The Long, Strange Trip of Norma Khouri by Natalia Antonova
By Editor Posted on Wed Apr 18, 2007 at 02:10:10 PM EST Tags: (all tags)
Guest Post by Natalia Antonova about Norma Khouri's fraudulent memoir about honor killings in Jordan.
The first page of Norma Khouri’s Honor Lost (Australian title: Forbidden Love) descends swiftly into surrealism; “… the Jordan River,” she writes following a mannered description of Jordanians and their bad business suits, “no longer strong enough to flow down to Amman…” When did the Jordan River flow to Amman? Oh, that’s right, never. One is tempted to give Khouri a chance, and reads on bravely. A few lines down, one is greeted with the following statement: “Bordered by Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Kuwait, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan…” Jordan bordered by Kuwait and Lebanon? One punches “map of Middle East” into Google, just to make sure one isn’t crazy. Alas – if Khouri’s publishers were to have done the same!
Published in the same year that the United States invaded Iraq, Norma Khouri’s memoir of a tragic honor killing in Jordan was a success. Khouri claimed to be living in “exile” in Australia, after a Muslim friend of hers was murdered by her own family in Amman for loving a Christian man. The story of Dalia had all the right ingredients: a violently paternalistic society, an idealistic heroine, a verboten desire, and a bloody, horrific climax.
The marketing was flawless. Both the American, Australian, and UK covers of the book featured a veiled woman, a staple of practically every book or story on the Middle East. The American version shows the partial image of a covered head, one dark eye framed with lush eyelashes staring out forlornly. The Australian and UK covers feature a woman in the process of removing a black face-veil (not commonly worn in Jordan, by the way); her kohl-rimmed eyes somber and defiant.
Khouri gave interviews and lectures. Khouri made a lot of money. Khouri worked on a sequel. Yet in 2004, Jordanian activists such as Rana Husseini and the Sydney Morning Herald with Malcolm Knox at the helm exposed Khouri as a fraud. Khouri, whose real name is Norma Bagain, left Jordan as a child. She grew up in the United States. She barely knew Jordan, and the errors in her narrative, of which there are close to a hundred, were a testament to her ignorance. There was obviously a demand for stories exactly like the one Khouri claimed to have been a witness to. One of Khouri’s publishers publicly stated that there had been no fact checking, simply because Khouri was taken at her word. Whether trust or financial matters or both were the issue, the book was yanked off the shelves. Khouri said she could explain herself, but no substantial explanation materialized.
My interest in Khouri was renewed when I discovered that “Forbidden Lie$,” a documentary on Khouri by Australian filmmaker Anna Broinowski, premiered at this year’s Adelaide Film Festival, and would soon be making its way over to the Hot Docs Festival in Toronto. With unnerving persistence, Khouri still claims that her story is true. Sure, she changed details, but she did so to protect herself. Sure, her life in the States has been well documented, but the papers were “planted” to ensure she could get out of Jordan alive (one can picture Kurt Russell starring in “Escape from Jordan,” considering Khouri’s descriptions of the country). She was a victim, slandered by the fickle Western press and scheming, bloodthirsty Jordanians. Right?
Anna Broinowski told me that she was “utterly convinced” that Norma Khouri was telling her the truth back when the two met in 2005. Broinowski describes Khouri as “charming,” a “born improviser and naturally gifted actress.” Broinowski traveled to Jordan with Khouri and a film crew in an attempt to exonerate the writer. Khouri said that Dalia was real no matter what anyone said, and that she had ways to prove it.
Broinowski’s description of what occurred in Jordan has that familiar, fuzzy aura of surrealism: Khouri repeatedly changing the schedule, Khouri dodging questions and debates, Khouri dragging the crew around to questionable locations, Khouri shadowed by a bodyguard, claiming piteously that her life is in danger, and all the while the group spends most of its time “in a van with tinted windows or in hotel rooms hiding from extremists supposedly lurking behind every potted plant.” One has to be familiar with the landscape of Jordan’s capital, Amman – the white stone buildings, the dream-like calls of the muezzin, the bustling restaurants, kids waving from school buses, bored patrolmen, cats leaping out from the garbage bins – to fully grasp the absurdity of the situation.
