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Stolen Lives: Twenty Years in a Desert Jail
Malika Oufkir and Michele Fitoussi
Hyperion, $24 (cloth)


by Susan Slyomovics

Earlier this year, the Oprah Winfrey Show featured Malika Oukfir, whose Stolen Lives: Twenty Years in a Desert Jail was both an Oprah book of the month club selection, and a New York Times non-fiction bestseller.1  Oufkir—who also appeared on 60 Minutes, the Today Show, the Rosie O'Donnell Show, and NPR—recounted her imprisonment, torture, and extraordinary reversal of fortune at the hands of the Moroccan government, for rapt American audiences. Her reception is striking, not least because American interest in Middle Eastern and North African culture is so often reduced to the question, "Why do they hate us?" Still, the way her story was told in the United States—without historical or political context—raises troubling questions.

Malika Oufkir is the eldest daughter of General Muhammad Oufkir, the brutal and much-feared Minister of the Interior for King Hassan II, Morocco's ruler from 1961–1999. Adopted at age five by King Muhammad V (the first king of an independent Morocco and King Hassan II's father) and raised at the royal court, Oufkir begins her book with wondrous tales of an anachronistic seraglio life in a North African palace. In August 1972, her father's failed attempt to overthrow King Hassan brought an abrupt end to nineteen-year-old Malika's storybook youth. The palace announced General Oufkir's suicide and his wife and six children disappeared, not to be seen or mentioned again. The Oufkir family then passed fifteen years in various secret prisons, most often in solitary confinement. In 1987, family members staged a dramatic escape by tunneling out of their secret desert prison, to enjoy only five days of freedom before being captured. Kept under house arrest an additional four years, the Oufkirs were finally released in 1991, but prohibited from leaving Morocco. In 1996, Maria Oufkir, Malika's younger sister, fled the country on a boat to Spain—a highly-publicized escape that attracted international attention and finally secured the Oufkirs' freedom to travel abroad.

For audiences in France, where Oufkir's book was first published to great acclaim in 1999 under the title La Prisonnière, these dramatic Moroccan events and personages come with a certain familiarity and context—given France's history as Morocco's former colonial master, France's long-term economic, military, and academic interest in the region, the importance of Morocco's own francophone political and intellectual elite, and the trans-Mediterranean character of France's large North African population. Though depicted in the book's preface as a latterday Scheherazade and her tale of suffering at the hands of a barbaric king compared to A Thousand and One Nights, Oufkir's story is part of an extensive Moroccan testimonial literature in French, which examines life in a kingdom of fear, forcible disappearances, torture, and secret prisons.

The post-independence years that Moroccans call zaman al-rasas and al-sanawat al-sawda in Arabic (in French les années de plomb and les années noires) form the backdrop to Oufkir's account. The "years of lead," evoke an era of grayness and lead bullets, "the black years," the times of fear and repression. These works also refers to les années sombres, dismal years of farcical mass political trials and long prison sentences for those who voiced opposition to the regime of King Hassan II.2  For years, the French reading public has been confronted by the testimonials of Moroccan political prisoners, held incommunicado at various sites, tortured, and only charged en masse in waves of political trials for the crime of "plotting against the state." Francophone writers not only documented human rights abuses (as did many international human rights organizations publishing in various languages) but also produced best-selling works on the subject. But only after the death of King Hassan II in 1999, and the enthronement of his son and heir, King Muhammad VI (who quickly affirmed his commitment to the rule of law, human rights, and individual and collective liberties), did any of this testimonial literature return home to Morocco.

Abdelaziz Mouride, for example, a political detainee from 1974 to 1984, laboriously smuggled his cartoon book out of prison page by page, exposing the horrific conditions under Morocco's repressive police state. Originally written with Arabic titles and speech balloons, it was published pseudonymously in France in 1982 as Fi 'akhsha'i baladi (In the Bowels of My Country) and subtitled "On Political Prison in Morocco." A French version by noted poet, translator, and writer Abdellatif Laabi, Mouride's fellow inmate in Kenitra Central Prison, appeared simultaneously with the equivalent French title, Dans les entrailles de mon pays. Its publication impossible to imagine under King Hassan II ("banned" being too genteel and legal a process), Mouride's greatly revised work was finally published in French almost twenty years later as On affame bien les rats (They starve rats, don't they?) by a transnational Paris-Casablanca publishing house.

