Fabricated: A Tale of Two Memoirs

By Therese Taylor

Forbidden Love and Burned Alive are both best-selling memoirs about honour killing in the Arab world.

Published in 2003, they attracted rave reviews from major journals, and also the enthusiastic recommendations of many readers. However, since then, the British edition of Forbidden Love was withdrawn from sale after it was proven that the author, Norma Khouri, was in fact an American of Jordanian descent, and did not grow up in Amman as she claimed.  Burned Alive came under critique when I published an article in The Diplomat, an Australian magazine, which showed that the entire story was filled errors of fact, and that Souad’s central claim to have survived for six weeks without any medical care, despite having petrol burns to most of her body, was physically impossible.

There is a striking similarity between these two memoirs.

Both are based on a story about a Christian/Muslim friendship – in each memoir a Muslim girl is threatened with death, and a Christian friend tries to save her.   

Both Burned Alive and Forbidden Love, although marketed as genuine memoirs, were based in locations which were evidently fictional. Norma Khouri claimed that she and her friend Dalia operated a unisex hair salon in Amman in the 1990s. There are no such salons in Amman, and Jordanian men attend male-only barber shops.  Souad claims to have lived in a remote West Bank village in the 1970s, which was reached by a rough track rather than a sealed road.  She commented that everyone in the village was illiterate, there was no schooling for girls, and that her family wore no shoes, even when attending a wedding. In another part of the text, she says that her family had running water, a hot water system, a car of their own, and a telephone. In fact, there is no isolated hamlet on the West Bank which had telephone lines in private houses as early as 1976. To this day, houses with telephones are found only in major towns reached by main roads. Indeed, the establishment of unauthorised telephone lines in private houses, and the opening of unisex salons, were both illegal under the respective Israeli laws pertaining to the West Bank of the 1970s, and Jordanian law in the 1990s.

Burned Alive remains in print, has received awards, and is highly esteemed by many readers. Forbidden Love has been reissued under different titles, and the author, Norma Khouri, continues to claim that her memoir was based on fact. The shifting testimonies of Norma Khouri have recently been the subject of a fascinating documentary film, Forbidden Lie$, by Anna Broinowski.

The real story of Burned Alive would also make an excellent documentary. The author has remained anonymous – lest the wicked Arabs rise up and kill her – and testifies behind a mask. She claims to have been born on the West Bank, and lived there until the age of seventeen, however no interviews are permitted to anyone of Arab ethnicity, and Souad cannot speak Arabic, because, as she airily says, she has ‘forgotten’ the language. 

This single fact is enough make anyone suspicious.

‘My Arabic sucks,’ says Norma Khouri, when interviewed in Forbidden Lie$. The film shows her struggling to write down an address in Arabic. Norma’s poor grasp of Arabic was one of the early signs, even before she was exposed as a fake, that she was not a lifelong resident of Amman.

Souad shows a consistent ignorance of life on the West Bank, as well as a habit of lying and exaggerating. For example, in Burned Alive, she stated that unmarried women in her village were of such low status that they were publicly insulted when they walked in the street. To anyone familiar with West Bank life, this seems unlikely.  It does not get anymore likely when Souad ‘improved’ her testimony and told La Vanguardia newspaper, on 29 November 2003, that in her village there were no unmarried women, because, ‘unmarried daughters are either driven out by their families, or killed.’ She has forgotten, of course, that in her book she states that: ‘The only person outside the family whom I saw sometimes was a neighbour, Enam … she had never been married.’ 

All of Souad’s testimonies are riddled with contradictions of this type. Some of the more striking and amusing errors are set out in my article ‘Burning Questions’, available on Al Jadid.com.

Norma Khouri and Souad present a very similar view of Arab society. Souad says: ‘For me love was a mystery.’ In Arab culture they speak, ‘not of love. Of obedience and total submission not of a loving relationship of a man and a woman. … love didn’t exist at all in our culture.’  Norma Khouri explains that ‘in the Arabic culture love is not associated with anything beautiful; it is a means of control.’

Comparisons

To read these memoirs is to realise how difficult it is to translate oneself into a different culture. Eager to show the degraded position of the Arab woman, Souad told a Spanish interviewer that in her country a woman is: ‘Less than the dogs, because if they are sick they are taken to the veterinarian … A woman is nothing.’ Norma Khouri explained that in contemporary Jordan ‘someone charged with neglecting to wear a seat belt while driving faces stiffer penalties than the perpetrator of an honour killing.’

