“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, the imprisoned, and in some cases the murdered—a number of whose punishments her father had ordered and overseen. General Oufkir hovers over Malika’s narrative in fond paternal guise: “I adored my father. I felt that people didn’t see his sensitivity, generosity and kindness. He was a calm, discreet man,” she writes; and again, “I discovered a cheerful, jovial father, a night owl who adored love songs and pretty Gypsy women.” His public, professional self is only glancingly mentioned: “I discovered that people were also afraid of him, that they criticized him, that he was seen as a cruel man. My friends saw him as public enemy number one. The mere mention of his name sent a chill down their spines.” Their reasons for fearing him are never made clear in this account.
Malika opens her story, rather, with a paean to her mother: “Mummy. My beloved mother from whom, in my childhood paradise, I cannot imagine ever being separated.” Maternal influence was, in little Malika’s domestic sphere, the one that counted. There is still an undertone of childlike admiration in Malika’s confidence that “my mother was stylish and extravagant…. Money slipped through her fingers. She was capable of selling an apartment block to buy herself the entire collection of Dior or St. Laurent, her favourite couturiers.” But it was Malika’s father, sixteen years her mother’s senior, who shaped the curious course of Malika’s life from the outset; and while she furnishes the reader with the salient details of his background—his Berber heritage, his rise in the French army during the Second World War and in Indochina—she hardly spells out their implications.
Muhammad Oufkir’s father, Ahmed, was the chief of his village; he was also appointed pasha (effectively provincial governor) of his region by the French protectorate. Muhammad himself was not merely loyal to the French but quickly became a success within the French colonial system. By the time he met Malika’s mother, he was the aide-de-camp of General Duval, commander of the French troops in Morocco. His ability to survive the transition to independence and, more than that, to ally himself so closely to Sidi Muhammad (Muhammad V) that he fast became indispensable to the new regime, suggests a tactical versatility. In July of 1955, Oufkir was still a trusted confidant of the French governor’s; on November 16, 1955, the day on which Sidi Muhammad returned to Morocco from exile in Madagascar, it was Oufkir who drove him into town from the airport.
From that day forward, Oufkir played a crucial role in the shaping of the reinstated kingdom, first as chief of police, then as minister of the interior, and ultimately as minister of defense. According to the historian of modern Morocco C.R. Pennell, Oufkir was “the greatest force in neutralising opposition in the early years…. He created a powerful and centralised police force that acted with scant regard for either outside control or human rights.” Indeed, Pennell vividly describes Oufkir’s bloody role in the suppression of student protests in Casablanca in March 1965: “General Oufkir directed the suppression from a helicopter while, according to one story, he sprayed the rioters with a machine-gun.”*
Oufkir’s importance to the restored monarchy was strategic: as an elite Berber from the Tafilafet region in the Atlas Mountains, he was tribally and traditionally at odds with the Alawite regime of Muhammad V and his son Hassan (Hassan II)—hence the traditional Berber allegiance with the French protectorate. In the struggle for independence from France, however, the rural Berber factions made common cause with supporters of the monarchy, and both groups found themselves warily allied with a third element in the independence movement, the socialist nationalist party, Istiqlal, a group of largely middle-class urban nationalists, among whom Mehdi Ben Barka was the most prominent figure.
When Muhammad V returned in 1955, he did so as his own prime minister; a constitutional monarch in a technical democracy, he also maintained political control. Moreover, the Ala-wites, who claim descent from the prophet Muhammad, also rule with the added authority of their faith and of religious law. On most fronts, Muhammad V and his son Hassan (who ascended to the throne in 1962, after his father died unexpectedly during minor surgery on his nose) were modernizers, friendly to the West; but they were initially less receptive to the socialist and Marxist elements who nonetheless gained a fair measure of public support in open elections.
