Stolen Lives: Twenty Years In A Desert Jail
By Malika Oufkir and Michele Fitoussi, Hyperion, NY, 2001, 291 pages.
Review by Hans Sherrer
Although not apparent from its title, Stolen Lives is Malika Oufkir's
autobiography, and what a story she has to tell. Born into Morocco's upper
crust, she lived the life of luxury the first 19 years of her life. She then
lived her next 19 years as an innocent person imprisoned under conditions
that were at times so horrific they challenge comprehension by the
Born in 1953, Malika Oufkir was the eldest daughter of Moroccan General
Muhammad Oufkir. When she was five, Morocco's King exercised his royal
prerogative and adopted her as his daughter. She then lived in luxury and
privilege as a royal princess until she was 16, when the King acceded to her
wish to return to her birth family. She matured to have the looks and figure
of a movie star and she aspired to be an actress. As the head of the
country's military and security forces, as well as the King's closest aide,
Malika's father was the second most powerful man in Morocco. Disillusioned
with aspects of the King's rule, in August 1972 her father orchestrated a
failed coup attempt to dispose the King. After he was executed along with his
confederates, Malika, her mother and three sisters, her two brothers, the
youngest of whom was three, and two female attendants were arrested and
imprisoned. Their crime: they were the immediate family members of General
Oufkir, considered by many Moroccans a national hero. Confined in a variety
of prisons and detention facilities, they were not released for almost
In graphic detail that makes the Turkish prisons described in Billy Hayes'
Midnight Express seem like health spas, Malika relates how her family was
eventually reduced to the point that they eagerly ate mouse droppings to
supplement their meager food rations. To attract the King's attention to
their plight, at one time they went on a hunger strike, and at another time
they sent him a petition signed in their own blood. The only effect their
pleas had was a worsening of their living conditions.
Those conditions were at their worst during the ten years they spent at the
Bir-Jid prisons. Split into groups so they could fit into four adjoining
cells, the nine members of the Oufkir clan were isolated in those cells and
not allowed to see anyone in the other cells for eight and a half years.
Although they could talk with one another through the walls, they were
prohibited from having books, magazines, letters, visitors, or anything else
from the outside world that might comfort them or provide them with hope.
However, their jailers did nothing to prevent their torment by periodic
infestations of swallows, mosquitoes, cockroaches, fleas, mice, scorpions,
rats and crickets.
By November 1986 several of the ragged band had reached such a point of
despair that they tried to commit suicide during what they came to call the
"Night of the long knives." When the prison commandant was inspecting the
condition of Malika's oldest brother after his failed suicide attempt, he was
overheard to say, "They are going to die. All of them. And they will be
buried here. We'll just wait as long as we have to. Those are our orders."
After none of the captives died from their injuries, they were galvanized
into purposeful action by the commandant's comment. Although imprisoned for
another five years, it would have been forever if they hadn't been shaken out
of their passivity by realizing they could only save themselves by
engineering an escape from the Bir-Jid prison.
In April 1987, Malika and three others executed a bold escape from Bir-Jid
prison. Pursued by a nationwide manhunt, they were recaptured after five
days. However, while free they were able to alert the French government and
the world press that they were still alive. Worldwide attention to their case
and the deplorable conditions of their confinement contributed to the King
ordering their transfer to a more humane jail. Finally released in February
1991, the family was denied passports and kept under close government
surveillance for another five years. It wasn't until a month after her sister
Maria escaped to France in June 1996, that Malika was permitted to leave
Morocco, almost 24 years after being imprisoned in August 1972.
Malika Oufkir's ordeal is disturbingly relevant for Americans, and it serves
as an ominous warning. Events in the Untied States, particularly since the
releases of her family in 1991, makes her horrific story apropos to the
varying methods being used to methodically incarcerate many thousands of
innocent people in this country. In the 1990s, for example, thousands of
Cubans seeking political asylum in the U.S. were, and some still are,
imprisoned by the government for years without a trial, and thousands of
innocent foreign nationals who are in this country legally have languished in
prison, some for years, while they awaited or still await their forced
deportation. The injudicious treatment of these and thousands of other
innocent people throughout the U.S., and its impact on their lives are being
Although Stolen Lives would be a smashing good tale if it were fiction, it
is all the more compelling since it is true. The book has spent several
months on the LA Times Nonfiction Bookseller List, so it has proved its broad
Exceptionally well written, Malika's story comes alive in Stolen Lives. I
was captivated from its first pages, and I alternated between being
fascinated, disturbed and amused, sometimes on the same page. You can't ask
much more of a book than that it entertain and educate at the same time.