Stolen Lives: Twenty Years in a Desert Jailby Malika Oufkir, Michele Fitoussi
A gripping memoir that reads like a political thriller--the story of Malika Oufkir's turbulent and remarkable life. Born in 1953, Malika Oufkir was the eldest daughter of General Oufkir, the King of Morocco's closest aide. Adopted by the king at the age of five, Malika spent most of her childhood and adolescence in the seclusion of the court harem, one of the… See more details below
A gripping memoir that reads like a political thriller--the story of Malika Oufkir's turbulent and remarkable life. Born in 1953, Malika Oufkir was the eldest daughter of General Oufkir, the King of Morocco's closest aide. Adopted by the king at the age of five, Malika spent most of her childhood and adolescence in the seclusion of the court harem, one of the most eligible heiresses in the kingdom, surrounded by luxury and extraordinary privilege.
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Stolen Lives: Twenty Years in a Desert Jail (Oprah Edition)Malika Oufkir tosses her fur coat onto the bed in her midtown Manhattan hotel room. She's elegant, slender, and quite beautiful, but, as she says, "I am not normal."
In truth, there is almost nothing normal about Oufkir. More than four years after she left Morocco, where she and her mother and brothers and sisters spent 20 years in prison, Oufkir still panics when she is out in the open. She craves quiet, dark rooms where she can be alone. New York frightens her. She hates crowds. She likes to eat alone, in silence.
"If I talk about it too much, think about it too much, I could become crazy or have a very violent reaction," Oufkir says of the time she spent in Bir-Jdid prison for a crime in which everyone knew she had taken no part. She was just 19 when her father, a powerful Moroccan general, led a failed coup against King Hassan II; the monarch immediately ordered General Oufkir's execution and banished his widow and six children, Malika, Myriam ("Mimi"), Maria, Soukaina, Raouf, and three-year-old Abdellatif, into internal exile.
Shuttled from prison to prison for five years, Oufkir and her family were eventually dispatched to Bir-Jdid, a prison barrack near Casablanca. Locked in separate cells around a central corridor, unable to see one another, Oufkir and her siblings spent their youth in Bir-Jdid, plagued by insects, vermin, and brutal deprivation.
"Hassan enjoyed keeping us in prison, starving us, freezing us, leaving us without beds or sheets or medical care. I think he took pleasure in it every day," Oufkir tells me, as if speaking of something that is both vaguely remote and entirely present. "He could have killed us. But he preferred to have us die slowly." Desperately-and miraculously-Oufkir and her family defied the fate Hassan intended for them when, using a spoon and a sardine can lid, they dug their way to freedom.
In heart-stopping and suspenseful portions of Stolen Lives, Oufkir's remarkable memoir, she recounts the days she and three of her siblings spent racing from embassy to embassy, attempting to gain political asylum after their escape from Bir-Jdid. The outcasts, now fugitives, faced unspeakable retribution if discovered. Hollow-faced, destitute, dressed in 15-year-old rags, they hitchhiked across Morocco, seeking help from former friends who, fearing the king, again and again turned them away. After five days on the lam, they succeeded in getting a hotel guest to phone Alain de Chalvron, a French radio reporter in Paris. "An incredible scoop," said de Chalvron, who alerted the French embassy to the Oufkirs' plight. Once their story was out, the condemnation of the international community made it impossible for Hassan to punish the family; Moroccan authorities nonetheless managed to keep them under house arrest for another three and a half years.
Even before her family's exile and escape, Oufkir led an extraordinary life. Born into an affluent and powerful family, she was chosen-at age five-by King Muhammad V to be a companion to his own small daughter, Princess Lalla Mina. The king moved Oufkir into a villa near the palace that she shared with his daughter. After three years Muhammad died, and his son Hassan II inherited the throne and guardianship of both Lalla Mina and Oufkir. Like his father, Hassan lavished attention and kindness on the girls and retained a strict German governess to ensure that they would be raised properly. Oufkir fondly recalls sitting around the piano, singing and dancing and otherwise enjoying good times with Lalla Mina and the new king. For 11 years Oufkir lived a sumptuous, if sheltered, life among Moroccan royalty, leaving the palace only occasionally for spa trips and ski vacations.
At 16, she says, Oufkir hungered for a taste of real life and at last prevailed on the king to let her return to her own father and mother. She looked forward to life as a normal person-and to falling in love. But she didn't get the chance. Three years later her father attempted a coup against Hassan II, the man who had raised her for eight years. It was Hassan who would banish her family to prison.
