Tales from An Arabian Nightmare
05/09/1983 at 01:00 AM EDT
The story thus far: "Dr. Sheik" Al-Fassi, a poor, obscure bedouin mystic, takes his family from Morocco to Saudi Arabia. There, in 1973, his beautiful daughter Hind, 20, is introduced to Prince Turki bin Abdul Aziz, brother of the future King Fahd. Despite objections by the royal family, Turki, 39, takes Hind abroad and later marries her. Hind's sister, her four brothers and her mother join the entourage of bodyguards, cooks and other servants, and for nine years they roam the world, spending spectacular sums of Prince Turki's money on lavish parties, chartered jets, hotel suites by the floor, automobiles by the fleet, clothing by the rack and jewelry by the tray.
Mohammed, 21, the oldest and most arrogant of the brothers, marries Diana Bilinelli, 16, an Italian shopgirl, and changes her name to Sheika Dena Al-Fassi. In Los Angeles, they buy a $2.4 million estate and Mohammed becomes a laughingstock with his bizarre behavior. Next he has a romantic fling with a woman named Victoria Sosa and shortly thereafter "marries" her at the bar in Perino's restaurant in Hollywood. Months later, with both Dena and Victoria in tow, Mohammed joins Prince Turki and the rest of the family in Europe. They settle down for six months at the Intercontinental Hotel in Geneva, where the generous Prince continues to distribute bundles of cash to his insatiable in-laws.
Now it is time for the prodigal Arabs to leave Geneva. Before long they will become involved with, of all people, a Jewish-American lawyer with alleged Mob connections, and will outspend each other in a wild binge in Miami. Sheika Dena, desperately unhappy, will flee from her virtual imprisonment and hire California lawyer Marvin Mitchelson, who will win a $3 billion divorce default judgment against Mohammed. In 1982, all this notoriety having reached Saudi Arabia, King Fahd orders Prince Turki and his family home in disgrace.
The tales that follow were told to PEOPLE by former members of the Al-Fassi retinue. To protect their identities, they are collectively called "Scheherazade."
The Tale of the Muslims and the Malniks
Having paid their $1.4 million hotel bill, the tireless wanderers left Geneva in April 1980, paused in the Canary Islands and Marbella only briefly ("not rich enough"), and then returned to London, where an improbable character was to join the family circle. He was Alvin Malnik, then 46, a multimillionaire Jewish lawyer from Miami Beach with a reputation as an associate of the late Mob financier Meyer Lansky. After the Al-Fassis, perhaps nothing was too farfetched for the Muslim Prince Turki, who quickly became Malnik's close friend.
Trim, good-looking and charming, Malnik also had apparently mastered the arts of discretion and attentiveness. To the Al-Fassi brothers—Mohammed, Allal, Mustafa and Tarek—Malnik was a spellbinding, real-life version of the sort of character they had seen only on television: an American sheik. He was an amateur pilot and architect and owned a helicopter, a fashionable Miami Beach restaurant (the Forge) and a ranch in Boca Raton, Fla. "All the boys were talking about this exciting new member of the group," says Scheherazade. "He brought some adventure into their lives. He said he could do this and he could do that, he knew a lot of people and he knew a lot of places. He could put everyone in touch with things. He even told them that he could get the police to work for them. They loved it."
Malnik's swift rise within the family threatened to displace Mohammed's control over Prince Turki's finances. Explains Scheherazade, "The Prince trusted and respected Al so much that slowly the power shifted from Mohammed's hand to Al's. Now it was Al who controlled the cash, who told the Prince to put money in this business or that business, and it outraged Mohammed." At one point he tried to enlist the support of his sister, Princess Hind, whose influence over her husband, Turki, was profound, but Mohammed failed. Hind, too, had become infatuated with the American newcomer.
At the same time Mohammed was continuing his frenzied, almost mindless flight from his own demons. He took Dena to Turkey, where he impulsively adopted a sickly little child. "The boy had marks all over his body," says Dena. "No one wanted to kiss him." Dena never knew why Mohammed adopted the boy, or, for that matter, had earlier adopted a girl in Uruguay.
All the while Mohammed continued to pursue women. He had already discarded Victoria Sosa. Now, in London, he met a Saudi girl named Ibtissam. As he had done once before, Mohammed sent Dena out of town, this time to France, and proceeded to orchestrate a wedding, a $5 million, three-night bash. The London press knew about it before Dena, who read about the party afterward. If Mohammed had meant to impress Prince Turki by taking a Saudi bride—Dena, after all, was Italian, and would always be considered an outsider—the effort failed. For unexplained reasons, the Prince and Princess stayed away from the wedding.
