I first saw this book in 2001 and wanted to purchase it. I soon forgotten about it until recently when I’m reading truck loads of books about Morocco, this one came up on the radar again. I finally got around reading it during my spring holiday.
For the next 3 days after I finished the book I kept thinking about the tribulations and sufferance of Malika Oufkir and her family. The book left my eyes brimming with tears (and I’m not one who burst into tears easily). It fills me with a sense of greatness and awe that whenever I think about complaining of lousy food, I thought of the Oufkir family in prison and I feel humbled.
Malika Oufkir has been a prisoner for most of her life.
Born in 1953, the eldest daughter of General Oufkir, the Interior Minister of Morocco, became the King of Morocco’s eldest daughter, Lalla Mina’s closest aide. She was adopted by the king to be a companion to his little daughter. Malika grew up at the royal court of Rabat, together with the wives and concubines of the king in a golden cage, she only sees her family once a week. She lives in an unimaginable opulence and fairy tale life in the royal palace of Rabat.
But in 1972, her father was arrested and executed after an attempt to assassinate the king on the 16 August 1972 on the Skhirat coup d’etat. 19-year-old Malika, her mother and her five younger brothers and sisters, Raouf, Maria, Myriam, Soukaina and Abdellatif, were sent to a desert goal and in prison for 20 years. Abdellatif was only 3-year-old.
I would like to tell you about the lives of Malika Oufkir and her siblings in the desert gaol.
If you think you might want to read the book and this would be potentially a spoiler, turn back now. But if you are intrigued by what I have said so far, and wanted to find out more, then crossed this line.
Malika and her family, innocent of any crime, spent the next fifteen years after 1972 incarcerated, existing at the whim of guards and surviving largely on vermin-infested soup, inadequate food ration, poor living condition. They can’t see the any light except the piece of sky that came through their small windows. They were subjected to many physical and emotional tortures. At one point the family were separated by prison walls, but communicate with ingenious ways, and did not see each other’s faces for the next 10 years. They were locked away in increasingly barbaric conditions (they were moved around, one gaol worse than the other) for 15 endless years with additional 5 years of house arrest. Spending a total of 20 years in captivity for the sin of their father.
The first part of the book Malika recalled her early childhood in the royal palace and life with the king’s daughter and governess Bernadette. She received an education of an princess, weekend getaways in the King’s many castles, served by many maids and servants.
I just had to snap my fingers and anything I wanted was mine without any effort on my part. Travel? I flew first class the way others took the bus. Clothes? I bought up couturiers’ collections in every major European city and, if need be, I borrowed my mother’s Saint Laurent outfits. Fun? My life was an endless round of parties and balls, with guests straight out of the society gossip columns. Holidays? I had a choice, the world was my oyster. I took everything for granted, money, luxury, power, royalty and subservience. (page 75)
The story then take us through the execution of General Oufkir and how the siblings and their mother were transported to their first prison stop. It describes their daily lives in prison. How they cook with food ration which is eaten by rats, how they scour for food, how they communicate to one another through prison walls, how they suppress their longings, how they cease to be a human being and instead succumb to an animal-like state, and how Malika kept her brothers and sisters’ minds occupied with stories. Like a modern Scheherazade, Malika kept up their spirits by telling them stories every night.
I was disturbed to realize the extent of my power over the others. The Story [an imaginary story about nineteenth-century Russia] was so real to them that I could manipulate and influence them at will. When I sensed they were unhappy, I would restore things with a few phrases. The Story was part of our everyday life, to the point that it caused arguments and passions to flare. (page 156) – Malika
One torturous night in 1986, after an eight-year stint in solitary confinement and having not eaten properly for 47 days, the family members collectively tried to kill themselves by cutting open each other’s veins with fragments of knitting needles. But their suicide failed. Desperate, they began to dig with their bare hands.
No summary could do justice to the emotional intensity of the book, which was conceived five years after Malika gained her freedom. There is no lyrical prose nor there were intense emotional outpour of anger or hatred; the whole autobiography was told in an almost matter-of-factly manner. But that’s the lure of the simplicity of telling the story as it is, because her story itself and what happened to the family is enough to grip you from the beginning and bring readers through the roller coaster ride of tears, pain, joys, starvation, hopelessness, faith, suspense and action; and finally how their perseverance, strength and hope led to their hard-earned freedoms.
The book is translated from French by Ros Schwartz and co-written by Michele Fitoussi, a Tunisian journalist.