The problem with this, is that in Jordan seat belts are not worn – many vehicles, even taxis, do not have them. There are few laws about road safety, and they are not much observed, as drivers know there are no penalties. 

Norma Khouri never knew the real Jordan, and had taken up residence in Australia – a heavy-handed state which relentlessly persecutes any driver without a seat belt, and even any passenger in the car. 

The only thing more odd than a Jordanian fined for not wearing his safety belt, would be a Palestinian peasant taking his pet dog to the vet. Although maintained for their work in the outdoors, dogs are regarded as impure, and are never inside the village houses. Souad claims that the dogs, unlike the women, are ‘free to go in or out’ as they please. 

Veterinarian services have become available on the West Bank since the 1990s, but remain very scarce, and are a resource for the educated, English speaking upper-classes who have pets. 

Souad’s memoir was originally written in the French language, and she is described as a resident of Switzerland. The high status of dogs in French culture is remarkable.   French people take their dogs even into restaurants and churches, and veterinarians are greatly respected. Souad probably cannot imagine people not behaving like this.  References to French culture are scattered throughout Burned Alive, for instance, the only Arab dish described at West Bank wedding feast is cous-cous. This is an Algerian dish, unknown to the Palestinians, but celebrated in France as the most typical Arab cuisine.

Elaborations

Consistency of testimony is another important way for the veracity of a testimony to be assessed. 

Norma Khoui began by presenting the story of Dalia, her best friend from the earliest days of childhood.  The Muslim virgin, Dalia, is condemned to death by her father for the ‘crime’ of falling in love with a Christian man.

When that story fell apart, Norma was soon ready with a different version of events.  In the documentary film, Forbidden Lie$, she states that the real model for Dalia was a Jordanian woman who was shot dead for being pregnant and suspected of illict relations. Later still, Norma claimed that the model for Dalia was a cousin from her own family. ‘The same thing happened to her, as happened to me’, Norma states.  This was an apparent reference to Norma’s claim (which does appear to have some basis in fact) that she was sexually abused by her father from an early age.

Dalia was all of these women, and none of these women. All of them are chimeras of Norma’s imagination. A commentator in Women’s Weekly magazine, who interviewed Norma, commented insightfully that Dalia’s reality is that she is a part of Norma herself – the abused and neglected young girl who could never find a voice.

Souad’s story shows exactly the same pattern of elaboration.

Like Dalia, Souad began as an innocent virgin victim of an honour killing, then morphed into a tragic unnmarried mother. Where do these imaginary pregnancies keep coming from?

In early interviews, before she was the author of a book, Souad used to claim that she had been attacked by her family without any cause. Some one in the village made up a rumour against her, saying that she had been seen speaking to a man. By the time that Burned Alive had been published, she was a seduced girl who was heavily pregnant. 

While one can fault Souad for inconsistency, one cannot complain about her style.  Each tale is told with verve. As she related to Elle magazine in December 2001, she is haunted every day by the question of who spread a false rumour about her: ‘“If, at least I had been in love with someone!” She exclaimed. “But there was nothing. I wore the veil, I followed perfectly the traditions. Who said that about me?”’

In Burned Alive, she is equally heartfelt in constantly asking herself, every day, how her lover could have abandoned and betrayed her: ‘I loved that man and hoped for so much from him.’

Although Souad dropped the claim to have been a virgin honour killing victim, she did not let the story go to waste. Later on she recalled, quite providentially, that she had a younger sister, an innocent young girl, who was murdered before her eyes. 

Like Norma Khouri, Souad is recreating her own identity through fictional other selves. The story of her sister ‘Hanan’, is exactly similar to the story she once told about herself.  Hanan was ‘seen speaking to a man … denounced by a neighbor’. It is also worth noting that, before the publication of this book, the same person who calls herself Souad used to give yet more various testimonies under the name of ‘Enam’ – a word which is very similar, in French pronunciation, to Hanan.

The chimmerical figures of Hanan and Dalia are without any documentation. Norma Khouri claimed that: ‘After twenty-two years of friendship, I was left with a few photographs (taken secretly since Islam does not allow women to have their pictures taken), and an endless film of memories.’

Souad states in Burned Alive that: ‘The first part of my life is made up of images that are … like scenes in a film’. She says that she has difficulty in assembling her memories: ‘my life then had none of the personal landmarks that people in Europe have. No birthday, no photographs; it’s more like the life of a small animal …’

Souad claims in the book that for years she had repressed memories of Hanan’s murder, but ‘someone, in a gathering of women, showed me a photo of a dead girl lying on the ground who had been strangled … I had the feeling of having already seen something similar.  … The next day my memory returned with a start.’ 