Abdellatif Laabi's own searing novel of his arrest, torture and imprisonment, published in Paris in 1982, finally appeared in Morocco only in 2000, thanks to Casablanca's Editions Eddif and financial support from the French Embassy in Morocco. Laabi's 1982 title, Le chemin des ordalies (an approximate English translation is "trial by fire") would become his Moroccan subtitle, superseded by Le fou d'espoir (A fool for hope), a rubric that might be seen to evoke the hopes for reform under the new king. In 1992, an expose of Tazmamart, the notorious secret prison, was published by Christine Daure-Serfaty, the French wife of Abraham Serfaty, one of Morocco's longest serving political prisoners—but it was only translated and published during                              a visual account of torture in Mouride's On affame bien les rats.

Morocco's post-Hassan II era, in daily serialized excerpts by Al-Mounadamma, the Arabic-language newspaper of the OADP (Organization of Democratic and Popular Action).3  This series of novels, memoirs, and oral histories about Morocco's human rights abuses—by French and Moroccans, by authors in and out of prison, in French and in Arabic, published by French-Moroccan transnational companies or circulating clandestinely—represents the long, torturous, and complicated cultural and political exchanges that have taken place between France and its former North African colonies.

But in the United States, there is comparatively little context and little incentive for narrating the lives of real North Africans, in real spaces and times. Here, a daughter becomes famous for her suffering while scant attention is paid to her father, a towering figure in Franco-Moroccan military and political history. The bloody family drama of a man who built a system of secret prisons and torture centers—only to have it consume his own family—lies outside our common collective imagination and interest, as does his daughter's steadfast loyalty and love for her father.

How, then, does Malika Oufkir speak to us? First, there is her physical presence on the Oprah show: a telegenic, vibrant and exotic-looking woman with fine features, a model's high cheekbones, and liquid brown eyes, who speaks in a beautifully modulated, marvelously accented voice and whose chic slimness, we need to remind ourselves, owes more to decades of malnutrition than fashion. It is not hard for an American audience to identify and sympathize with this image of Malika Oukfir, but this identification relies on the universal (and apolitical) claims of therapy ("Has it been healing for you to share your story?" asks an Oprah audience member) rather than specific political and social knowledge. And yet Oufkir's personal and family struggle is deeply political and patriotic, and she understands her American media blitz as part of a struggle for democracy and the rule of law in Morocco:

Because even in telling the truth of the past, I still love my country. That's why I can't understand some people who make confusion between a past and the present. It's not easy to witness the truth but I'm sure that many of us through their witness are going to build their country more than destroy it.4 

Oufkir sees her own book as belonging to the tradition of the literature of witness, in which personal testimony provides the principal narrative and political strategy for presenting demands for truth, accountability, and social transformation.

To better understand this tradition, it is instructive to look at Al-Aris (The Groom) by the poet Salah El Ouadie, a Moroccan prisoner of conscience from 1974-84. Published in Morocco in 1998 to great acclaim, it was translated into French in 2001, as Le Marié: Candide au pays de la torture (The Groom: Candide in the country of torture). El Ouadie's missives were written as a series of prison letters, delivered to his mother only after the author's (fictional) death. They recount the story of disappearance and secret detention made familiar by Oufkir's book, though with the important difference that El Ouadie was imprisoned for his beliefs, while the members of the Oufkir family were paying for their blood ties to General Oufkir. From El Ouadie's pen come letters in the Arabic epistolary tradition with a twist; innocence confronts terror and is reduced to laughter:

Dear Mother:5

I am writing you a letter you will never receive. I will write it in my memory because I lack pen and paper—how wretched a privation. I have many reasons to convince you that writing you now would be a grave imprudence even had I the means. I do not want—were I discovered, God forbid—to spend the night under a rain of abuse, of curses and gross insults, of beatings and random blows to my neck. I have already received today my share of offerings by the faithful who watch over our repose in this unique refuge. We eat, sleep, drink, keep silent, scream, bide our time, we cradle our hopes, praise God that we are still alive breathing the air of our country, and that our swollen bodies occupy space therein. When a well-trained prison guard arrives to call one of us ceremoniously for a high-level encounter with the agents that watch over our repose and those of our peers, the prisoner jumps for joy from his bed, leaves smartly in order not to miss the opportunity. Between you and me, how much time does it take an ordinary citizen to meet an official? Generally one year or two but here—long life to them—never is anyone left to wait. Personally, barely had I entered between their walls then I was given cast-off khaki, manacles, and still more, they bestowed on me some black fabric whose use I did not immediately grasp, but finally, later, it protected my eyes from a lightbulb illuminated day and night so they could follow all our movements...