General Oufkir and his group were useful here: they counterbalanced, and ultimately fought to undermine, left-wing factions. Oufkir, for instance, has always been considered responsible for the kidnapping and murder of Ben Barka in Paris in 1965. And of course Oufkir’s own death in 1972 came as the result of his botched coup against Hassan II (the second in as many years), a coup nominally undertaken as an attempt to fight governmental corruption, but one actually born of Oufkir’s and his associates’ frustration with Hassan II’s willingness to do business with the left.
The intricacies of political and court life under Muhammad V and Hassan II were arcane and subtle, and Malika was, from earliest childhood, a mere digit in those calculations (“Thou art thy father’s daughter—there’s enough”). As she recounts it, when Muhammad V chose her as a live-in playmate for his daughter, Lalla Mina, he saw her as “a sister” for his child: “It was rare for a child adopted by a sovereign to become, like me, almost the equal of a princess.” But there is little doubt, in light of her father’s mercurial allegiances and his Berber heritage, that Malika was as much hostage as family in the royal household. Certainly, she felt her privileged upbringing a gilded prison: “Eventually I became a commodity: the more influential my father became politically, the more I was used as a pawn between him and the King.” Of her own emotions, she explains, “I was fraught with contradictory feelings. I wasn’t unhappy. Lalla Mina loved me like a sister and I returned her love…. But I missed my family terribly….When, exceptionally, the governess allowed me to go home for the afternoon, the next few days would be unbearable. I couldn’t eat or sleep, and my grief would subside only after days and nights of secret tears.”
The home from which Malika was kept was one of privilege, even luxury, a worldly, Westernized household in which French was spoken and international guests were welcomed. But the home in which she was raised—the palace—was like something out of a fairy tale, extravagant and wholly sheltered: it belonged, she says, “to another century, another mentality, other customs.” The royal family’s entourage included countless concubines and black slaves, known as aabid, whose ancestors were bought from African slave traders. Lalla Mina, the daughter of Muhammad V’s second wife, was installed, along with Malika and a number of other girls assembled from among the commoners, in a compound called the Villa Yasmina, where, overseen by a strict Alsatian governess recommended by the Comte de Paris, the girls had their lessons and their entertainments: their zoo included monkeys, a squirrel brought from Italy, a goat, and pigeons, and this modest menagerie was subsequently augmented by a baby elephant given to Lalla Mina by Pandit Nehru, and by a little white camel named Zazate. The girls spent holidays with the royal family. At Ifrane, they hunted for panther by helicopter at night, and pursued boar and hare in open jeeps. Such delights were not without their price. Malika was often shocked by events within the palace walls, and by the cruelty and severity of sentences and punishments. “Concubines were beaten, repudiated, banished, and disappeared for ever in the depths of the prison-palaces.” Malika could not know that she would suffer a far more severe fate.
Eventually, in 1969, eleven years after her parents had relinquished her to King Muhammad, Malika, a rebellious teenager in the era of the miniskirt, left King Hassan’s court to return to her parents’ home. There, she joined her four siblings, the youngest of whom, Abdellatif, was born in 1969 on the day of the terrible earthquake in Agadir. She is at pains to describe the family property as modest, but this can only be a relative assessment. Her father had been, since 1964, minister of the interior, and the comfort of his home was proportionate to his national importance. Malika, who wanted to be a film star, was sent for a time to Paris, where she became a friend of the actor Alain Delon; she went to parties in Los Angeles and Malibu with Steve McQueen and other celebrities.
But the great change was on its way. The first attempted coup against Hassan II occurred in July of 1971, at the Skhirat palace, where the King was celebrating his forty-second birthday. More than two hundred people were killed. Although at the time General Oufkir was not implicated in the putsch, and was in fact made minister of defense by Hassan II, certain peculiarities of its organization and the clemency that Oufkir showed toward the rebels encouraged speculation about his involvement. According to Malika, her father’s relations with King Hassan II broke down after this event. The second coup took place in August of 1972. The King’s plane was attacked by air force fighters, but the King’s pilot foiled the assassination attempt by pretending, over the airwaves, that Hassan II had been struck and was near death. This time there was no question that Oufkir was behind the plot, and he was shot forthwith.