I was kept wide awake at night wondering about these startling events and questions in their lives:
- What sort of courage and loyalty manifest in both Achoura (Housemaid) and Halima (Abdellatif’s governess) that they followed the family to jail when they have a choice not to?
- Imagine how poor little Abdellatif cope when he spent all his childhood and adolescence in prison, and what shock he received when he escaped to the real world for the first time?
- What would I do if I knew that the best time of my life had slipped past 20 years? Will I live normal again? Is it too late to do the things that I have always wanted to do?
- How would you feel to know that your adoptive father (the King) murdered your biological father and that he has left you to die in the desert?
- What would you do if the Oufkir escaped and came to your abode to ask for shelter and help, but you knew you will be in danger by attracting the wrath of the king (and a possibility of being punished) if you go so far as let them into your front door?
- What state of mind do you have to arrive at when you knew that your family member and yourself has come to a point of attempting suicide, as death is better than the living hell?
- How do you make a pair of shoes from the exterior of the Louis Vutton luggage?
- Fraught with so much barbaric treatments and near death starvation and malnourishment, how is it that they are still alive? Are they the chosen one? Are they being watched by an angel who protects them?
- Would you still keep your hope high when year after year you expect the King to issue a royal pardon to release you and your family, only to be rejected?
In fact our incarceration was very much in keeping the Palace’s ancestral tradition of punishment. Opponents would be made to ‘disappear’ and their names would be proscribed. Anyone mentioning them would suffer serious consequences for daring to flout the unwritten law. But they were not killed. They were left to die.
I often wondered why Hassan II had imposed this long-drawn-out death instead of killing us right away. Our disappearance would have made matters much simpler. After tuning the question over in my mind and discussing it often with Mother and Raouf, I had come to the instinctive conclusion that at the beginning of our incarceration he did not have the meant to eliminate us. The two successive soups d’etat had shaken his power. Politically he was isolated.
Later, the Green March into Western Sahara had enabled him to assert his power at home and to give Morocco an international role. After the march, our situation changed. We were forgotten. What would have been the point of killing us then? He had inflicted the worst possible sentence on us.
I also felt – but that was no doubt an over-sentimental image of him – that he was torn between the hatred he now felt for us and the affection we had shared. The more he suffered, the more he had to persecute us. Us, the offspring, the descendants, and also this woman, my mother, the only person to stand up to him and defy him.
We survived, but even so, we crossed over to the other side. We were gradually moving away from the world of the living towards the realm of shadows. Stripped of everything that had made up our former lives, each day we drew close to the grave.
It was faith, hope and tenacity that kept them alive. Most of all it was the family bond, their sense of humour, the love they have for each other that kept them alive for so long. Malika remained loyal to her late father, never once did she condemn her father for bringing this fate to the family, nor does she hates the rest of the Royal family.
From a princess aide to a prisoner. From a young lady to a middle aged women. From a prisoner to a fugitive. “Malika swings from melancholy to laughter. At the same moment she is a child, a teenage girl and a mature women. She is all ages rolled into one, but has not really lived through any of them”. – Michele Fitoussi (The American edition is titled “Stolen Lives”)
Having an extended family of Moroccan made me understand what made a Moroccan ticks. I know the passion and the idiosyncrasy of the country and the culture. I have visited the grounds of the Royal Palace in Rabat, drove through the walls of the imperial palace in Meknes, I saw the outline of the Royal Castle in Ifrane…..
But nothing had prepared me for this horrifying story that is told between these pages. It is a remarkable story of hope and survival a thing from epic saga, classical novels, or Hollywood movies, except this is the real thing. It is more intense and more emotional than Tahar Ben Jelloun’s The blinding absence of light (which coincidently published the same time as this book, after the death of King Hassan II), it is vividly imagined to be better than the movie’s The Shawshank Redemption for the reason that the Oufkir girls had to dig holes everyday with spoons and can foils, repacked the hole and sealed them back so that it would avoid alerting the daily prison guard checks for hollowness and traces of tampering with the walls. The plastering has to be seen to be similar of the one the guards first sealed when they tried to escape.
Malika Oufkir had since appeared in the Oprah Winfrey show in 2001 and her book remained in the Oprah book Club list.
This is a book I would take with me if I am stranded on an island. This book may change your life.
To my family, friends and siblings. May this account not prevent them from loving their country, Morocco. – Malika Oufkir (Preface)
Paperback. Publisher: Bantam Books, 2001; Length: 397 pages; Setting: 1972 – 1998 Morocco. Source: Own. Finished reading at: 15 April 2010. The book is translated from French by Ros Schwartz.