Book Review: Stolen Lives

Well, this has been one of those sorts of books: the kind that engulfs you and compels you to talk about it and to reference it at tea time, like “Well, at least we’re not in gaol for twenty years.” In fact, my husband has asked that I stop talking about it so that he can read it and not have every twist and turn spoiled. Not that it’s a mystery or thriller or something. Stolen Lives is the memoir of a former adopted princess of Morocco who spent twenty years in the palace followed by twenty years in a cell in a desert prison. Roughly. (That glazes over an incredible amount of detail and nuance, but that is the gist.)

In the book, Malika Oufkir (through her writer, Michele Fitoussi) says she feels like she’s living a fairy tale in reverse, which is a very apt description of what happened. Born into a wealthy and powerful family, her father would eventually rise to Morocco’s number two, the famous General Oufkir. But when his first-born, Malika, was only something like five years old, she caught the attention of the king and he demanded (because kings only demand) that she become his daughter and be raised alongside his own, same-age princess. Malika was then unceremoniously ripped from her growing family and kept for the rest of her childhood in the many houses, palaces, and villas of the king, often in the sizable harem where the concubines helped raise her and the princess. She was always mischievous and rebellious, and she was out of the palace as soon as she could be, which was in high school. After a few years of fast, high-society living (which was most likely destined for the screen), General Oufkir took part in a failed coup and we have the second half of this backward fairy tale: Malika, along with her mother, siblings, and two house servants/friends, were carted off to the middle of the desert and essentially left for dead. The next nearly-twenty years were a combination of prisons, at first worsening and then—seventeen years later—bettering to house arrest after a dramatic, incredible escape. The Oufkirs spent years away from the sun, in isolation, starved, with zero medical attention, in a hole of a prison because they were related to a man who had already been executed (officially, committed suicide) for his crime. The world never came to their rescue. They had to come to their own.

It’s a pretty amazing story, which is why I keep talking about it and why my husband wants to just read it for himself. If you read it in a public place, you’re going to want to nudge the person next to you and say, “Listen to this…!” or “Can you believe this…?” Published in 1999, Stolen Lives was released in French and then shot to popularity in English with its inclusion in the Oprah’s Book Club. I read it way back then, when it was super-popular, which is how it came to be on my shelf. I picked it up recently because the title seemed like maybe it was about trafficking, but then I remembered what it was. Might as well re-read it and give it a review.

Speaking of trafficking, having recently read a couple books on human trafficking I wondered if slavery would be mentioned in the memoir and how it would be handled. According to what I’ve read, Morocco is one of, or the only, country where old slavery is still practiced (or was in the past decade or two), though the government hides it. Oufkir does refer to it, off-handedly, a couple times, which I was a little relieved to see but also would have loved some more compassion and insight into the situation. Given how old and ingrained the system is, though, I didn’t really expect her to join an anti-trafficking club in high school, or something. I also found it wheedingly odd that the mug shots in the center of the book did not include one of the women who went into prison with them. It makes me wonder if that woman was a slave, though Malika never refers to her that way.

Politics are also oblique in this book. I understand Malika not wanting to go into the politics. For one, part of the point is that she is not political which is why it’s absurd she was a political prisoner for twenty years. Also, she is telling this story from the perspective of a daughter, not a political commentator. And lastly, her hands might be a little tied about the politics, considering she is basically an enemy of the state. (Plus, it’s a little confusing when your dad is on one side of a coup and your adoptive father is on the other.) But it does feel strange to read this book without the whole story of the politics. You can Google her dad and find out more on Wikipedia about who he was and what his position was than the book ever says. I get the whole leaving your kids out of your work, but Malika’s removal from it seems extreme, especially when it was to shape her entire life. (By the way, the book was banned in Morocco,  but I read somewhere that it is not anymore.)