Traces of both the prisoner and the princess Oufkir has been are evident as we speak; there is a regal quality to her great grace and poise, but there is no mistaking the haunted look in her eye. "I wrote the book in a crashing hurry," she says softly of Stolen Lives. "My friends could not understand why. I told them, `If this is published after Hassan dies, it would be terrible. Through his sister he invited me back to the palace. But I refused. He did not want me to talk, to write. With this book I defied him." Hassan II died five months after Oufkir's gripping, remorseless memoir was published (under the title La Prisonni�re) in France-where it quickly became a best-seller.
Today, Oufkir lives in Paris with her husband, a French architect raised in Lebanon who is fluent in Arabic and whom she met at a Moroccan wedding eight years after her escape from Bir-Jdid. Unable to bear children because of an infection she suffered while in prison, she acts as head of her extended family; Abdellatif, the brother who was incarcerated as a toddler and is now deeply wounded by his stunted, aberrant childhood, lives with her, as does her sister Myriam.
At 47, Oufkir has found the freedom-and love-she craved so desperately for so long. But it has not brought comfort. "I don't know what it means to be free," she says. "It is easier to be a prisoner." There is no self-pity as she explains how difficult it is for her to live in Paris. "Every day I suffer. I'm surviving, not living. I want to be like everyone else. I try, but I can't. There are two decades of prison between me and the world." She draws her hunter-green suede jacket close around her slender frame.
"Anyway, I do not really want happiness, because that would deny my experience. I am like a person who has lost a limb and tries to act normal. They can't. Neither can I. I have arms and legs, but inside something has changed." The strength and resolve that enabled Oufkir to survive are visible on her face, as is the fragility that is the legacy of her ordeal. "Prison stole the best things from me. Yet my experience is so rich. Prison was a detour, the way in which I managed to avoid mediocrity. Without it I would be a normal woman, with money and power. But inside? Nothing."
In the following exclusive excerpt from Stolen Lives Oufkir chronicles her life in a Moroccan prison and describes the family's death-defying escape. -Amy Wilentz the great escape: an exclusive excerpt from stolen lives
It was around four o'clock on August 16, 1972, and I was at my family's house in Casablanca with some friends, talking and laughing in the living room. Prompted by an intuition I can't explain, I switched on the television. A newscaster was announcing that there had been a coup d'�tat and that the king's plane had been fired on. It was unclear who was responsible.
I rushed over to the radio, frantic for more news yet dreading what I might hear: that it was my father who was behind the coup. He was a powerful general in the Moroccan army and had been at increasing odds with the king, Hassan II. But information on the radio was hazy too. No one seemed to know anything for certain. There was only speculation that my father, General Oufkir, was involved and that the coup had succeeded. Order had not yet been restored in the capital. One of my friends, though, was convinced my father was involved. She got up and pointed at me, hysterically babbling that the army would surround us, that I would be killed and so would they. She urged everyone to leave at once. I sat, terrified, not knowing what to do. I tried calling my mother and brothers and sisters at our house in Rabat; the lines were busy or there was no answer.
Around seven o'clock the phone rang. It was my father. He spoke with the voice of a man who has decided to commit suicide and is recording his last message. It was as if a ghost was talk- ing to me. He told me he loved me and that he was proud of me. Then he added, "I ask you to remain calm, whatever happens. Don't leave the house until the escort comes to get you."
I began to scream. He kept saying things I didn't want to hear. I wanted him to reassure me, to tell me it hadn't been him. But from the start of our conversation I understood it was. And that he had failed.
I couldn't sleep and couldn't stop thinking about my father's last words-his warning not to leave. Something terrible had happened. Around 5 a.m. the next day the phone rang again. It was my mother. Without hesitating she confirmed what I was most afraid to hear: "Your father is dead. Pack your things and come back to Rabat."
Four months later, once the official mourning period for my father had ended, the head of police arrived at our house and told my mother to get the family packed. We left on Christmas Eve-my mother, her six children, and Achoura and Halima, two loyal members of the household staff. Mother had just turned 36. I was 19, my sister Mimi was 17, my brother Raouf 14, and the girls, Maria and Soukaina, were just 10 and nine. My baby brother Abdellatif was three and a half.
We were told we would be going away for two weeks. We would never really return. Our first jail was a filthy mud house of flaking plaster walls and sand floors-part of an army barracks in Assa, a town near the Algerian border. I found everything there repulsive, from the coarse military blankets to the thin foam mattresses to the lack of proper toilets. All nine of us shared the small house together and were under constant surveillance. But by and large the guards showed us sympathy. We could listen to the radio and were given plenty of bread, goat meat, and honey to eat. We were also allowed to go into the nearby town with a police escort for two hours every day. I refused to go-I did not want to be dependent on our captors' goodwill-but the visits were very important for the children. The escorts always treated them very well, and the villagers would send them back with cakes and treats.
