“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been wearing a black Saudi-style abaya* with matching headscarf; twenty-four hours later, the Islamic clothing has been replaced by a leopard-print track suit.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.