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Book Review: “Stolen Lives: Twenty Years in a Desert Jail” by Malika Oufkir

September 7, 2010

The first time young Malika and her mother were invited to visit the royal palace, the king asked to adopt her. Against the child’s wishes, the king got his wish. What followed for Malika was a fairy tale childhood that ended in a desert jail, the miraculous escape from which forms the dramatic ending to this book. Malika would write later of that first day in the palace: 

King Mohammed V made his entrance from the left, in accordance with custom.  When it was her turn to greet him, my mother kissed his hand and introduced me to him. He gave me a simple hug and said a few kind words.  Then everyone flocked to the tables and the King sat down alone at his. The slaves served the meal and the most exquisite dishes filed past.[1] 

At the end of the meal, Mohammed V came over to Malika’s mother: “Fatima, I’m going to ask you something that you can’t refuse me,” he said. “I can think of no one better as a playmate, as a sister for my Lalla Mina than your daughter.  I would like to adopt Malika.[2] “What happened next,” writes Malika, “is a blur in my mind, as if I were the victim of a kidnapping:” 

I remember my mother leaving hurriedly, then I was bundled into a car and driven to the Villa Yasmina where Lalla Mina lived with her governess, Jeanne Rieffel.  Tearing me away from my mother meant tearing me away from my life.  I cried, screamed and stamped my feet.  The governess forced me into the guest room and double-locked the door.  I sobbed all night.[3] 

King Mohammed V suddenly became the new "head of household" for the author

Malika’s parents never spoke to her of this period.  She writes, “If there were explanations, I have forgotten them.  Did my mother cry until dawn, as I did?  Did she open the door to my room from time to time, did she sniff my clothes, did she sit on my bed, did she miss me?  I have never dared ask her.[4] 

I grew up in a fairy-tale realm of luxury, calm, and beautiful stories.  The pleasantly large, white house was ten minutes from the Palace.  On the ground floor was a huge playroom filled with a vast number of toys, bicycles, billiards, miniature cars and garages, cuddly toys, dolls and their accessories, dressing-up clothes and a cinema for our private use.  The house stood in a splendid garden, with thousands of different varieties of flowers—jasmine, honeysuckle roses, dahlias, pansies, bougainvillea.  The avenues were lined with mandarin, orange, lemon and palm trees.[5] 

All this was lost when Malika’s father was arrested for conspiring against the king. Police arrested the child Malika and her mother, and sent them to a desert prison, where they were forgotten by all but the guards. Fourteen years passed, until the women gave up hope: “Mother was even more resolute in her decision to stop eating . . . . We were at the end of our strength, at the end of hope, at the end of life. Death was our only refuge.  For the first time in fourteen years, we yearned for it with all our hearts. We had to put an end to it all.[6] 

We decide to dig a tunnel 

But just when things were looking blackest, the mother and daughter decided on an impossible course of escape; they would save themselves by digging a tunnel. They dug with a spoon. It would take another six years. Malika writes, “We found a supernatural strength, never suffering from fatigue or feeling the weight or the effort.  We had become silent beasts, intent on our task, with nothing human about us.  There was no need to speak: we understand one another from a gesture, a glance.[7] We were staking our lives, and the feeling was intoxicating. 

The Shape of the Cross 

No guard ever set foot on our stone slabs.  They walked round them, stopped just in front of them, and that was all.  We were convinced the Virgin was protecting us; the first time we opened up the hole, the irregularity of the ground formed the shape of a cross, the length of the stone slabs. We made another cross out of cardboard, which we placed on top of the last layer of stone before sealing it up.  We called the passage “Mary’s tunnel.” We believed this so fervently that we prayed on our knees when we opened it up every evening and when we closed it every morning.  We had rejected Islam, which had brought us nothing good, and opted for Catholicism instead.  Mother, who had spent her childhood in a convent, knew all the prayers by heart and at our insistence taught them to us, although with reluctance.  She herself had remained a good Muslim.[8] 

By April 18 Malika had tunneled the agreed five meters, enough length to reach beyond the prison wall.  “I had worked tirelessly, without complaining, despite my tendency to claustrophobia.  On several occasions I felt I was on the verge of madness.”[9] 

Escape 

I worked furiously.  The spoon wasn’t enough.  If I could have ripped out the earth with my teeth, I would have.  I dug, I scooped out the earth, I no longer thought, I no longer existed, I had become a machine.  Digging, scooping, digging, scooping . . . And suddenly my field of vision turned blue.  It was the late afternoon sky, swept by a warm spring breeze that gently caressed my check.  

I stood stock still for awhile just clutching the ivy and looking out with one eye.  I was jubilant. “My God, how wonderful.[10] 

Malika and her mother made their way to France where they were accepted as political refugees. They joined the Catholic Church. 

 I call upon the LORD, who is worthy to be praised, And I am saved from my enemies. Psalm 18:3 

Call upon Me in the day of trouble; I shall rescue you, and you will honor Me.” Psalm 50:15  


[1] Malika and Michele Fitoussi Oufkir, Stolen Lives, 20 Years in a Desert Jail (New York: Hyperion, 1999). 19 

[2] Ibid. 20 

[3] Ibid. 20 

[4] Ibid. 20 

[5] Ibid. 22-23 

[6] Ibid. 179 

[7] Ibid. 186 

[8] Ibid. 187-188 

[9] Ibid. 189 

[10] Ibid. 192-193

2 Comments leave one →
  1. September 14, 2010 1:46 pm

    Thank you very much my friend, you are very kind in sharing this useful information with? others…. The details were such a blessing, thanks.

  2. mohamed permalink
    January 4, 2013 8:21 pm

    as a Muslim I love jesus

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