As for the book itself, it definitely could have been written better, though it may never have been: the author made it seem like Malika wouldn’t have opened up to just anyone, and writing the book took sacrifice from both narrator and writer. It is pretty matter-of-fact and occasionally stalls in an uninteresting spot or doesn’t follow an especially interesting bit. It really is a super fascinating story but the writing is only okay and the voice of the narrator, which I believe is Malika’s, remains a bit disdainful and out of touch even though she’s been through an enormous ordeal and has grown and, in some ways, broken. It’s like she’s lived the life of a princess and the life of a prisoner, but has no experience in between and that makes for a very imbalanced perspective. Not that I’m saying it’s not a perspective worth hearing, but it does still contain this note of derision, somehow. Perhaps that pride is what saved the family, or maybe it was the humor or the talent. Or Mother Mary. I don’t know, but it’s still hard to believe that they all survived and their crack-pot escape plan actually worked. I’m most surprised that this memoir has never been turned into a movie. Maybe Morocco would fight it.

I would recommend this book, but not based on its literary merit. Not even because of its wisdom. I recommend it for its peek into lives in another place, another time, and in a very thin slice of the population. I recommend it because it is a nail-biter and a spouse-exclaimer. I recommend it because there are prisoners—some of them political, some of them innocent—rotting away in bad prisons across the world, and most of those stories don’t have any sort of fairy tale ending. It’s a voice of decadence and wealth and power, a voice of Morocco, and a voice of suffering and injustice, and as far as I can tell, it’s all amazingly true.

QUOTES:

“How can anyone appear normal after such suffering? How can they live, laugh, or love, how can they go on when they have lost the best years of their life as a result of injustice?” (p1).

“At the same moment she is a child, a teenage girl and a mature woman. She is all ages rolled into one, but has not really lived through any of them” (p3).

“Whom do you love, whom do you hate, when your own father attempts to assassinate your adoptive father?” (p4).

“Malika is a wizard at the humor that enabled the Oufkir family to survive” (p5).

“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” (p20).

“’A person is judged by their manners, not by their learning’” (p24).

“I learned to read between the lines and to make caution a rule and a secret weapon” (p58).

“He had the intelligence not to mix up his children with politics” (p71).

“He’d rather see me smoking than listen to me lying to him” (p73).

“I dreamed of a normal life but I had no idea what that meant …. I took everything for granted, money, luxury, power, royalty, and subservience. The people around me were so eager to please that even if you had black eyes, they would compliment you on how blue they were if they were ordered to do so” (p75).

“What do young girls dream of? Most of them dream of love. I dreamed of stardom” (p76).

“Only now am I just beginning to live, on the verge of old age. It is painful and unfair. But today I have a different attitude to life: it can’t be constructed from superficial things, no matter how attractive…” (p79).

“Pain gave me a new life. It took a long time for me to die as Malika, General Oufkir’s eldest daughter, the child of a powerful figure, of a past. I’ve gained an identity. My own identity …. It’s as well to make the best of things” (p79).

“I gradually realized that things weren’t so black and white, with goodies on one side and baddies on the other” (p82).

“I remained detached. That phrase, ‘my father’s dead,’ was meaningless. It made no sense. I needed proof” (p92).

“If he were dead, I’d be able to tell. Something would have changed outside” (p93).

“I didn’t understand. But was there anything to understand? We were entering the realm of the irrational, the arbitrary. This was a country where they locked up young children for their father’s crimes. We were entering the world of insanity” (p103).

“In the desert, all that suddenly seemed so ludicrous” (p106).

“We even bred scorpions and organized races. / I was living a fairy tale in reverse” (p106).

“I organized toad races and farting contests, which made them shriek with laughter” (p109).

“This prophecy helped us hold out for twenty years” (p114).

“My own father had tried to kill my adoptive father. As a result he was dead. It was a tragedy. My tragedy” (p114).

“The child, who had turned eight on 27 February, the day after our arrival at Bir-Jdid, was at the end of his tether. / Shortly after our arrival, he tried to kill himself” (p141).

“We’d invent a fantasy life for him and we’d get him to believe in it” (p142).

