“Treason is not inherited, my lord,” Rosalind pleads of her uncle, Duke Frederick, in the opening act of As You Like It, as she tries to persuade him not to banish her the way he did her father. Raised alongside Frederick’s daughter Celia, Rosalind is baffled by the sudden imposition of exile. “Thou art thy father’s daughter—there’s enough,” is Frederick’s only explanation. “Let it suffice thee that I trust thee not.”
These are the fantastical, Shakespearean lineaments of Malika Oufkir’s decidedly nonfictional life. The eldest daughter of a prominent Moroccan general, Muhammad Oufkir, Malika was summoned at the age of five to live in the royal palace as a playmate for the daughter of King Muhammad V; she would remain there for eleven years. But shortly after she returned to her father’s house, General Oufkir attempted to overthrow the King’s successor, Muhammad’s son Hassan II, and was executed. Like Rosalind, Malika was sent into exile. Unlike Rosalind—since life is not, alas, a Shakespearean romance—she was not accompanied by Muhammad’s daughter, her former playmate, Princess Amina, known as Lalla Mina. Instead, she was banished along with her mother and five siblings, and two loyal retainers. Nor was their exile only a matter of acts upon a stage, an evening’s entertainment: the surviving Oufkirs spent twenty years in prison, in ever more extreme and grueling conditions. And while the conclusion of Malika’s story provides the relief, and even the redemption, of As You Like It, it more closely resembles The Great Escape in its unlikely drama.
In Stolen Lives: Twenty Years in a Desert Jail, Ms. Oufkir, now forty-seven and living in Paris, relates her extraordinary autobiography with the assistance of the French-Tunisian writer and journalist Michèle Fitoussi. It is a narrative of striking simplicity and, in spite of Malika’s avowed interest in becoming a writer, of notable artlessness. But the very unevenness of the telling contributes to the force of the tale, as odd details, slipped sidelong into the text, impress upon us the textures of Ms. Oufkir’s experiences, from greatest luxury to grimmest privation. What is largely missing from the story is an explanation of its context, a lack perhaps not strongly felt by readers in France, where the book was originally published, who might be expected to have some understanding of their country’s former colonial possession. For an American audience, the absence of any broader cultural or political background in Oufkir’s account does indeed have the effect of turning it into a sharp, dark romance: like Rosalind’s, Malika’s misfortunes fall upon her from above without warning or explanation; the villains are clear, and justice appears mercifully inevitable.
In actuality, one of the central and unadmitted ironies of the Oufkir story is that when Malika, her siblings, and their mother became political prisoners detained in Morocco without trial, they suddenly found themselves allied with hundreds of other unfortunates—the disappeared …