Princess who escaped from a desert cage Arab despot put `princess' in desert jail

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UNTIL SHE was 16, Malika Oufkir was an adopted princess, a pampered child in a clandestine world of concubines, despots and slaves. She lived in a world beyond time, a world of the most unimaginable luxury.

At the age of 19, she and her entire family, including her two- year- old brother, and her sisters aged six and nine, were thrown into prison for 20 years.

She spent ten years of that time, growing to adult womanhood, in a remote and barbaric desert jail, isolated from her mother and oldest brother, often close to starvation. She was once again in a world beyond time, but now a world of the most unimaginable cruelty and squalor.

In her first life, her adopted "father", the king, was her loving, sometimes severe but always affectionate benefactor. In her second life, the same man was her pitiless jailer, her distant torturer, the man who robbed her brother and sisters of their childhood. Her only crime and that of her family was their name. Her real father, General Mohammed Oufkir, once the king's most trusted adviser, had tried to assassinate the monarch. The general was executed and his family banished, walled away from the world without trial or charge, until 14 years later, when Malika and three of her siblings tunnelled to temporary freedom with their bare hands.

It could be a tale from The 1,001 Nights, except that it happened in the Seventies, Eighties and Nineties and not in some mythical kingdom but in modern Morocco, a country with which the West enjoys friendly - even obsequious - relations. The king in question was Hassan II, one of the West's favourite Arab potentates. While Malika and her family were in prison, King Hassan was negotiating the release of the US embassy hostages in Iran and trying to broker peace with Saddam Hussein before the Gulf War.

Three years ago, Malika Oufkir and her family, after a final nine years of house arrest and restricted freedom in Morocco, were permitted to emigrate to France.

She has now written her life story in a book called La Prisonniere which has shot to the top of the non-fiction best-sellers list in France. An English-language edition is planned. The title of the book applies almost as much to the first part of her life, in gilded but enforced royal adoption, as the second part, in prison.

It is an extraordinary book, co-authored by the French journalist and writer Michele Fitoussi: a fascinating insider's account of life in a modern harem in the early pages; a moving chronicle of suffering and courage and endurance in prison; and then a heart-stopping thriller when Malika and her siblings escape.

At times the book touches greatness. Malika Oufkir, despite the injustice and suffering imposed an her and her family, manages to write about her father/jailer with affection, generosity, even compassion.

"This is why I had to write the book, because I was haunted by two men," she said, in an interview. The king who had brought me up, who had shaped my education, who made me what I am, whom I still loved. And the king who was my torturer, my executioner. In my dreams, in prison, and since being released, the two men would appear. I would feel terribly guilty that I could not escape from my feelings of affection for him, while, also hating him for what he did to me and my family. It was often physically painful for me but in writing the book I was determined to be honest, to express both feelings."

Malika Oufkir is a tall, slender, elegant, beautiful woman of 45, married last year to a Parisian architect. She has the great wisdom but also the youthfulness - almost the childishness - found in intelligent people whose lives have been taken from them and belatedly restored. (It might be called the Nelson Mandela syndrome).

The act of writing the book, she says, has helped her to achieve a kind of serenity. She can now understand that the king who put his adopted daughter and her two-year-old brother in prison was not the man that she had known as a child. He had himself been "consumed by hatred and wounded by betrayal".

And yet it is clear from the book that the degree of cruelty imposed on Malika and her family was personally controlled by Hassan. Members of his own family, including the Queen, pleaded for clemency. Instead, each time the Oufkir family wrote to the king asking for their freedom, their conditions were made worse.

Only when they tunnelled out, and managed to tell the world their story before they were re-captured, was their life made more humane.

Until then, they survived by imposing scrupulous rules of politeness towards one another; by rigging up a kind of makeshift intercom between their cells; and by a form of gallows humour. When fleas infected the four sisters and their private parts became so swollen that they hung down to their thighs, they joked: "Now we girls have balls too."

A clandestine radio allowed them to keep abreast of world events - the march of the computer, the video-recorder, feminism, successive World Cups - from their medieval cells. Most of all, the prisoners - Malika, her mother, two brothers, four sisters and two cousins - came to depend entirely on a kind of soap opera, invented and broadcast by Malika through the hidden intercom.

Every night, once the guards were sleeping, she tried to give her brothers and sisters, through the never-ending story, a sense of the pleasures and evils of the world of which they were deprived. Malika and family spent, not 1,001 nights, but 3,710 nights as the only prisoners of their desert jail: they endured over 7,000 nights of imprisonment of one kind or another. "Each of my birthdays was like a dagger in my heart," she wrote in the book.

"At 33, I became resigned. I would never fall in love. I would never have a family. Never would a man take me in his arms and whisper tender and burning words into my ear.

"I would never know what moves the heart and body of a woman." She was partly right and partly wrong. On her release, she met Eric, a French architect, in Rabat and married him last October. The damage too her body in prison means that she will probably never be able to have any children. The psychological damage is much harder to define.

"Ever since I was a child, perhaps because I was taken from my family so young, I have had the impression that I was a spectator in my own life," she said.

"Now I have the impression that life is a great fairground and that I am permanently on the edge of it, looking in. I cannot be alone. I have to sleep with the light and radio on. And yet I crave solitude.

"Even when I am with other people, I am often alone."