Having conferred on me my own personal number, they put me in a humid place, and barely settled in, I heard one of them bellowing.... This citizen grabbed and pulled me by my handcuffs causing me pain. I was aware of entering a room, I believe by the door, because the citizen with the voice only lifted me when I was inside, where he was joined by other voices, other hands and feet that insulted, cursed, hit, smashed and kicked. Finally they attached me to a pole, with my face and stomach down; their chief said to me: "Your nose to the ground." I thought to myself, "Good heavens, he is right," despite the small observation that my nose was actually in cold cement. When they lifted the pole into the emptiness, as it happened, all my weight was carried by my handcuffs and my feet tied with a rope, and it was there, dear Mother, to speak truthfully, I understood I was being tortured. I said to myself, "Be a man," and I started to howl. You know how silent I am, how I hate noise, but the torture was intense. They interrogated me between one slap and another and strokes of the whip about names, concepts, and big words, So-and-so, Such-and-such, democracy, socialism, classes, citizens, countries, revolution. Then they brought an engine that hummed and maneuvered it near my skull and I in the situation I could see nothing. I believed at first that this affair concerned an enormous fly. But the story of a fly took wing when they placed the apparatus on my skull, my neck, my limbs, and I felt a shock and jolt travel through my entire body. I suddenly remembered that I knew this jolt from childhood, the day I was accidently shocked while playing, I remembered how you took me in your arms when I came in tears looking for you. Here was electricity being delivered to my body long before reaching the countryside and the villages, even though I made no request to anyone. How can the government plead a lack of means—here they distribute electricity so generously without payment?

Both Oufkir and El Ouadie's books were published in the last years of King Hassan II's reign, their publication presumably tolerated because Oufkir's book was shielded by its French publication venue and El Ouadie's perhaps slipped through by virtue of its unusual format and sly humor. Both publications were literary harbingers of the current Moroccan regime's attempts to confront past human rights abuses and indemnify victims of the regime. Morocco's quest for documentation about the past, for the actual bodies of the "disappeared" and for the names of the torturers is an elaborate and frustrating process, filled with confusion and moral complexity. It is, alas, not amenable to the heart-to-heart discussion between a repentent king and his victims that Oprah imagines when she asks Oufkir, "When you were released he [King Hassan II] was still alive. Did you want to say something to him? Was there something you wanted to say?" Indeed, Oufkir's response reflects both the difficulty of extracting meaning from mass torture and arbitrary imprisonment, and the necessity of testifying to it:

Yes. Maybe I think I told him everything I want to tell him through the book. The first thing—the most important thing—it's to tell him the truth, because nobody in his life was allowed to tell him really who he was. And the second thing maybe the only question, why?6 

Lacking formal written proofs for their lost imprisoned youth, Malika Oufkir and Salah El Ouadie among others, have instead authored their own condemnations as core texts around which to build a new national literary history and communal identity. At the same time, El Ouadie remains politically active in Morocco, vice-president and founding member of Morocco's Muntada min ajli al-haqiqa wa-insaf (Forum for Truth and Equity), a post-Hassan II human rights organization founded by and for former victims of the regime's torturers and prisons, to ferret out answers to Malika Oufkir's questions—the why? where? when?—that haunt any reconciliation process.

Must this new literary history, part of a necessary process for countries emerging from the twin burdens of foreign colonialism and indigenous repression, find its validation in translation? Do books by Malika Oufkir and Salah El Ouadie (as well as those by Abdellatif Laabi and Abdelaziz Mouride) exemplify what literary critic Jenine Abboushi has termed "writing for translation," with the Arabic novel as an extreme case of the "centripetal process" in which "the Western reader stays put and many Third World writers are the ones who are making the crossing"?7  Novels chosen for English translation, Abboushi asserts, confirm Western prejudices about the Arab world, Arab women and Islam.

These questions have immediate personal relevance. As a translator of El Ouadie's work, am I merely promoting a variant on the theme of Arab-Islamic brutality or may I claim to present edifying literary examples of human rights discourse that transcends national boundaries? Does an appearance on Oprah replace more effectively (or does it elide?) a dozen academic translations overburdened with copious footnotes and lengthy translators' introductions ponderously informing us of yet another country's barbarisms?8 Since Western media often reduces the Arab-Islamic world to the visual clichés of veiled women, terrorists, and barbaric desert kingdoms, perhaps we should be grateful for any pause in our stockpiling of images. After all, there is another history that should be presented to the public: the four decades of U.S. support for King Hassan II's repressive regime—a history that cast Morocco, its territory dotted with American military bases, as our pro-Western bastion in North Africa, a cold war counterbalance to neighboring Algeria's alignment with the Soviet Union.

