This Muslim Woman Is A Prison Chaplain In France

Muslim convicts account for 60% of France's prison population.
Muslim convicts account for 60% of France's prison population.
Caroline Brizard

VILLENEUVE D’ASCQ — Envelopes and calendars, decorative stickers, headscarves, prayer rugs and small copies of the Koran: Samia el-Alaoui Talibi, 54, has her car's trunk packed full of gifts.

A trained mathematician, she's one of the only Muslim women in France to work as a prison chaplain. The presents she brings are for the convicts she visits, though she adds: "I mostly share my life experience."

This morning, Talibi is wearing ochre and blue veils that highlight her young-looking face and wrap her generous silhouette. She spends half her time behind bars. Three or four times each week, after showing her badge, she passes the multiple doors leading to the women’s quarters in five prisons around the northern cities of Lille and Valenciennes. In one only, a special building for suicidal prisoners, does she ever meet men.

Of the 30 female convicts she meets — either in small groups at the library or one-on-one in the cells — she says they’re "often the same age as my children." Talibi has seven children, the eldest is 31, the youngest, a girl, is 11 and suffers from Down syndrome. She dedicates practically all her free time to her.

Behind the prison walls, Talibi listens to the women, helping them regain their self-esteem despite their families’ shame, and gives them gifts — even if it’s a simple pair of socks. And she prays with those who ask for it.

Since has noticed that more and more women, and younger ones too, want to convert to Islam. But Talibi is very careful that their wish is purely personal and a free choice rather than just wanting to please men waiting for them outside. The process is very simple: It consists of declaring that there is just one God and that Muhammad is his prophet.

Raised religiously

Born in Tangier, Morocco, Talibi grew up in a very religious family. "My grandfather was an imam. My mother learned the Koran by heart when she was 9. We lived in the third story of our building, three girls and three boys. There was a Jewish family on the ground floor and a church across the street," she says.

"These people worship God, and that’s good," her mother would tell her.

In 1982, at the age of 21, she joined her brother in Lille to continue her studies. She got married a year later to a math teacher, Imam Moulay el-Hassan el-Alaoui Talibi, who’s now retired after serving as chief prison chaplain of the French Council of the Muslim Faith.

"Fifteen years ago, Irène, a Catholic chaplain, came asking for my husband’s help. Some convicts wanted to pray for their parents, but in their own way, not hers. I thought of my mom, who had passed away a few years before that, and I decided I would help them," she says.

In France, 13% of prison chaplains are Muslim. There are 183 of them. But, according to a 2014 parliamentary report, Muslim convicts account for 60% of France's prison population. In January, following the Charlie Hebdo attack, Prime Minister Manuel Valls pledged to recruit 60 more Muslim chaplains to counter the radical imams. "It’s not enough," says Talibi.

She also says the 287 euros a month barely covers her costs, even with an extra bonus for her as a coordinator. "It doesn’t matter, I pay out of my own pocket," she says. "We live by God’s mercy."

Life on the inside

During her 13 years as a prison chaplain, Talibi has seen the destructive effects of life in jail. "We’re punishing people for not respecting the law, but once they’re behind these walls, we don’t respect the law either as far as they’re concerned," she says. "Nothing here encourages responsibility, nor helps them become more mature. Prison is a place where you stop, where you damage yourself."

She recounts the solitude of one young woman whose board for pictures and letters remained empty, week after week. "That," she says, "is when you know you have to come back."

Sometimes, Talibi asks them, “How do you feel on a scale from 1 to 10?” The other day, Maria, 21, replied with "7."

"Praise God, Maria," she told the inmate. "Feeling good isn’t linked to our material possessions, nor to the walls that keep us closed in. It depends on how we view the things we have."

Personal stories

Even though she never asks the women what brought them to jail, she ends up hearing their stories. One inmate named Chams (which means "sun" in Arabic) had been a nurse's aid. One day, she came home and found her five-year-old daughter unconscious. Tests in hospital showed the girl had a brain hemorrhage and had been beaten. The man Chams was living with had hit her, and a few hours later the child died. The mother rushed back home and stabbed the man. "But when she saw the blood she felt remorseful. She called an ambulance and he survived," Talibi recalled. "He was sentenced to 30 years in prison. She got 16. What would we have done in her place?"