There were yet other romantic intrigues. Acting typically like a dashing chieftain, Tarek, who was now 17, had virtually captured a 20-year-old Arabian woman he had met in a London discotheque. He dispatched his guards to accompany her to his table, then later to his hotel suite. It did not daunt the young sheik that the lovely woman called Kari-man was already married to another Arab, a university student in Miami, Fla. Soon Tarek proposed marriage and made a cash offer to Kariman's husband for a divorce.
That was too much for Prince Turki, who had already tolerated a good deal of Al-Fassi anarchy. The Prince, who favored Tarek over the other brothers, declared that if he committed the transgression of breaking up an Arab marriage, he would be disinherited. Tarek reacted with astonishing bravado: He secretly married Kariman anyway. Only one honorable act survived these brazen happenings: Kariman's husband granted the divorce but refused the cash.
Meanwhile Al Malnik's son, Mark, a blond, outgoing 23-year-old law student, had fallen in love with the Al-Fassis' 21-year-old sister, Hoda; it hardly mattered that a Mrs. Mark Malnik waited for him in Florida. It certainly did not matter to the Al-Fassis, whose romantic permutations were already complicated enough to befuddle even the most attentive scorekeeper. Tarek was secretly married to Kariman. Allal, now 19, was having his secret affair with Affaf, a Tunisian girl he had met in Paris. Mohammed was married to both Ibtissam and the much neglected Dena. And now, here was a young Jewish married man in full pursuit of the Muslim Sheika Hoda, Prince Turki's sister-in-law. In his new role as adviser and confidant to the Prince, Alvin Malnik recognized the growing disharmony within the family. "Al came up with a good idea," says Scheherazade. " 'Come to the U.S. I will take care of everything.' "
The Tale of the Full Moon over Miami
Miami was to have the same influence on the strange Al-Fassis as the magic of a full moon. Never in their travels had they encountered a city that was so eager to offer anything for a price, including, on occasion, the protective services of virtually one-half the entire off-duty police force of the nearby community of Hollywood. The sparkling blue bay waters and warming climate reminded them of Saudi Arabia, and the bejeweled carnival atmosphere provided instant illusions.
Yet, despite the change of scene, intrigues and internal struggles for position were growing fierce. The clan's arrival during the 1980 Christmas season was also to mark the first time that individual family members—most with retinues of beefy security men in numbers larger than some pro football squads—went their separate ways. "It was the city that spoiled them," says Scheherazade. "It was Miami that finally made them crazy."
Miami was not only the Malniks' home but also the home of Kariman, Tarek's secret wife. Tarek, in fact, had managed to race the rest of the family to Florida and even beat Mohammed to the headlines. Mohammed was annoyed to learn that a Miami Herald columnist had discovered a $25,000 shopping outing led by Tarek. "It's normal when you go to a new country to see new shops and adjust to their fashion," says one of Tarek's friends. "Mohammed felt the newspaper was disrespectful." Besides, $25,000 was such a negligible sum.
Sheik Tarek was apparently oblivious of the effect his arrival made in Kariman's neighborhood in the middle-class suburban community of Kendall. He surrounded their tract house with limousines, luxury sports cars and security guards. Like the rest of the family fleet, Tarek's prize motorcars had been flown to Miami. "He brought everything," says a friend. "The Lotus, the Aston Martin Lagonda, which cost $80,000. Then he bought another Ferrari for $70,000, a $120,000 Lamborghini Countach, a Mercedes 500 for Kariman, a Chrysler Imperial...was it a Chrysler Imperial?" Who could keep track, anyway?
Tarek enrolled himself in Kariman's community college, attended by a majority of working-class students. In character, he arrived at school accompanied by his bodyguards and, because his English was halting, instructed them to ask questions for him in class. But he soon lost interest and began to accompany his new wife to her classes instead.
Tarek was not just an international student; he was like a visitor from another planet. "All his cars with telephones reminded them of Batman shows," says a student who befriended the couple. Within weeks of his arrival, the Herald had again written of the sheik, this time reporting the theft from his home of some $400,000 in American currency, $80,000 in British pound notes, 20 gold-and-diamond rings, a dozen gold medallions and 14 diamond-studded watches. Tantalizing as the haul was, the sheik reacted coolly: He couldn't be bothered to cooperate in an investigation. Says Scheherazade: "He really didn't know how much had been taken. He didn't keep a safe in the house, and everything was unlocked and left around the place. If you walked into a room, you might very well step on a diamond watch."