Fundamentally this was not much of a change from our past life. As far back as I could remember, I had never lived without several armed police responsible for my safety. The only difference here was that instead of protecting me they were keeping watch. My life was a fairy tale in reverse. I had been brought up as a princess and was now turning into Cinderella. Gradually I was shedding my old habits. We had brought around 20 designer suitcases with us-Vuitton, Herm�s, and Gucci-filled with Paris couture and children's clothes from Geneva, but the idea of wearing any of it soon became ludicrous. After a few months we always wore the same old clothes.
After about a year we were told that we'd be leaving. There was no explanation, but on thinking about it a little later I concluded that the villagers must have been growing too sympathetic toward us and word of this had gotten back to the king.
We were taken to an abandoned military fort in Tamattaght, a town even more remote than Assa. There conditions were dramatically worse. The nine of us were given two rooms inside an old and crumbling fort. There was a hole that served as a toilet, and a little dirt enclave we used as a kitchen. A small but mostly enclosed outdoor space provided us with our only fresh air. This would be our home for almost four years.
As at Assa, we were generally well treated. Of the 25 policemen under orders to guard us day and night, around three-quarters had previously done security duty at our house in Rabat. They had known my father, directly or indirectly. They respected my mother and loved us children in a paternal way. When they could, they would bring us contraband food as well as occasional books and letters. But they could never let us out, which meant that while we were there, enclosed in the fort's towering walls, we almost never saw anything but the smallest patch of sky.
And so we learned to live together. In wretched, cramped, filthy conditions-in darkness, isolation, and confinement. We tried to impose a structure on our days. We would al-ways eat three meals a day together, and sit down for tea. I also created an informal school for the children, setting up "classes" in which to teach them French and math. It was difficult for all of us, increasingly so. Raouf was not yet over the loss of his father, at an age when a boy probably needs his father most. Soukaina was entering a moody adolescence. Maria was extremely fragile-when something upset her she often would not eat, speak, or move for hours. As for Mimi, she was in the most difficult straits of all. She had epilepsy, and though the guards were able to sneak drugs to her, the stress of prison caused her fits to increase anyway. Abdellatif adapted to it most readily.
At night I'd hear my mother sobbing. Alone in her bed, she wept over the loss of her husband. As for me, especially during those early years in prison, I dreamed only of the king, Hassan II. I relived my life at the palace: my pranks, our laughter, my t�te-�-t�tes with him, our special moments. I never revisited happy family scenes, or painful ones-my father's death or the mourning that followed it. There was no resentment in my dreams, no confrontation or rebellion. I had nothing but happy memories of my childhood, even though in a sense it had been stolen from me. I would wake up overcome with shame and guilt. My feelings toward the king were complicated: My own father had tried to kill my adoptive father and as a result he was dead. Sometimes I didn't know which father I missed most, which one to grieve for. I was the product of my palace upbringing; everything I was, I owed to the man who had raised me and who was now keeping me imprisoned. At the same time I loved my real father so much.
But if I still respected Hassan II as my adoptive father, I hated the despot he had become the day he began to persecute us. I hated him for his hatred, I hated him for my ruined life, for my mother's misery and the mutilated childhood of my brothers and sisters. I hated him for the irreparable crime he had committed in locking up a woman and six children for such a long time and in such inhuman conditions.
We continually implored Hassan to release us. Every year on his birthday we wrote letters. We even wrote him a petition for a pardon, signed in our blood.
Then one day, after almost four years in Tamattaght, we were told to pack. The children were glad. The rest of us were torn between hope and dread.
Our next journey lasted 24 hours. The nine of us were divided into three armored trucks with blacked-out windows. We were under constant surveillance and could not even find a discreet spot when we got out to relieve ourselves; the police came with us and watched until we had finished. It was February. As we drove, I noticed the air beginning to smell damp and the sound of frogs croaking so I concluded that we had left the desert and were now near the coast. It turns out I was not mistaken. The Bir-Jdid barracks, where we were being taken, were 27 miles from Casablanca. This we discovered much later.
Finally the trucks slowed to a halt. We were blindfolded and led through one door and then through another. The blindfolds were removed, and we found ourselves in the small courtyard of what seemed to be a former farmhouse-now converted to a prison. The walls of the enclosure were so high that we couldn't see the sky. Soldiers stood at arms in each corner.
Four doors opened onto the courtyard. The rooms behind them, we were told, would be our cells. The first, which Mother was to share with Abdellatif, was at right angles to the other three. The second I would share with my sisters. Achoura and Halima would share the third, and Raouf would be alone in the cell on the end. Each of the cells included several little rooms. Ours included a main room with a toilet, one larger room, and a smaller room, where we would end up storing the suitcases we were still lugging around.
The appearance of these new quarters did not bode well for our future comfort. Even though we were already accustomed to discomfort, filth, and minimal amenities, these cells were squalid. Rivulets of moisture ran from the ceiling down to the stone floor. The only light would be dim, coming from a generator that operated a few hours each night. The mattresses were just thin layers of foam with covers of dubious cleanliness set on rusty metal bed frames.