Among the men, there’s one young skinhead, his hands covered in scars, who attacked a Muslim man and left him for dead. His victim is in a wheelchair now. "I can’t stop trying to kill myself," he tells the chaplain. "You want to kill yourself because deep down you’re a good person. You want to eliminate the person who did this. But every day, God turns a new blank page for us. Help others to rise!"

Other times though, despair takes over. Talibi remembers one woman who kept a plastic bag over her face until she died of suffocation. It was Mothers’ Day and her family had refused to bring her three-year-old to visit her.

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The True Horrors Behind 7 Haunted Locations Around The World

With Halloween arriving, we have dug up the would-be ghosts of documented evil and bloodshed from the past.

Inside Poveglia Island's abandoned asylum

Laure Gautherin and Carl-Johan Karlsson

When Hallows Eve was first introduced as a Celtic festival some 2,000 years ago, bonfires and costumes were seen as a legitimate way to ward off ghosts and evil spirits. Today of course, with science and logic being real ghostbusters, spine-chilling tales of haunted forests, abandoned asylums and deserted graveyards have rather become a way to add some mystery and suspense to our lives.

And yet there are still spooky places around the world that have something more than legend attached to them. From Spain to Uzbekistan and Australia, these locations prove that haunting lore is sometimes rooted in very real, and often terrible events.

Shahr-e Gholghola, City of Screams - Afghanistan

photo of  ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola,

The ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola, the City of Screams, in Afghanistan

Dai He/Xinhua via ZUMA Wire

According to locals, ghosts from this ancient royal citadel located in the Valley of Bamyan, 150 miles northwest of Kabul, have been screaming for 800 years. You can hear them from miles away, at twilight, when they relive their massacre.

In the spring 1221, the fortress built by Buddhist Ghorids in the 6th century became the theater of the final battle between Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu, last ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire, and the Mongol Horde led by Genghis Khan. It is said that Khan's beloved grandson, Mutakhan, had been killed on his mission to sack Bamyan. To avenge him, the Mongol leader went himself and ordered to kill every living creature in the city, children included.

The ruins today bear the name of Shahr-e Gholghola, meaning City of Screams or City of Sorrows. The archeological site, rich in Afghan history, is open to the public and though its remaining walls stay quiet during the day, locals say that the night brings the echoes of fear and agony. Others claim the place comes back to life eight centuries ago, and one can hear the bustle of the city and people calling each other.

Gettysburg, Civil War battlefield - U.S.

photo of rocks and trees in Gettysburg

View of the battlefields from Little Round Top, Gettysburg, PA, USA


Even ghosts non-believers agree there is something eerie about Gettysbury. The city in the state of Pennsylvania is now one of the most popular destinations in the U.S. for spirits and paranormal activities sight-seeing; and many visitors report they witness exactly what they came for: sounds of drums and gunshots, spooky encounters and camera malfunctions in one specific spot… just to name a few!

The Battle of Gettysburg, for which President Abraham Lincoln wrote his best known public address, is considered a turning point in the Civil War that led to the Union's victory. It lasted three days, from July 1st to July 3rd, 1863, but it accounts for the worst casualties of the entire conflict, with 23,000 on the Union side (3,100 men killed) and 28,000 for the Confederates (including 3,900 deaths). Thousands of soldiers were buried on the battlefield in mass graves - without proper rites, legend says - before being relocated to the National Military Park Cemetery for the Unionists.

Since then, legend has it, their restless souls wander, unaware the war has ended. You can find them everywhere, on the battlefield or in the town's preserved Inns and hotels turned into field hospitals back then.

Belchite, Civil War massacre - Spain

photo of sunset of old Belchite

Old Belchite, Spain

Belchite Town Council

Shy lost souls wandering and briefly appearing in front of visitors, unexplainable forces attracting some to specific places of the town, recorded noises of planes, gunshots and bombs, like forever echoes of a drama which left an open wound in Spanish history…

That wound, still unhealed, is the Spanish Civil War; and at its height in 1937, Belchite village, located in the Zaragoza Province in the northeast of Spain, represented a strategic objective of the Republican forces to take over the nearby capital city of Zaragoza.

Instead of being a simple step in their operation, it became the field of an intense battle opposing the loyalist army and that of General Francisco Franco's. Between August 24 and September 6, more than 5,000 people were killed, including half of Belchite's population. The town was left in rubble. As a way to illustrate the Republicans' violence, Franco decided to leave the old town in ruins and build a new Belchite nearby. All the survivors were relocated there, but they had to wait 15 years for it to be complete.