Operating on his own turf, meanwhile, Malnik assumed control over the Prince's schedule and contacts, attending to the disposition of the other family camps. Mohammed's entourage was put up on three floors of the Diplomat Hotel in Hollywood. Mohammed and Sheika Dena of course no longer slept in the same bedroom. They did not even share the same floors. While Mohammed, Ibtissam and the others occupied 40th-level floors, Dena was relegated to the fourth, hardly ever seeing her four children, who remained with Mohammed.
Meanwhile Prince Turki created a two-story apartment in Malnik's North Miami condominium, the Cricket Club. His duplex was directly below Al's penthouse. In the club's private hotel, Sheika Faisa, the mother of the Al-Fassi clan, who was hardly ever seen in public, was given an apartment equipped with a Jacuzzi and a balcony overlooking Biscayne Bay. Hoda had yet another apartment, while the ardent Mark Malnik left his wife and moved into still another flat in the club. These accommodations did not preclude a real estate buying binge. The Al-Fassis snapped up $1 million homes in the same way they collected cars. Under Malnik's tutelage, Prince Turki paid about $3 million in cash for the Woolworth estate, one of the most graceful waterfront homes on Florida's Gold Coast. Even Dr. Sheik, father of the family, reappeared in their midst from London to purchase a home for himself. In all, the Al-Fassis paid $17 million for houses and other properties.
Whatever the sheiks wanted, the sheiks got. "My God, everyone was calling trying to sell something," Scheherazade says. "Shops were competing for their business, offering to keep their stores open until midnight or after just to get them to come. They could walk into the house of a really happy family and tell them, 'Look, move out and sleep in the street tonight. We'll pay you this much money,' and people would do it."
When Tarek bought his Lamborghini Countach, continues Scheherazade, "he would be going 100, 120 mph and if he got caught, the security man with him would be a member of the police department. He would just show his badge and Tarek would get away with it. If they arrived at a restaurant, the management would go over and ask people to move. The lowest tips were $100. If the manager did a good job, he would get $500 in his pocket. Tarek would order like the Prince—steak and chicken and this and that and take a bite of each. He could spend $5,000 in a disco when all he drank was fruit punch. Once Tarek saw a giant display bottle of Paco Rabanne cologne in a drugstore and asked the owner for it. The druggist explained it was for display purposes only. Tarek took out $10,000 in cash, and the man gave it to him. It wasn't cologne, of course. It was colored water."
Mohammed was also flinging away the Prince's money. He paid an inflated $1.5 million for two waterfront homes on Star Island—between Miami Beach and the city of Miami—on the condition that the owners move out the following day. He then demolished the houses to erect what could only be called the Xanadu of kitsch. One of his contractors, in fact, described the house as "the biggest hunk of crap ever built on the face of the earth." Actually, the palace was never completed, since Mohammed skipped town leaving his furious contractors with a pile of rubber checks and $5 million in liens. It was perhaps just as well that the house would remain unfinished: Mohammed's design envisioned, among other amenities, two bowling alleys, a shooting gallery, a monorail, a 147-foot waterslide, a racquetball court and a mosque, not to mention $300,000 in fixtures for each bathroom and clocks that spoke in three languages—English, French and Arabic. The interior decor, on the other hand, was relatively conservative, featuring detailed erotic murals illustrating passages from the classic Hindu epic Kama Sutra.
Tarek's own neighborhood Welcome Wagon was more like a Brink's truck. He had left Kendall and moved into a $750,000 ranch house in the swanky community of Golden Beach. When his next-door neighbors complained about the disco and late-night swimming parties, Tarek simply bought the neighbors' house and turned it into an annex. When the town council objected to Tarek's turning Arabian horses loose on his lawn and erecting a guardhouse and an iron fence with gold-tipped points, the sheik's guards won over a visiting town building inspector, who later appeared at his parties. As an afterthought, the family also bought a house for Mustafa, 19, a bungalow that fetched an outrageous $460,000.
Departing from the old family-style evenings in their hotels in Europe, the Al-Fassis began to entertain each other in house-to-house gatherings. The catered evenings glowed with music and banquets that disguised a more intense struggle under way for the Prince's favor.