The fate of General Oufkir’s family—his wife, four daughters, and two sons—would be determined by as many complicated factors as had the general’s professional maneuvers during his lifetime. Malika attributes the harshness of the King’s reaction at least in part to her emotional refusal to accept food sent from the palace immediately after the general’s execution. There was also the fact—not further explained—that the King hated Malika’s mother: “He had declared on the radio that she was the éminence grise behind the coup.” But whatever rage the King felt toward the Oufkir family, he was also aware that as prominent Berbers they had passionate supporters among their people, and could not simply be dispensed with. Indeed, they were shunted on from their first place of exile in the predominantly Berber south precisely because that popular support made itself felt.
Before being banished, the family was given time to mourn its patriarch: only after the traditional four months and ten days had passed did the police appear on their doorstep, on Christmas Eve, 1972. Two women, a cousin of Malika’s mother and a sister of little Abdellatif’s governess, came with the family into exile. The degradation and horror of the ensuing twenty years were as gruesome as Malika’s childhood had been luxurious. As she writes, “I was living a fairytale in reverse. I had been brought up as a princess and now I had turned into Cinderella.” One of the ironies of their eventual escape, in April 1987, was that, ravaged and ill, they nevertheless returned to the world decked out in cashmere ensembles and shoes sewn from the leather of their Vuitton suitcases, like some grotesque parody of a fashion show.
Their first year was spent in Assa, a remote area in the desert near the Algerian border. Isolated in a former barracks built by the French and left to crumble, the family endured Job-like trials: they were besieged by scorpions and cockroaches, and in the dry season by sandstorms which brought “huge, hairy, highly venomous spiders that were indistinguishable from their surroundings.” They had, at least, enough to eat, and French radio stations kept them informed about the outside world. They maintained their morale by planning an emigration to Canada upon their release, and by clinging to the prediction of a local clairvoyant: “It will take a long time, and it will be terrible,” he warned them. “But a miracle will intervene and the whole world will talk about it. You will get what you want in the end…. But I warn you, it will be a very long time.”
In November 1973, the Oufkirs were moved on to Tamattaght, to a disintegrating palace that had belonged to the pasha El Glaoui of Marrakesh, a figure who had apparently lived in even finer style than the sovereign himself. In spite of its former grandeur, the pasha’s palace was not an improvement. Plagued again by scorpions, the rooms were home also to pythons and horned asps. And as if that were not challenge enough, the family was convinced the palace was haunted. Malika, as the eldest child, took it upon herself to organize classes for her younger siblings, and to create other routines and imaginary diversions. She wrote plays in French and in Arabic; sometimes on Saturday evenings, the children recreated a Monte Carlo casino, her elder brother playing Grace Kelly, and Malika Prince Rainier. During this time, they received books, though the man who sent them, Prince Moulay Abdallah, a brother of the King’s, was punished for the gesture. Provisions were delivered by a “strange little man” who resembled Rasputin: “From the same village as my maternal grandmother, loyal like all Berbers, [he] wanted only to help us,” and he was assisted in his efforts by sympathetic guards, who themselves brought treats for the family, including baby pigeons for young Abdellatif.
Into this bearable hell came a man named Colonel Benaich, sent by the minister of the interior. Himself vindictive, he commanded that the guards persecute their prisoners. He also oversaw their removal to the Bir Jdid Prison in February 1977. This final destination was far more dreadful than the others, and the Oufkirs would stay in it for ten years. They were locked up twenty-four hours a day, separated, and ill-treated. Malnourished, unable to exercise, isolated one from another, they kept contact through an elaborately devised system of inter-cell communication, using hidden amplifiers and electrical wire. By this point, the narrative seems less like a dark fairy tale or Shakespearean romance than some sinister psychological and physiological experiment. That the prisoners were children—the youngest, Abdellatif, was only three and a half when the family was exiled—makes their treatment the more incredible. “The days dragged on interminably. Our main enemy was time. We saw it, we felt it, it was tangible, monstrous, threatening. The hardest thing was to master it…. A week felt like a day, the months like weeks, a year meant nothing.”
