Malika Oufkir thumbs through her French-English pocket dictionary, searching for the words as she attempts to describe the horrors of her nearly 20 years as a political prisoner in Morocco and her unfinished journey to peace of mind in the decade that has followed.
But her body language and her fragile emotions require no translation--the tears that well in her eyes as she recalls what her family endured: rat- and snake-infested cells, hunger so gnawing that they were driven to eating mouse feces. She is a beautiful woman, but etched in her face are the weariness and pain of having relived it over and over in recent months.
She lights a cigarette and starts talking about the demons she has yet to conquer. How does she make peace with the reality that her adoptive father killed her real father in retaliation for the attempt the one had made on the other's life?
Only 18 when she was imprisoned with her mother, Fatima, and five younger siblings, she is 48 now, a woman robbed of her youth and yet to come to grips with being middle-aged--and free. "Sometimes I feel [like] a teenager, with all the desire to be a teenager--and also I am the old woman."
While writing her horrifyingly gripping memoir, "Stolen Lives: Twenty Years in a Desert Jail" (Talk Miramax Books), was somewhat therapeutic, it also forced her to relive the nightmare years. Perhaps, she muses, "this is the bill you have to pay to be free."
Malika Oufkir's story begins in 1958 when, at the age of 5, she was unofficially adopted by King Muhammad V as a companion for his favorite daughter, little Princess Lalla Mina. As the king's wish was her parents' command, she would live in the palace.
But it was not as though she were Cinderella being whisked from poverty to paradise. Her father, Gen. Muhammad Oufkir, was a confidant of the king; her mother came from wealth and was a frequent palace guest. The family lived in luxury in Rabat, the capital. Hers was more a kidnapping than an adoption, says Oufkir, who in retrospect views her forced separation from her family as an experience even more shattering than the prison years.
The villa she and the little princess shared had a cinema and a private zoo. The little girls sometimes sat in on Cabinet meetings and took part in royal celebrations. By all appearances, Oufkir lived a fairy-tale existence, but, she says, "every night I was crying," sad and homesick.
In her memoir, written with French author Michele Fitoussi, she describes a palace that seems lifted from the pages of "The Arabian Nights": Servants standing at attention, acres of gilt and marble, caftan-clad concubines lying about.
But it was a cloistered life, one Oufkir describes as of "another century, another mentality." In February of 1961, when Oufkir was 7, the king died and was succeeded by his 32-year-old son, Hassan II, who also "adopted" Oufkir. She remembers evenings with Lalla Mina at their villa, with Oufkir playing the piano or banging the drums as the princess danced with her brother, the new king.
Oufkir desperately missed her family, which included four younger siblings who were virtually strangers to her. She had tried several times to run away from the palace, unwilling to be married off to a general's son of the king's choosing. Finally, when she was 17, the king let her return home to Rabat. By then, a baby brother, Abdellatif, had been born.
Those were heady days. Eager to make up for time lost, she wore boots and miniskirts and would sneak out of the house at night to go dancing. The creme de la creme of Moroccan society came to her 18th birthday ball.
But, knowing nothing of the world of politics and intrigue in which her father was embroiled as minister of defense and head of the army and the police, she was shocked to learn that he was to her friends "public enemy number one. The mere mention of his name sent a chill down their spines." She knew nothing, for example, of his alleged role in the kidnapping and killing of Moroccan opposition leader Ben Barka in Paris in 1965.
In July 1971, an unsuccessful coup was staged against King Hassan during his birthday party at the palace. The 10 officers who were killed in retaliation were close friends of her father, who that month was named minister of defense. But Oufkir had a terrible premonition that her father was a marked man.
To this day, she says, she does not know whether her father was involved in the coup attempt. But she is certain he was behind the second attempt a year later, a thwarted midflight attack on the king's private jet. Within days, Gen. Oufkir, his hopes of forming a constitutional monarchy with Hassan's son, Sidi Muhammad, derailed, paid with his life.
The official word: suicide. Nonsense, says Oufkir, who cleaned up his body. She points out that there were five bullet wounds, the last one in his temple, "the execution." It pained her to find that Moroccans didn't care that the second-most important man in the kingdom was dead. "For everybody, he was the monster," a powerful man with a reputation for directing torture and "disappearances" of political enemies.
The day after his burial, the family was placed under house arrest. "The noose was tightening," Oufkir writes. On Dec. 24, the family, together with a cousin and a family friend, were taken from the Oufkir villa by Moroccan police, driven to a remote desert town near the Algerian border and imprisoned at an army barracks. Oufkir writes, "We were entering the world of insanity." How ludicrous, they mused, that they'd packed their designer clothes in their Louis Vuitton luggage. As Oufkir put it, "I was living a fairy tale in reverse. I had been brought up as a princess and now I had turned into Cinderella."
The prisoners were relocated several times before being moved in November 1973 to even more remote Tamattaght, where they shared two rooms in a ruined palace with horned asps, scorpions and rats. Once, they found a large python curled on a shelf. Three years later they were moved to the Bir Jdid barracks near Casablanca, where Oufkir and her three sisters slept in one cell. Family members were permitted to be together during the day.