As the others sensed Mohammed's power slipping in favor of Malnik, they began to work feverishly to ensure themselves a place in the new order. In this, the Al-Fassis had clearly met their match. The Malniks, father and son, now were beginning to study Arabic, and young Mark took to carrying the Koran around with him. He even began to court the sister by courting the brothers. He mastered the proper manner of greeting members of the family, kissing them on both cheeks while holding one hand and patting them on the back with the other.
According to one account, domestic relationships were not always serene. For example, when a former bodyguard of the family who had been secretly dating Hoda in Europe arrived in Miami, he was visited in his hotel room by several unidentified assailants and severely beaten. The bruised suitor fled town the next day.
It was at about that time, in 1981, that the Prince gave a birthday party for his children; Samaher was now 3 and the second child, Abdul, was 2. The celebrations were held on the same night as a Halloween costume party at the Cricket Club, and most of the family went dressed as Arabian princes and princesses. As part of their campaign to please the Prince, the brother sheiks chipped in to buy a powerful $100,000 custom racing boat, the kind preferred by drug smugglers. The gift was for Samaher and was named after her.
The brothers' own gifts were peace offerings that recognized the new influence of the Malniks. Allal presented a new Maserati to Al Malnik. In a power play of his own, Tarek gave his personal Ferrari to Mark as a way of winning favor before staging the evening's most elaborate surprise: He introduced the still-forbidden Kariman to the Prince as his wife. As Tarek politely withdrew, the Prince began to dance with the enchanting Kariman, whom he had never seen. Naturally, as Tarek had planned, Turki forgave everything in the spirit of the evening.
Watching the drama from the sidelines was Allal's less fortunate Tunisian girlfriend, Affaf, who had nothing to show for her years in the changing harem but a place at the lowest end of the family's social scale. Like the abandoned Dena, Affaf was now completely ignored. There was little in such an otherwise perfect evening to suggest that this would be one of the last occasions of ease and laughter. Like a tidal wave rising somewhere out in the dark ocean, a storm of trouble was about to overwhelm the Al-Fassis.
The Tale of the Last Revels in America
Dena, who for some time had been treated hardly better than a servant, fled to California. Family gossip suggests that she summoned her courage after meeting Rod Stewart when he appeared at a Miami concert; perhaps it was sheer desperation. Whatever the fleeting relationship between the sheika and the rock star, she discovered another new friend, celebrity divorce lawyer Marvin Mitchelson. Together, on Jan. 21, 1982, they made a brief announcement from Los Angeles: Sheika Dena was suing Mohammed Al-Fassi for $3 billion—claiming, under the well-known California divorce formula, "half of everything."
The next devastating blow struck Prince Turki. In February Miami police, acting on complaints that servants were being held against their will, stormed the Cricket Club sanctuary. But the cops never got a chance to make their search, for Princess Hind began shouting unroyal obscenities and bit one policewoman deep enough on the arm to leave tooth-marks for days afterward. At length, family bodyguards came to the rescue, forcing the police to retreat. But the damage had already been done to the Prince's dignity. As suits and countersuits began to fly between Turki and an outraged Florida State Attorney, the U.S. State Department rushed in a former ambassador to Saudi Arabia to serve as intermediary and secure what was clearly face-saving diplomatic immunity for the Prince.
All this odorous news, of course, reached the ear of the Saudi King in Riyadh. King Fahd had not forgotten that night, so few years and so many curses ago, when his brother met and was captivated by the Moroccan commoner Hind Al-Fassi and her obnoxious family. With the gentle but firm command that can only come from a king to his brother, Turki was advised to end his long exile and return home. The occasion was Ramadan, 1982, the Islamic month of repentance. The rest of the family was told to accompany the Prince, and, with one exception, they complied.
The exception, of course, was Mohammed. He wanted to remain in the U.S. Witnesses say that the Prince generously offered Mohammed a check for $5 million to tide him over, but the furious Mohammed tore up the check, spat on the floor and demanded $10 million. Receiving nothing, Mohammed decided to launch himself anyway into one final escapade.
