Scheherazade herself could not have spun a more dramatic tale. The star-crossed lovers are Dalila Zeghar, daughter of one of Algeria’s richest, most powerful families, and Frenchman Denis Maschino, both 26. They met in 1974 as students at the University of Algiers and soon began a forbidden romance. Dalila’s brother, Messaoud, the authoritarian head of the family, had other plans: Dalila would marry a Muslim selected by him. True love was not to be thwarted, though, and Dalila and Denis eloped to Paris, where they were married in March 1975. Later that year they emigrated to Montreal, where they settled in a student-quarter apartment. He found work teaching French, she took a job as a waitress. Later, with their savings and some help from Denis’ father and their friends, they resumed college studies and applied for Canadian citizenship. Then, after 1,001 nights, give or take a few weeks, their Montreal idyll ended abruptly.
In April 13 members of Dalila’s family—sisters, aunts and in-laws included—flew to Canada for a reunion. Through 10 days of wining and dining, the Maschinos resisted all attempts to persuade them to return to Algeria. Unbeknownst to Dalila, however, the scheming Messaoud had checked into a downtown hotel with a party of henchmen, determined to end her marriage to the infidel one way or another. One night Dalila went out with her Aunt Nadia and sister Tania. (Denis, studying for an exam, begged off.) After a meal of paella at a Spanish restaurant, Dalila danced until 4 a.m., topping the evening at Aunt Nadia’s penthouse, where she drank an herb tea. “Then, after one or two minutes,” she recalled later, “I just lost everything. Everything. I woke up 10 hours later in Algeria.”
Apparently the unconscious girl was spirited to Montreal’s Dorval Airport in a limousine and pushed in a wheelchair to her brother’s private DC-8, which was waiting on the runway with engines roaring. Once in Algeria, she was whisked to an isolated house in El Eulma, 200 miles southeast of Algiers. There she was held under guard and faced with her brother’s ultimatum: either marry the man of his choice or languish indefinitely in purdah. Her marriage to Denis, a Christian, was not sanctioned under Islamic law, and Messaoud Zeghar, as head of the family and master of all its women, ruled her destiny with the whim of a tyrant. Ignoring appeals by Canadian authorities, Algerian President Houari Boumedienne, a close friend of the Zeghar clan, refused to interfere in what he considers a family affair.
Faced with the harsh options, Dalila agreed to write a letter to her brother’s lawyer in Montreal, stating that she had returned to Algeria voluntarily to see her sick mother. She added that she had intended to leave Denis and would not return to him. But later, in a rambling, eight-page love letter to her husband, smuggled out of Algeria, Dalila poured out her real feelings. “I won’t leave this place if I refuse to marry,” she wrote. “I will never love this person, it’s you that I love and nobody else…My great love, my sweetheart, don’t reject me, you are the only issue for me in this hard and unhappy life.”
Distraught, Dalila said she was thinking of suicide: “If I lose your love, I have nothing to do on this earth. I will surely kill myself, it is easy to take pills.” And she worried about Denis’ safety. “I have been terrorized by my brother on the phone,” she wrote. “Please stop everything. I don’t want them to hurt you.” Maschino himself has gone into hiding. “I’m not taking any chances,” he says. “I don’t go out at night. Look what happened to Dalila.”
On June 5 the Montreal Gazette managed to reach Dalila on the telephone. In a surreptitious interview she said she would marry the man her brother had chosen. “I have to,” she insisted. “I have no choice.” “Is there anything we can tell Denis?” asked the reporter. “Yes,” said Dalila. “Tell him that I will love him forever.”
Infuriated when he learned of the interview, Messaoud, who had been in Paris at the time, cut the phone lines to the house where Dalila is held, and a veil of silence separated the lovers once more. All international efforts to obtain the girl’s release have been frustrated, and Denis Maschino will appeal to the United Nations this week. He also plans to tour the U.S. to drum up support for his cause. “I’m trying to keep busy to ward off depression,” Maschino says. “It’s hard, but so far I think I’m doing okay. But it isn’t me I’m worried about.”