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.