Broinowski’s status evolved “from convert to con victim.” Far from exonerating Khouri, the film exposes her further. In a classic twist, Khouri has turned the tables on Broinowski, alleging that she could not reveal the real details of Dalia’s life and death because Broinowski herself is not trustworthy enough – hence the farce. The filmmaker took Khouri’s allegations in stride. After all, Broinowski tells me, if you are going to make a movie, you must appreciate the art of successful manipulation.
Broinowski’s film is about spin – spin on the global scale, and spin as perpetuated by Khouri. Some aspects of Khouri’s persona are hilarious and poignant – one can imagine Khouri as a fresh-faced intern for Karl Rove or as an enchanting trickster, a modern Till Eulenspiegel. But the effects of Honor Lost are ugly – ugly for Jordanians, ugly for Muslims, and ugly for the activists in the war against honor-killings. Although she feels that Khouri is “genuinely committed” to stopping honor killing, Anna Broinowski has no doubt that the book backfired against the very people Khouri was, supposedly, trying to help. And journalist and activist Rana Husseini, whom Khouri refused to meet, believes Honor Lost dealt a blow to the cause.
When I spoke to Rana Husseini on the phone, the anger in her voice was palpable. Husseini helped expose Khouri after receiving hundreds of hate mail messages from Khouri’s readers (Khouri had released Husseini’s e-mail address with no permission). Husseini was not surprised when I told her that I read a positive customer review of Honor Lost written as late as 2006; “People want to continue believing her,” she replied wearily. In Jordan, folks are still nervous when it comes to reporting real honor killings, and the credibility of the anti-honor killing movement has come under fire.
Husseini is serious when it comes educating people on the evils of honor killing. She says that she wants people of all backgrounds to speak out against it, in Jordan and elsewhere. Husseini believes that Khouri’s book merely fueled stereotypes and promoted ignorance, as evidenced by the hate mail and the text itself. Although Honor Lost does not have a bibliography – Khouri did cite statistics, claiming that over two thousand honor killings occur in Jordan each year. In 2003, the BBC reported that 12 honor killings occurred in Jordan that year – as a conservative estimate, it still does not come close to the figures Khouri quoted.
Equally insidious are Khouri’s subtler allegations; she wrote, for example, that Muslim families in Jordan do not permit women to eat at the same table as men – and that women consume the men’s leftovers, a custom that reeks of Ancient Greece and does not exist in Jordan by a long-shot. Khouri wrote that a Jordanian Muslim woman cannot leave her home unless accompanied by a man. Khouri wrote that Jordanian Muslim women are chattel. “It’s humiliating,” Husseini told me. “It’s slander. Jordanian women face a lot of challenges, but they have dignity and rights.”
None of the people who sent Husseini hate mail following the book’s publication have written back to apologize. In fact, angry letters referencing Khouri continue coming. Aside from the hate mail, Husseini has also received e-mails from Muslim men living in Australia, some citing incidents of verbal abuse from Khouri’s readers.
Even more peculiar is the potential symbolism of this story in relation to the war in Iraq. Could a story of a Jordanian woman murdered by her conservative Muslim family, murdered, in fact, by a certain strand of regional tradition, shape one’s opinion on another Muslim country if properly channeled and inscribed? Both Rana Husseini and Anna Broinowski agree that yes, Khouri’s book helped galvanize Australian support for the war. I have wavered on this issue – I like to think that not everything revolves around Bush & Co., but one has to wonder nonetheless. Honor Lost certainly demonstrates a cultural trend, seeing as it concerns a fictional place carved out of ideology and politics and opportunism and, most importantly, a real and vivid terror – which makes comparisons to the way in which the Iraq adventure was sold to us almost inescapable.
It seems that just a few years ago, a number of people fervently wanted to believe certain things about the Middle East as a whole. I think we may have been dreaming up our own versions of the Middle East, of Islam, of Arab culture and so on. Sometimes our dreams ran parallel to the realities of the day, but sometimes they also veered off into fantastic territories where humanity was extinguished for the sake of spectacle, and more. Not that we’re keen on admitting such things.
When I think about those dreams, or nightmares, to be precise, I remember the waking world and the real dead that populate it: the women who were murdered in cold blood by those who were supposed to love them. The dead lie silent in their graves as Norma Khouri continues her morbid performance.
“Forbidden Lie$” will have its North American premiere at the Hot Docs Festival in Toronto on April 25.
Rana Husseini’s book, “Murder in the Name of Honour,” is forthcoming.