“I lived with a permanent fear in the pit of my stomach: fear of being killed, beaten or raped, fear of constant humiliation. And I was ashamed of being afraid” (p143).

“Our main enemy was time. We saw it, we felt it, it was tangible, monstrous, threatening. The hardest thing was to master it” (p147).

“I insisted we take a pride in ourselves so as not to lose our humanity” (p149).

“Hunger humiliates. Hunger debases. Hunger makes you betray your family, your friends and your values. Hunger turns you into a monster. / We were always hungry” (p150).

“I can still picture Mimi, sitting up in bed, picking off the little black droppings sprinkled all over the bread with the delicacy of a duchess, before raising the morsels to her lips” (p152).

“Then, I could have made anything out of a piece of cardboard. Now, I wouldn’t know where to begin” (p154).

“At the end of the day, I felt exhausted from having given them all my energy. But how could I refuse, given that they were my entire raison d’etre?” (p155).

“I went on telling it night after night, for ten years, just like Scheherazade …. I had reinvented the radio serial” (p155).

“We could all have died twenty times over, but every time we emerged again unscathed from the numerous illnesses we contracted in prison” (p159).

“The Palace received reports of our dignified behavior. Our haughty attitude meant that we were standing up to the King and that we refused to accept the punishment he was inflicting on us. / It was a deliberate choice” (p168).

“We were gradually moving away from the world of the living towards the realm of shadows” (p169).

“The despair accumulated during those fourteen terrible years, exacerbated by our physical and mental decline, turned into collective hysteria …. Anything was possible: murdering a sibling, suicide, or blowing up the prison with our butane cylinders. / We all wanted to be the first to take the plunge” (p180).

“That night, we had all crossed over to the other side. I don’t know what strength, what instinct, what energy, impelled us to survive” (p181).

“We were staking our lives, double or quits, and the feeling was intoxicating …. I no longer felt the breastbone I’d cracked during the digging, which was agony when I breathed or bent down” (p188).

“It was rather a determination to survive that gave us each the strength of ten” (p194).

“Myriad details that I had never been aware of in my previous life jumped out at me: the apartment blocks like rabbit hutches, the vacant stares, poverty, exhaustion, needless stress” (p202).

“Abdellatif was fascinated by the animal, for he had never seen a pet dog before. It was playful little cocker spaniel that licked him and stood on its hind legs in excitement. My brother was torn between delight and fear” (p205).

“To our dismay, Abdellatif was an enfant sauvage, a wild child, bewildered by the avalanche of new experiences and sensations” (p208).

“’We didn’t need muscle,’ Soukina finally burst out …. ‘To escape, all we needed was fifteen years in prison, fifteen years of inhuman suffering, fifteen years of starvation, cold, fear and deprivation. And as for intelligence, you gave us all those years to nurture and develop it’” (p251).

“Battling against the dread in the pit of her stomach, my sister remained very polite” (p251).

“I… ate non-stop,… vitamins… medicines… exercising like mad …. I followed this strict regime for two years, but I remained in a dire physical condition for a long time” (p259).

“Despite my thirty-four years, I was still no more than a very young girl with a desperate need for love” (p260).

“Soukina took him aside and asked if her suicide could help secure our freedom. Since our aborted departure on 27 October, she had been obsessed with this idea. Maitre Kiejman sighed, then carried on railing against a regime that crucified innocent children” (p267).

“He missed the opportunity to write a properly researched book, and that upset me much more than all his misinformation. There was so much to disclose that he should not have contented himself with reproducing hearsay. The truth would have amply sufficed to bring down the despot” (p271).

“The sky was bluer, nature came back to life, our appetites returned. Our senses sharpened. I now saw life in Cinemascope, and no longer on a tiny screen” (p274).

“For years, time had just flowed by, it had no meaning for me, and I no longer knew how to organize it …. I have difficulty understanding other people’s time, their hurry or their slowness, their time constraints. I still can’t manage it” (p280).

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