Right away we were told that we would be separated at night. We would be allowed to see each other during the day and to eat together, but at night each person would have to go back to his or her own cell. This news made us all sob. Mother cried and pleaded, saying they didn't have the right to separate her from her children. But we were told that these rules could not be relaxed.
Under this new regime, from eight in the morning until nightfall the doors were unlocked and we could go in and out of one another's cells. Generally we all gathered in mine. This freedom of movement allowed us to carry on the routines we'd grown used to-we would cook and eat together, and play with the children during the day. But here our lives were much more closely monitored. And unlike our former captors, those at Bir-Jdid showed us little sympathy. The commander, a man named Borro, was utterly devoid of compassion and seemed to take his orders directly from Rabat. Four other guards worked under his command-they would be rotated every month or so, apparently to prevent them from developing any sympathy for us. Outside our small prison, we were informed, even more guards were stationed. They would stop anyone from coming to help us. Inside the prison walls Mother, Raouf, and I seemed to be the guards' main concern. Mother because she was the wife of the hated general, me because they were aware of my influence over the rest of the family, and Raouf because he was his father's son and it was natural that he would want to avenge him. Of us all it was Raouf who suffered the most physically, who took the most knocks. I lived with a permanent fear in the pit of my stomach: fear of being killed, beaten, or raped; fear of constant humiliation. But we were never seriously beaten-only Raouf. The first search took place at the beginning of April, two months after our arrival. The aim was to intimidate us. Borro's men locked us up in Raouf's cell until nightfall. Inside we could hear dull thuds, the sound of hammering. When we were finally allowed out, the damage was impressive. They had gathered our most valued belongings-our trinkets and books, Abdellatif's toys, much of our clothing, Mother's jewelry, and my photo album-and had lit a huge bonfire with everything that was combustible. (We took the fact that they did not burn our luggage as a small sign of hope: Someday we would be leaving.) The children were all the more traumatized when Borro forcibly searched Soukaina, who was only 13. Afterward she ran a high temperature for 10 days.
Then, on January 30, Raouf's 20th birthday, we were informed that he would be locked up for all but two hours a day. A few days later my sisters and I met the same fate. Next it was Mother and Abdellatif. During this phase we were allowed to go out into the courtyard for a breath of air, but only in shifts. Mother and Abdellatif went out in the morning until 10; then it was my turn, with my sisters. We would stand under Raouf's window, he'd cling to the bars, and we'd chat. He was so desperate to express himself that he would monopolize the conversation. He would talk about our father and his longing to avenge him. And about sex. He suffered far more than we did from our forced abstinence and would tell the girls stories of his early trips to prostitutes-accepted practice for bourgeois boys in Morocco-that would have them howling with laughter.
After a few months, however, even these brief hours outside were forbidden. We were all locked up 24 hours a day.
I was 24 years old, and for the next nine years the only faces I saw were those of my sisters and the guards. My mother, Abdellatif, Raouf, and Halima and Achoura were mere voices through a wall. For more than five years we had managed to preserve a family life, a cocoon in which we protected each other. At Bir-Jdid, family life was out of the question. Everything was out of the question.
Once we were confined to our cells, our lives became completely regulated by the guards. They stopped by three times a day to bring us meal trays, and at midday to give us bread. For the first few months my sisters and I clung to a semblance of a timetable. In the morning we would exercise-I concocted a "bums and tums" workout, and we tossed a bag of rags around as a makeshift volleyball. In the afternoon we told stories. Later we gave up physical activity. Our bodies no longer responded; we just sat around.
Our biggest enemy was time. It was tangible, monstrous, threatening, and almost impossible to master. In the summer, dusk brought back memories of the sweetness of the old days, the end of a day at the beach, time for an aperitif, the laughter of friends, the smell of the sea, the tang of salt on my bronzed skin. I relived the little I had experienced. We didn't do anything. We'd follow the progress of a cockroach from one hole in the wall to another. Doze. Empty our minds. The sky would change color and the day draw to a close. A week felt like a day, the months like weeks; a year meant nothing. And I was wasting away. I learned to die inwardly. I often had the feeling I was living in a black hole.
Despite everything, my sisters and I got along well. The lack of privacy was torture, especially for two young women and two teenage girls. Washing, going to the toilet, and moaning in pain were all public acts-but we quickly got used to it. Unable to divest myself of my palace upbringing, I wouldn't allow the slightest breach of manners. We behaved properly at the table, we chewed delicately, we said please and thank you and excuse me. We washed ourselves scrupulously every day, especially when we had our periods, despite the freezing salt water we were given in the middle of winter that turned our skin bright red and made us shriek. ...
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