Book Review: Stolen Lives – by Malika Oufkir and Michele Fitoussi

Some stories are so powerful, so gripping, that once told, lives change. After reading Stolen Lives, I will never think the same way about my own life, as well as institutions like Amnesty International, concepts like human rights, monarchies, police states, the abuse of power by absolute leaders – monarchs – and dictators, the value of human life, the meaning of time, justice, strength, hope, spirit and determination. It is like a pair of glasses has been removed, glasses that filter all light in a certain hue, and now I see contrasts differently.

Kings generally have almost absolute power. There is something about modern humans that makes us choose a king, give him absolute, God-sanctioned power, allow that power to be passed on by inheritance, and motivate us to pay taxes so the king can enforce his will over us, live lavishly, and ask us to give our lives, should wars be necessary.

This was true during the times of the Egyptian Pharaohs, in ancient Rome, in Medieval times in Europe, during all the various Dynasties in China, throughout history in Japan, pre-Columbian South America – and in today’s Africa.

Stolen Lives tells a story that took place in modern Morocco, starting in 1954, and ending in 1998. It is the true story of the Oufkir family. Malika, the author of the book, was born in 1954 as the eldest daughter of General Oufkir and his wife Fatima.

General Oufkir, through hard work and clever political maneuvering, becomes the second most powerful man in Morocco in the 1960ies. Eventually he is the Interior Minister, and the army and police report to him. He works directly with the king. By having direct access to the king, his family is at the very top of the social pyramid in a class system with feudal roots and almost infinite social complexity and variation.

King Muhammad V was the ruler that brought Oufkir to power in the 1950ies. Oufkir’s oldest daughter, Malika, is about the same age as the young daughter of the King, Lalla Mina. The kings sees the girls get along as playmates, and to secure Malika as a permanent friend, playmate and ‘sister’ for his daughter, the King adopts Malika. This practice is actually commonplace in Africa, and it would have been inappropriate for Malika’s parents to deny the King his wish. At approximately the age of 5, the girl is taken from her parents and grows up in the inner circle of the royal court, where she eventually lives until she is 17. She misses her parents and family desperately, but she has no choice. Over time, she gets used to being the adoptive daughter of the King, and memories of living with her parents fade more and more.

Growing up surrounded by court life, including a harem of courtesans, courtiers, government officials, governesses, private tutors and all the opulence of royal living, Malika becomes a thoroughly spoiled brat. She takes first class tickets on airliners around the world like we take buses. She shops in London, Paris, Milan and Beverly Hills. She gets invited to lavish parties by royalty, high society and celebrity the world around.

When Muhammad V dies in 1961, his son takes over and becomes King Hassan II. Technically the brother of Lalla Mina and adoptive brother of Malika, he takes the girls on as if he was their father and continues their care and education.

In 1972, for reasons we don’t fully learn and understand, Oufkir leads a coup d’etat, tries to have the King killed, but does not succeed. Instead, he is killed. Within the day, his family gets arrested and whisked away. His family now consists of his wife, Malika, the oldest at age 17, and two more brothers and three sisters, the youngest brother of age 3. The Oufkir family, along with two female friends of the family, get whisked away into the desert, where they are ultimately imprisoned, orders by the King, for 20 years, followed by another 5 years of house arrest after a spectacular escape. Of the 20 years in prison, the first 5 or so are in a communal setting where the family is together, gets fed and supplied reasonably well, and makes do. Then follow 10 years in a desert fortress under abominable conditions. After 3 years of being allowed to see each other, go outside and spend time together, they are put into solitary confinement. The two friends of the family in one cell, mother and the youngest son in another, four girls in the third and the oldest boy alone in the last cell. Now they cannot talk and cannot see each other anymore, and this goes on for 7 years.

Imagine, the youngest boy, imprisoned at age 3, grows to age 18 without ever seeing a television, a car, any sign of society, any people other than his mother and the guards that bring food. Imagine the life outlook of such a boy. The oldest boy, imprisoned at age 15, grows through his youth and manhood until age 30, alone in a cell.

The cells are squalid, walls perpetually damp, dirt floors, infested with flees, cockroaches, mice and rats. In summer, the temperature in the Mococcan desert reaches 140 degrees F, and winters are bitter cold. Food rations are very meager and most food is spoiled. Hunger is ever present. All books, any contact with the outside world, and any comforts are withheld.

By her living in the royal court, we get insight in the lives of the very rich, powerful and famous through Malika’s eyes. Then, through her description of her incarceration, we learn about the absolute bottom of the echelon, namely life as a completely condemned and totally abandoned political prisoner.

Malika is just two years older than I, and I kept finding myself following her path in life, and comparing where I was and what I did at the various stages of her life. By this retracing the years with her, I recognize just how unbearably long the time of her and her family’s suffering was. I was going to school, through my military service and I started my career, all while they were in this one prison, day after day after day.

With one setback after the other, things kept getting worse for this family, yet, they survived. We can read about their story now. And while I read, I kept wondering about people today, vegetating in squalid cells, in China, Afghanistan, Morocco, Sudan, Congo, Korea and I am sure many other places all over the world, with no hope, no way out, no advocates, no help, all without ever being tried of sentenced, because one man in a position of power says so.

Do I have to point out that there are several hundred prisoners that have been held at Guananamo Bay since 2001 and 2002, without a trial. May I assume that at least one of those prisoners is innocent? May I therefore point out that the United States violates human rights just like the nations I listed in the above paragraphs, whether we like to recognize that or not?

While I sit here in my comfortable house, typing this entry, a glass of brandy next to me, political prisorers lie in the dark on a bug-infested straw mattress, with cockroaches crawling over them, abscessed teeth inflicting agony, covered with sores, malnourished, because they are Christians in an Islamic country, because they said something about the King, because somebody said they said something about the King, because their father committed a crime or because they were at the wrong place at the wrong time in Afghanistan in 2001?

We have a responsibility.

And yet, each of us is  powerless.

And now you need to read Stolen Lives, so you won’t be the same again either.

And I need to read the book that has been sitting on my reading shelf for a few years now: Guantanamo, The War on Human Rights, by David Rose.

Leave a Reply