It would certainly be a challenge for Hollywood to match the chapter of that history that is currently roiling both French and Moroccan newspapers. On October 29, 1965, Mehdi Ben Barka, Morocco's exiled charismatic opposition leader, was kidnapped in front of the Brasserie Lipp in Paris, an operation that apparently involved the complicity of the French authorities, assorted French gangsters, the French and Moroccan secret services, Israel's Mossad, and the CIA—a lethal but appropriate cocktail of operatives representing the governments most committed to upholding King Hassan II's authoritarian regime. According to the French newspaper, Le Monde, and the Moroccan weekly, Le Journal, Ben Barka was killed by General Muhammad Oufkir, Malika Oufkir's father, who was then Morocco's Minister of Interior.9  This year, thirty-six years after the murder, Ahmed Boukhari, a Moroccan former security agent broke his silence to narrate the macabre removal of Ben Barka's body from Paris to Dar El-Mokri, a secret torture center in Morocco's capital Rabat, and its disposal with the help of "Colonel Martin," a CIA man in Morocco, who promoted the use of a stainless-steel tank filled with acid, (also used during the Shah Reza Pahlevi of Iran's reign) to dissolve all physical evidence of a human body.10  Nothing corporeal remains of Ben Barka; what remains is his family's reams of paperwork in the form of unanswered requests to the United States government to release thousands of pages of documentation.11

In post-1999 Morocco, an unusual conjunction of circumstances has emerged that links authors, writing, political detention, and torture: the guilt of many political prisoners was determined exclusively on their imaginative and political writings; a great deal of torture was applied to elicit written confessions; and finally, a large body of writing was produced during decades of incarceration and continues to emerge as those prisoners presumed "disappeared" forever have come back home alive to represent and recreate a vibrant intellectual and literary community. Once Moroccan dissidents, like their Eastern European counterparts under the Soviet Union, were forced to publish abroad and for Western audiences—a literary climate in which translation precedes and supersedes the original work, and one in which literature is too easily detached from (or reduced to) politics and social dialogue. Only recently have Moroccans been able buy these works and incorporate them into the cultural memory of a renewed civil society. Here, for the moment, translators are relegated to their customary subservient role, expanding and amplifying the reach of bestsellers from the Arab-Islamic world. In such a climate, one might glimpse the possibility of a genuine literary and political exchange across the Mediterranean and across the Atlantic. In a season of renewed "strategic" interest in the Middle East and North Africa, perhaps Oprah's spotlight on Malika Oufkir's book brings us a step closer to such an exchange.<


Susan Slyomovics is is Geneviève McMillan-Reba Stewart Professor of the Study of Women in the Developing World and Professor of Anthropology at MIT.


1 The English translation is Malika Oufkir and Michèle Fitoussi, Stolen Lives: Twenty Years in a Desert Jail (New York: Hyperion, 2001) from the French La Prisonnière (Paris: Grasset and Fasquelle, 1999). I am grateful to Catherine Perry, a scholar of French literature at the University of Notre Dame, for creating and maintaining the Malika Oufkir web page at: http://www.nd.edu/~romlang/news/oufkir.html

2 See my "A Truth Commission for Morocco," MERIP / Middle East Report 31 (Spring 2001): 18-21.

3 It was Mouride's membership in the illegal Marxist-Leninist organization that preceded the OADP that led to his arrest and imprisonment.

4 Malika Oufkir, live chat, June 20, 2001, transcript available at: http://oprah.com/ com/chat/transcript/obc/chat_trans_moufkir_20010620.html

5 The following are excerpts from the first and second letters.

6 "After the Show With Malika Oufkir,"http://oprah.com/obc/pastbooks/malika_oufkir/obc_20010620_aftertrans.jhtml

7 Jenine Abboushi Dallal, "The Perils of Occidentalism: How Arab Novelists are Driven to Write for Western Readers," Times Literary Supplement, 28 March 1998, 8-9. For a translator's lament, see Hosam Aboul-Ela, "Challenging the Embargo: Arabic Literature in the US Market," MERIP/ Middle East Report 219 (Summer 2001): 42-44.

8 My translation of five of El Ouadie's twenty-six letters are published in Everyday Life in the Muslim Middle East, edited by Evelyn Early and Donna Lee Bowen (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001). I am grateful to Donna Lee Bowen who encouraged me to complete the translation.

9 A full dossier on the Ben Barka case can be found at the Le Monde website: www.lemonde.fr/res_rech_tld/1,681,,00.html

10 For an English summary, see Stephen Smith, Aboubakr Jamai and Ali Amar, "Ben Barka died under torture," The Guardian Weekly, 7 December 2001. On the life and death of General Muhammad Oufkir, see the biography by Stephen Smith, Oufkir: Un Destin Marocain(Paris: Calmann-Levy, 1999).

11 Meanwhile Boukhari, the confessed accomplice, was swiftly tried and sentenced to one year in a Moroccan prison for writing bad checks. After serving a three month reduced sentence, Boukhar was released in mid-November 2001, thereby missing his rendezvous with a French judge appointed to revisit the case.

Originally Published in December 2001/January 2002 issue of the Boston Review



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