, that she is a great cook (which prompts her to describe, in elaborate detail, the particular dishes she’s mastered). And thirdly, that she hasn’t lifted a finger in the house ever since she fell ill, now three years ago. “Je fais rien – du – tout,” she summarizes for emphasis.

She doesn’t know how or why she got sick. It simply happened one day, mysteriously and suddenly. For three long years she was incapacitated – but she’s definitely feeling better now, she lets me know. She tells me she’s “farhana,” happy, on the ward: everyone is nice, there’s always someone to talk to, and everything is taken care of (though the food doesn’t compare to what she whips up at home, of course).

She’s invited me to her room, and we sit on her bed as she shows me pictures of her family, describing each of her loved ones in the most positive of terms. I casually remark that her husband bears a striking resemblance to her late father: both were military men who seem to fulfill all the requirements of ideal Moroccan masculinity. She’s spoken of both with tenderness in her voice. But here I seem to have overstepped some boundary. “Not at all!” she exclaims with a vehemence that makes me fear I might have sullied someone’s image. Her father was a great man, she assures me; a truly great man. Her husband, on the other hand, is revealed to be a jealous grouch. Like all men from the south, he is conservative and traditional; it’s because of him that she stays at home, wears a headscarf, and keeps her distance from unknown men.

And suddenly she suggests that this stifling home environment is the actual cause of her malaise. She isn’t happy in her southern town, she explains; she feels quite literally like a fish on dry, desert-like land. She would much prefer to live in a place like Rabat, where women have jobs, and go to the beach whenever they like. She’s glad to be far away from her husband for the time being. He’s not allowed to visit her (doctor’s orders), but she doesn’t mind one bit. This way, she says with a smile, she can truly relax and get better.

Rachida’s eagerness to talk compels me to recruit her as a research participant. And she is indeed happy to be interviewed – yet the conversations that ensue are not nearly as rich or productive as I had hoped. The thing is that Rachida’s stories are a bit like a pre-recorded message; no matter what questions I ask, she tells me this same basic narrative over and over again. Behind this story is a mental wall that I simply cannot manage to break through. She repeatedly tells me that she is entrusting me and my recorder with her deepest secrets, but I get none of the subjective detail or emotional depth that I had expected to find.

It takes me a while (and quite a bit of self-doubt about my qualities as an interviewer) to realize that this is the very source of Rachida’s problem. It seems that she may have been right on the money when she blamed her environment for her illness. Rachida has lived her life in a time and place that discouraged women’s freedom to express their personal feelings and desires. She is hermetic about what goes on in her mind not because she does not want to share, but because she quite simply never learned how to do so.

Nevertheless, everyone needs an outlet – everyone needs to vent. And so in the absence of words, Rachida communicates with her body. Her malaise manifests itself to her as fatigue, depression, or a momentary lapse in consciousness that she explains as a neurological anomaly. She is a hypochondriac, and her medical file contains three inches worth of lab reports, x-rays, and MRI scans that all come to the same conclusion: her problem is mental, not physical.

Her inability to communicate verbally also explains her need for attention and tendency to seduce. Stuck in an impossible position, between a lack of words and the uncontrollable need to finally be heard, Rachida craves human interaction and a bit of understanding. But unable to ask for it directly, she’s learned to attract it by using the physical power of her femininity.

Rachida is, in a word, hystérique. The days of Freud are long gone, and the term “hysteria” no longer appears in the international diagnostic manuals currently in use – but it is alive and well in Morocco. The women’s ward always houses a few patients with hysteria; women just like Rachida, who have no other way to speak than through their bodies.

The doctors are stern with Rachida. She is taking anti-depressants, but the dominant aspect of her treatment involves a kind of behavioral therapy. Rachida must learn to be more emotionally independent, and she must learn to talk about her feelings. The doctor meets with her every day, and patiently yet persistently attempts to break through her mental wall. But women like Rachida are never allowed to stay at the hospital too long. This so as not to indulge in the ‘secondary benefits’ of hospitalization. Being a patient means being confirmed as being ‘sick’ – and that label entitles one to all kinds of special care and attention. Most patients cannot wait to be cured and discharged. But les hystériques? They couldn’t be happier, right here on the ward, being taken care of by everyone else. In order to ensure that such women still retain some motivation to get better, the staff tries to make hospitalization slightly less attractive – by cutting off certain privileges. This is why Rachida isn’t allowed to have visitors. She’s also not allowed to keep her cell phone with her, and although the staff encourages her to talk, they make sure not to be too available to her.