Shortly after arriving at Bir Jdid, Malika's youngest brother, not yet 5, tried to kill himself by swallowing Valium and his sister Myriam's epilepsy medication. The prisoners subsisted largely on rotted fruits and vegetables, supplemented by bread that ended up soaked in the urine and feces of the cell mice. Cockroaches crawled over their faces at night.
After a few months, they were denied contact with one another. Malika would not see her mother and her brothers for eight years. "You lose your mind and you lose the notion of time," she says. "You lose everything." Each year, through their captors, they sent a letter to King Hassan begging for a pardon. The letters went unanswered.
Through it all, Oufkir insisted that her younger sisters, with whom she continued to share a cell, retain good table manners so as "not to lose our humanity." She made up a story set in 19th century Russia and kept it running for 10 years to keep her sisters from going mad. Even so, she feared the group was moving "away from the world of the living toward the realm of shadows." They had become "like caged beasts . . . we no longer believed in anything."
Her mother tried to slit her wrists with nail scissors. Brother Raouf also attempted suicide. "We were all out of our minds," Oufkir writes. The sisters made a suicide pact, drawing straws to see who would die first. Soukaina "won," and Oufkir slashed her sister's wrists with metal from a sardine can and punctured a vein with a knitting needle. But Soukaina survived.
It was hearing the guards talking about how they would perish in that Godforsaken place that jolted them to action like "an electric shock." Though ravaged by illness and hunger, they found new resolve. They had to escape. But how? All sharp objects had been taken from them. With only a spoon, a handle from a knife, the lid of a sardine can and an iron bar from a bed, they began digging an escape shaft, covering the evidence during frequent cell inspections. It took three months.
It was decided that Oufkir and her siblings, Raouf, Abdellatif and Maria, physically the smallest, would go and, once free, get help for the others. They hitched a ride to the nearest town, where they gave a cab driver the nameplate they had saved from the general's gold ID bracelet to take them to Casablanca. There, Oufkir borrowed money from an old friend to buy train tickets to Rabat.
Their plan was to seek political asylum at the French embassy, but it was Easter Sunday and both it and the American embassy were closed. Old friends turned them away, afraid to be associated with these ragamuffins who could only put them in danger.
Desperate, they took a train to Tangier where, Oufkir hoped, a former suitor might help them. But someone informed on them and they were arrested after only four days, but not before they had managed to call a friend at Radio France Internationale in Paris. Through his broadcast, which included an appeal to the king from the Oufkir family, the world learned of their plight. Thanks to the coverage, Oufkir recalls, "we had become human beings again."
As a result, those left behind at Bir Jdid were transferred to a notorious police station in Casablanca, where the recaptured escapees were now brought. Reunited, the prisoners spent two months there before the king ordered them taken to a villa near Marrakesh, where they would live for three more years. There, they were house prisoners, but with good food and such creature comforts as television. Their sense of humor intact, they asked for a video of "The Great Escape." Request denied.
Finally, the king's long-awaited pardon came. On Feb. 16, 1991, they set foot in the world outside--free, so long as they didn't leave Morocco.
Oufkir was 37 years old, a child-woman with a burning need to love and be loved. At a friend's wedding in the spring of 1995 she met Eric Bordreuil, a Lebanon-reared French architect living in Paris. He began commuting from Paris on weekends to see her.
In June of 1996, younger sister Mouna-Inan (who'd changed her name to Maria while in prison) escaped under cover to Spain and then to France. Maria told all and, buckling under international pressure, the Moroccan government issued passports and visas to all the family. Oufkir was 43 years old when she arrived in Paris a month later and had spent nearly half of her life as a political prisoner.
In October 1998, she married Bordreuil, the man she says was "sent by God" to give her a real life. The union has had its rough spots, enough to cause her to seek therapy. She knows that for him "it's very difficult to live with a woman like me," a woman who "doesn't know how to love."
The first year in Paris, she was "like the little child at Christmas." Then she started writing the book, which was published in France in 1999 as "La Prisonniere," and she "went back to prison for one year in my memories."
She also was dealing with culture shock. "For us, it was like another planet. Outside is frightening." Technology baffled her, such things as turning on a pedal-operated spigot in a cafe restroom. "I put my hands under. No water. I was on my knees looking under. I understood after one hour I had to put my foot on."
She feels strangely removed from the world, as though she's "in a chair, looking at life . . . not involved. Prison is always inside you." She understands when people don't really want to hear her story. "The human reaction is to say, 'I don't want to know.' " She battles depression, fatigue and daily headaches, residual effects of the prison years.
And she has yet to come to grips with the enigma who was her father. "It's not my responsibility to say today if he was a good man or a bad man. We are talking about a political man."
Hassan died in July 1999, six months after publication of Oufkir's book in France. It pleases her that it came out before he died, as writing it was an act of defiance. But she feels no hatred toward him. "If you accept and look at this suffering like a friend, suffering can teach you a lot of things, first [of all] who you are. When you know who you are, you can understand other people." Writing the book was "the only way to win my dignity again, to survive," Oufkir says. And, it was "the sweetest revenge."