The story of an adult woman who views an image, and then is suddenly prompted to recall that she saw a woman strangled in the past, is not only found in Burned Alive.  It is also part of the plot of an Agatha Christie novel, Sleeping Murder. I find these anecdotes very similar, except that Christie’s novel is more credible. One is not obliged to believe the improbable story of the photograph of the murdered girl, as Souad herself soon discards it in favor of a better version, in which she claims to have found, by accident, a photograph of her own sister’s murder. In an interview with Dimanche, published on 30 March 2003, Souad explains that she ‘was present at another murder, so horrible that she had buried it in her memory and without that photograph, showing her sister strangled with the black cord of the telephone, she would not even be certain not to have invented it.’

This sister, Hanan, is linked to Souad by a series of strange coincidences. For instance, on the day Souad is burned to death, her brother’s wife gives birth to a child. On the day Hanan is killed, her brother’s wife has a miscarriage. The incomplete pregnancies and incomplete murders mirror each other.

However, there are major problems with the chronology. At least Norma Khouri knew how old Dalia was, and how long she was supposed to have known her. Souad, in various interviews and the memoir, shifts Hanan’s age around, and claims that  murder took place ‘several years before’ the attempt on her own life – or several weeks before, if one follows the story of the miscarriage, given in Burned Alive.
 
Both Norma Khouri and Souad make up stories, and their confabulations are remarkably similar. However, of the two, Norma is by far more realistic. There is a hallucinatory quality to many of Souad’s descriptions which is truly disturbing. It is amazing that none of the European journalists who interviewed her had any qualms at all. The British Telegraph pointed out that Souad shows that the people of the West Bank are ‘real animals’, and the need to believe this must be one reason why her stories need no supporting evidence.

The former Spanish Minister for Social Security, Cristina Alberdi, gave a speech about Souad’s book on International Women’s Day. ‘This work moves our consciences. It is a most valuable testimony.’ She said that reading Souad’s memoir made her ‘thank God for not having been born in a country whose laws protect the crimes of honour.’ This Spanish parliamentarian is probably unaware that, to outsiders, Hispanic culture is regarded as notoriously lenient towards such crimes.  However, as Cristina Alberdi also noted, one of the most striking features of the book is that the problem goes beyond male violence. Souad reveals that the average Palestinian woman kills her children, and she ‘affirms that, if she had remained in her country, she would inevitably have done the same.’ 

And how can one doubt Souad’s stories?  After all, she is an eyewitness, and the number of murders she has seen is ever increasing.

The stories about infanticides began in the 2001 Elle interview, where Souad claimed that she had seen her mother give birth to a baby girl and smother it. In a 2003 interview, a journalist from ANSA noted that: ‘Souad … remembers very well how her mother had strangled two newborn babies because they were girls.’ In Burned Alive Souad says that three babies were killed: ‘I’m not sure I was present for the third one, but I knew about it.’ After the publication of the book, the German TV station zdf, published an interview which admired Souad’s stoic manner: ‘Laconically, she tells how she saw her mother kill four or five of their sisters, immediately after the birth.’  That was in January 2004. By April of the same year, Souad was claiming in De Groene Amsterdammer that: ‘I have seen my mother suffocate seven of my little sisters. Seven!’ 

It just keeps getting better each time.

By contrast, Norma Khouri gives a more distant view of the infanticide issue. She says that female infanticide is ‘extremely rare among Jordan’s urban citizens, it is not unheard of among the desert dwellers. It is a way of life so important to, and so idealised by, Arab men that they will not hesitate to sacrifice women in an attempt to preserve it.’  This is not really accurate, but is more difficult to discredit than Souad’s wild statements.

Conclusions

The publishers of Burned Alive are offended that I would compare this ‘true story’ to that of the discredited Forbidden Love. They claim that Souad’s story is quite true, despite my critique, just as they initially claimed that Forbidden Love was quite true, after protests from Jordanian feminists who forwarded them a list of hundreds of major and minor errors in the text.

Having looked carefully at both memoirs, I would say that both are completely false, but of the two, Norma Khouri’s story was always more credible. It is she who is entitled to be offended to be compared to Souad, and not vice versa. At least Norma Khouri was capable of telling one story for a considerable period of time. Souad makes it up as she goes along, and can barely get through a single interview without contradicting herself.

– Therese Taylor teaches history at Charles Sturt University, Australia. She is the author of Bernadette of Lourdes, Her Life, Visions and Death, (London 2003). Contact her:  ttaylor@csu.edu.au. She contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com

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