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...