Luckily I am not a member of the staff, and I can be as available to Rachida as I want. Perhaps I can be a listening ear that doesn’t probe for uncomfortable details, I decide. And so I give up on diving into the depths of her mind, settling instead for easy interaction. Aside from our interviews I hang out with her on the ward’s courtyard, relaxing in the sun. As we sit side by side, she’ll turn to me, put on her nicest smile, and ask, “Comment tu me trouves?” What do you think of me?

I’ll turn, and look at her. And before I get a chance to answer, she’ll hint at the particular kind of compliment she’s looking for that day.

On this particular afternoon, she runs her fingers through her hair and poses a rhetorical question.

“I have nice hair, right?”

I express my agreement, and she continues. It’s perfectly curly, she explains. And no matter what she does with it, it always looks great. It’s just too bad she’ll have to cover it back up with a headscarf as soon as she leaves the hospital…

And off she goes; she has launched herself into another rendition of her biography. I lean back in the sun, put a smile on my face, and simply listen.

* basically, a long, formless black dress

Saturday, June 12, 2010


Hafida is 57, though you wouldn't say so if you saw her. The years seem to have weighed more heavily on Hafida's shoulders than on those of others. The passage of time has etched deep wrinkles across her forehead, and her deep-set eyes betray the depth of her exhaustion. She shuffles around the ward in pink hospital-issued pajama's, three sizes too big for her skin-and-bones frame; with her back hunched forward she’s forever looking down at her feet. She always carries around a big woolen sweater, as though she is planning ahead for an upcoming departure. But other than a dubious brother and a modest pension fund, the doctors tell me there is little waiting for her at home.

"On fait avec," she answers with a sigh and a smile, every time I ask her how she's doing. "On fait avec," 'we do the best we can.' According to Hafida, her best days are behind her. She is old and tired; her life has been reduced to the nostalgic memory of opportunities and experiences that have long since retreated beyond her grasp. She believes she has exhausted her potential, and her candle’s flame has been all but blown out.

The doctors tell me that her “tristesse” is part of her illness. She has schizo-affective disorder, an illness in which the normal manifestation of schizophrenia is compounded by an extreme fluctuation of one’s mood. Yet I cannot help but wonder, who wouldn’t be exhausted after 30 years of hearing voices in your head?

But Hafida is still full of wisdom and stories. As we sit on a bench in the sun, just the two of us, she talks about the important things in life: about love, adventure, and good health. These are the kinds of values, she impresses upon me, of which you don’t realize the importance until it is too late. She advises me to love fully, and to express my feelings. Too many people have locked their hearts, she says. Little do they know that true blindness is not the inability to see, but the inability to feel.

In the same way, our ability to hear means nothing if we cannot listen. When she learns that I am Dutch, she tells me in a mixture of English and rusty German that she made her career as a professor of foreign languages. She speaks at least four different ones – but the most important language of all, she tells me, is “la communication des sourds” - the communication of the deaf. True communication, she explains, requires much more than words. One must be open to, interested in, and understanding of one’s interlocutors. One must always remain curious. In fact, this is the meaning of life: discovery, adventure, and learning. When she was younger, she says, she was like me: as I am exploring Morocco, so she explored Europe. But what you can do, she sighs, when life’s obligations curb your freedom to fly? She impresses upon me the importance of continuing my pursuit of discovery – of never allowing my heart to lock itself into blindness.


A few days before her discharge from the hospital, we meet once again on that bench in the sun. We are chatting in our usual mixture of Arabic, French, German, and English, when she unexpectedly turns to me and apologizes for talking so much (little does she know how much I’ve enjoyed listening to her). She wants to know, how do you say “bavard” in English?

“Chatterbox,” I translate.

She nods, and smiles. She likes this word. She is a multilingual chatterbox, she says, who has begun to lose her words. With age, her knowledge is slipping and she no longer speaks any of her languages perfectly.

“Before long,” she concludes with a smile, “I’ll just be an empty box.”