Again, it was the imaginary which kept them from despair: like Scheherazade, Malika became the family’s nightly storyteller, to defer their painful reality. For ten years, so she says, Malika elaborated upon the same story night after night. Set in nineteenth-century Russia and called “The Black Flakes,” it remains her best memory of that time, and she believes that it saved them. Through illness and privation, the telling of “The Black Flakes” continued, but it could not ultimately stave off the inevitable madness of their plight: “Towards the end, we were like caged beasts. We were no longer even capable of feelings. We were tired and enraged, aggressive and cruel. None of us wanted to go on wearing a mask. We no longer believed in anything.”
It was the very extremity of their situation that prompted them at last to achieve the unimaginable: to escape. The story of that escape, in 1987, would alone make a fascinating book, powerful and surreal. Four of the children dug their way out with a teaspoon, undeterred by the ubiquitous guards, the thick walls, or their weakened health. Nor did they waver at the complications of being on the run in a country of which their knowledge was twenty years out of date. When they arrived in the town of Bir Jdid, Malika notes, “life was there, unchanging, resuming its course as it had done each morning that we had been excluded from it. The street felt strange to me, and it took me a few minutes to realize why. I was no longer accustomed to noise. The shouts, the voices, the hooting, the oriental songs, the tyres screeching on the road…all those sounds grated on my ears.”
From Bir Jdid, they finagled a ride to Casablanca, then traveled to Rabat, and thence to Tangier, where they stopped for several days in the lobby of a friend’s hotel before making contact with a French radio station and, almost immediately afterward, being arrested by the police. But their escape, coinciding with a visit to Morocco by President Mitterrand, was serendipitously timed. French interest in the Oufkirs ensured that they would, at least eventually, be freed.
Rich in unlikely detail (those Vuitton- suitcase shoes), Malika Oufkir’s story is also exceedingly satisfying as a narrative, providing resolution and even romance after almost unbearable adversity. As Rosalind triumphs over Frederick, so Malika eventually triumphs over King Hassan, winning her freedom and flourishing beyond the shadow of her father’s crime. Interestingly, she records an encounter after her release with her Cecilia, the Princess Lalla Mina. Although Lalla Mina proved no ally during Malika’s exile, Malika apparently bears her no ill will: “Life has driven a wedge between us, but I continue to feel enormous affection for her,” she says.
Until she wrote this book, Malika Oufkir had little control over the shape of her life; it had been formed, rather, by her father and by her adoptive fathers, Kings Muhammad and Hassan. Even as this account restores Malika Oufkir’s history to her, it also becomes a part of the broader history of her country: in her torn loyalties between East and West, between Islam and Christianity, between Arab and Berber cultures, between the kings and her father, Malika enacts the struggles of her much-loved independent Morocco. As the book suggests, just as these contradictions coexist within one person, so too do many different centuries of tradition, from the medieval to the modern, coexist in her contemporary homeland.
The result of this confusion has been, for Malika at least, finally enriching (not so for Abdellatif, who she obliquely implies has had a difficult time since gaining his freedom): “In prison, my inner life was a thousand times richer than that of others, and my thinking a thousand times more intense. I was a lot more aware than people who are free. I learned to reflect on the meaning of life and death. Today everything seems artificial to me. I can’t take anything seriously.” Malika Oufkir has learned precious lessons, but at a terrible cost. The hope would be that she could impart their value to prevent further suffering; but her memoir is a popular, even racy book, which offers contradictions not resolutions, experiences not answers. She concludes: “I am Moroccan through and through, to the core of my being. But I also feel very French, through the language, my culture, mentality and intellect. The two are no longer incompatible. In me, East and West at last cohabit in peace.” Let it be noted that she has found that peace not in Morocco but in France, where she has lived since 1996.
May 9, 2002