If nothing particular happens in new Belchite, home to around 1,500 residents, the remains of old Belchite offer their share of chilling ghost stories. Some visitors say they felt a presence, someone watching them, sudden change of temperatures and strange sounds. The ruins of the old village have been used as a film set for Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - with the crew reporting the apparition of two women dressed in period costumes - and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. And in October 1986, members of the television program "Cuarta Dimensión" (the 4th dimension) spent a night in Belchite and came back with some spooky recordings of war sounds.

Gur Emir, a conquerer’s mausoleum - Uzbekistan

photo of Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) i

Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Chris Bradley/Design Pics via ZUMA Wire

The news echoed through the streets and bazaars of Samarkand: "The Russian expedition will open the tomb of Tamerlane the Great. It will be our curse!" It was June 1941, and a small team of Soviet researchers began excavations in the Gur-Emir mausoleum in southeastern Uzbekistan.

The aim was to prove that the remains in the tomb did in fact belong to Tamerlane — the infamous 14th-century conqueror and first ruler of the Timurid dynasty who some historians say massacred 1% of the world's population in 1360.

Still, on June 20, despite protests from local residents and Muslim clergy, Tamerlame's tomb was cracked open — marked with the inscription: "When I Rise From the Dead, The World Shall Tremble."

Only two days later, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, with the people of Samarkand linking it to the disturbing of Tamerlane's peace. Amid local protests, the excavation was immediately wrapped up and the remains of the Turkish/Mongol conqueror were sent to Moscow. The turning point in the war came with the victory in the Battle of Stalingrad — only a month after a superstitious Stalin ordered the return of Tamerlane's remains to Samarkand where the former emperor was re-buried with full honors.

Gamla Stan, a royal massacre - Sweden

a photo of The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden

The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden


After Danish King Kristian II successfully invaded Sweden and was anointed King in November 1520, the new ruler called Swedish leaders to join for festivities at the royal palace in Stockholm. At dusk, after three days of wine, beer and spectacles, Danish soldiers carrying lanterns and torches entered the great hall and imprisoned the gathered nobles who were considered potential opponents of the Danish king. In the days that followed, 92 people were swiftly sentenced to death, and either hanged or beheaded on Stortorget, the main square in Gamla Stan (Old Town).

Until this day, the Stockholm Bloodbath is considered one of the most brutal events in Scandinavian history, and some people have reported visions of blood flowing across the cobblestoned square in early November. A little over a century later, a red house on the square was rebuilt as a monument for the executed — fitted with 92 white stones for each slain man. Legend has it that should one of the stones be removed, the ghost of the represented will rise from the dead and haunt the streets of Stockholm for all eternity.

Port Arthur, gruesome prison - Australia

a photo of ort Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Port Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Flickr/Eli Duke

During its 47-year history as a penal settlement, Port Arthur in southern Tasmania earned a reputation as one of the most notorious prisons in the British Empire. The institution — known for a brutal slavery system and punishment of the most hardened criminals sent from the motherland— claimed the lives of more than 1,000 inmates until its closure in 1877.

Since then, documented stories have spanned the paranormal gamut: poltergeist prisoners terrorizing visitors, weeping children roaming the port and tourists running into a weeping 'lady in blue' (apparently the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth). The museum even has an 'incidence form' ready for anyone wanting to report an otherworldly event.

Poveglia Island, plague victims - Italy

a photo of Poveglia Island, Italy

Poveglia Island, Italy

Mirco Toniolo/ROPI via ZUMA Press

Located off the coast of Venice and Lido, Poveglia sadly reunites all the classical elements of a horror movie: plagues, mass burial ground and mental institute (from the 1920's).

During the bubonic plague and other subsequent pandemics, the island served as a quarantine station for the sick and anyone showing any signs of what could be Black Death contamination. Some 160,000 victims are thought to have died there and the seven acres of land became a mass burial ground so full that it is said that human ash makes up more than 50% of Poveglia's soil.

In 1922 a retirement home for the elderly — used as a clandestine mental institution— opened on the island and with it a fair amount of rumors involving torture of patients. The hospital and consequently the whole island was closed in 1968, leaving all the dead trapped off-land.

Poveglia's terrifying past earned it the nickname of 'Island of Ghosts'. Despite being strictly off-limits to visitors, the site has been attracting paranormal activity hunters looking for the apparition of lost and angry souls. The island would be so evil that some locals say that when an evil person dies, he wakes up in Poveglia, another kind of hell.

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