I want to tell her that she need not worry, that she still has plenty of words and stories to fill a lifetime to come – that her candle is not even close to burning out. But I keep this to myself. Nostalgia aside, I’m beginning to realize that Hafida yearns for mental quiet. She has lived a lifetime with an endless stream of verbal commentary running through her mind; I cannot help but think that the prospect of an empty box might finally bring her the relief she’s been seeking.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

A Conspiracy Theorist

Whether it is day or night, Marwa always wears her sunglasses. For a while she wore earplugs, too (is she shutting out the world?), but these disappear after a few months in the hospital. She comes out of her room around 10 o’clock each morning, her head held high and her sharp nose protruding forward in a gesture of pre-emptive haughtiness. A lit cigarette in one hand and a bag or stack of books in the other, she lingers around the ward’s courtyard telling whoever wants to listen about the latest conspiracies she’s uncovered. On a good day, she talks about ongoing disputes between the stray cats that live on the ward; on a bad day she insists that the hospital is about to suffer an attack by weapons of mass destruction – or that George Bush and Osama bin Laden are secretly meeting to plan their takeover of the world.

Marwa does not adhere to the communicative rules of the ward. She cannot keep quiet during the weekly meetings, at which patients are expected to sit quietly and listen to one another as they report on how they passed their week. Despite her best efforts Marwa continually interrupts with questions, demands, and propositions. And rather than talk about her mental condition, she prefers to pose philosophical questions to the group: if one does not cry, does that mean one does not suffer? What is the meaning of silence? And should psychiatrists, in the interest of remaining morally neutral vis-à-vis their patients, be atheists?

She also refuses to speak the appropriate language. She insists on speaking French or English as she tells me about the years she spent in the US, the life she had in Paris, friends who work for big multinationals, and about how she was the first person to ever eat cereal with chocolate milk. At multiple occasions, other patients around her grumble with frustration. She’s just as Moroccan as they are, they remind Marwa; get off your high horse and speak Arabic like the rest of us! Upon which Marwa looks down her nose, tells them that “vous comprenez très bien le français,” and continues her story.

And finally, Marwa says the unsayable; she breaks all taboos. She laughs about her own promiscuity, and argues that the Prophet Mohammed was a pedophilic rapist. Her sacrilegious talk has led to numerous heated arguments with other patients, and to at least one patient’s attempt at exorcising the evil spirits that must be haunting her (while Marwa, cool as a cucumber, simply remarks that it is not she, but the exorcising patient who is really ‘possessed’).

I am not allowed to interview Marwa, lest my tape recorder become the object of another conspiracy theory. But my initial unease with her stories (how to react when someone tells you about military bases on other planets?) quickly transforms into endless fascination, and she is happy to have found a gullible listener. What I love most about Marwa is that to her, life is a reflection of literature. Her books – a collection of aged French paperbacks – are her treasure. She keeps them hidden underneath the blankets on her bed, and always carries a few with her when she’s walking around. In these books, she finds solid proof for her theories. She passes effortlessly through time and space, reality and fantasy, to expose hidden connections between certain people or events. The true mission of the helicopter from Black Hawn Down, she tells me, was the search for a pirate ship with gold. And Hitler is in reality the reincarnation of a 17th century French author. Here, she says, pointing to a drawing in one of her books. Do you see the resemblance in this portrait?

And the thing is, I kind of do. I cannot help but smile.

In turn, literature also becomes a reflection of life. Amongst her books Marwa has notebooks in which she is writing various novels. Fantastical stories they are, involving reincarnations, bodily possession, and time travel. They’re all true stories, too, she says. It’s all happened to her at one point or other, she explains as she puts a smile on her face, stares into space, and reminisces about boyfriends in Paris or international heists she pulled with the CEOs of various companies.

For the other patients, Marwa is a prime example of what it means to be “folle,” crazy. But as preposterous as most of her stories are I am increasingly inclined to wonder if she is mentally ill, or simply eerily perceptive. Her characterizations of other people (doctors, patients) are often dead-on. She imitates them perfectly, getting their gait, their catch-phrases, even the look in their eyes just right. And once in a while, her theories of hostility and conspiracy expose painful anomalies in the hospital’s daily rhythm of life – anomalies perhaps much less ill-intentioned or serious than Marwa perceives, but true nonetheless.

And so I wonder, might there be some grain of truth to her other stories as well? If we take the literalness of her stories with a grain of salt – if we look at them with unfocused eyes, as it were – and interpret them a little more abstractly, might she not be on to something?

Besides, who are we to decide what’s true, anyway? It might be worthwhile just to sit back, smile, and let Marwa take you on a ride of fantasy and excitement...