To show his disdain for President Reagan, who, he imagined, had slighted him, Mohammed went to Washington and instructed his entourage to honk its limousine horns as the cavalcade passed the White House. On another occasion Mohammed promised a financial gift to the American Indian Movement if he could be introduced to one of its great champions, Marlon Brando. The Indians declined. Mohammed next offered $200,000 to the city of New York, only to withdraw the offer because Mayor Ed Koch did not greet him at the airport. Then the sheik declared that he would pay $3 million to the citizens of the struggling mining town of Midland, Pa. (pop. 4,310) if they would agree to sign a petition to vote against Ronald Reagan in the 1984 presidential election. Midland did not accept. Mohammed even offered to support a Jacksonville, Fla. soccer team if it would let him play. The team expressed interest, but as it happened Mohammed never came through. Asked to explain his bizarre behavior, Mohammed shouted at one interviewer: "I am Al-Fassi! I am Al-Fassi! A member of the royal family! A member of the royal family! A member of the royal family!"
Mohammed was to carry out a last scheme—in fact, one that some family friends believe had been intended all along. A Bahamian court had given him temporary custody of the four children, but a Florida injunction specified that they were not to leave Miami's Dade County. To prevent him from fleeing the country before a divorce settlement could be worked out, Mitchelson got a court order freezing Mohammed's bank accounts and assets.
Such tactics were to prove no more significant to an Al-Fassi than a discarded gold watch—or a discarded wife, for that matter. On Oct. 31, 1982 Mohammed and his children left the country in a chartered plane bound for Saudi Arabia. Florida authorities subsequently discovered that his bank accounts had somehow been emptied, as well as the warehouses that contained all of the sheik's motorcars and custom furniture. He had even managed to make off with his favorite $95,000 Stutz Black-hawk with gold-plated radio speakers, which supposedly was an exact copy of one owned by Elvis Presley. All that Mohammed left behind were claims for $5 million in unpaid bills and warrants for his arrest.
Shortly before Mohammed departed, Mustafa and Allal, the two Al-Fassi brothers who had been able to escape problems in the U.S., were allowed to reenter the country to continue their "studies." Their probation was short-lived. Mustafa left for Saudi Arabia after a brief stay. And last Christmas Eve Allal was arrested in Washington, D.C., accused of trying to peddle to an FBI undercover agent a stolen $1.2 million diamond-and-emerald ring. That ring had disappeared in the spring during a showing of several hundred million dollars in stones at the Prince's home. Allal's story was that the ring had been selected by another member of the family from a tray passed around the room and should have been included as part of the final bill presented at the end of the evening. A federal grand jury indicted Allal for transporting stolen goods, but in family tradition, he jumped $25,000 bail and fled to Saudi Arabia, where he lives with the hapless Affaf, whom he finally married.
As for the rest of the Al-Fassis, the patriarch Dr. Sheik has again proved himself remarkably adept as a survivor. Although still prohibited from reentering Saudi Arabia, where he was once a political prisoner, he has returned to London with his own well-guarded secret, an attractive Moroccan bride in her early 20s.
At home, the Prince's family circle has been broadened to include the friends formerly named Malnik. Both father and son are said to have taken Arabic names and converted to Islam. Turki proved himself capable of pulling off his own family surprise: When Mark and Hoda were secretly married last year after Mark's divorce, the Prince handed them a $2 million wedding gift. Sheika Hoda is now expecting their first-born.
The Prince is far happier and more content at home than he ever was abroad. He has regained some degree of control over his household. Though surrounded, as always, by the Al-Fassis, he is, according to Scheherazade, "relieved and settled again. It is as if he has put a nightmare behind him." He has yet to regain a position within the government.
No one seems to have adjusted more completely to these changed circumstances than Sheik Tarek. Sensing his need to regain the favor of the Prince, Tarek has joined the National Guard, which serves as the protector of the Saudi royal family. "He likes it a lot," says Scheherazade. "There is a very nice white uniform he has to wear, and the best way to get in the government is through the Guard. In a few years he could become the head of the Guard and someday one of the most trusted men in the kingdom. Of course, the Prince is pleased."
Sheika Dena, meanwhile, remains in Los Angeles, where she stays in the guest house on the Al-Fassi property. The great mansion, torched by an ex-chauffeur, is a hulking ruin; the gardens are neglected (two rusting shopping carts filled with leaves and cuttings stand in the driveway). Dena may never collect her $3 billion judgment against Mohammed, who clearly has no intention of returning to the U.S. to face a multitude of legal actions. Nevertheless, Marvin Mitchelson calculates that it should be possible to take control of Mohammed's assets in the U.S. and Europe, half of which totals about $500 million. That ought to go a long way toward erasing the pain of Dena Al-Fassi's Arabian nightmare.