Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 29, 2009

Forbidden Lie$

Filed under: Film,middle east — louisproyect @ 7:03 pm

In 2003, just before the invasion of Iraq, Simon and Shuster published a book titled “Forbidden Love: a harrowing true story of love and revenge in Jordan” by Norma Khouri that told the story of an “honor killing”. Norma, a Christian, had a friend named Dalia who was Muslim. Together they opened a unisex hair salon where Dalia met a Muslim soldier who she fell in love with. Like Romeo and Juliet, they met surreptitiously until Dalia’s brother found out and reported it to their father, who plunged a knife into her heart in order to preserve the honor of Islam. In a period in which Islam was routinely being portrayed as inimical to the interests of women, “Forbidden Love” would be interpreted by most readers that George W. Bush’s crusade was justified.

There was only one problem. The book was a hoax. Dalia did not exist and the author was a career criminal who was wanted by the FBI for defrauding an old woman with Alzheimer’s out of her life savings and other scams. As was the case with other hoaxes, such as Clifford Irving’s book on Howard Hughes, the publishers failed to do their due diligence. In 2003, there was a hot market for Islamophobic books and Khouri’s fit the bill, even if it was false.

Arriving at theaters this month, “Forbidden Lie$” tells the story of Norma Khouri’s hoax with the kind of complexity found in novels. As the main character in this powerful documentary, Khouri differentiates herself from other con artists like Clifford Irving by refusing to admit that her story was a lie. As the film strips one layer after another from her not so carefully constructed edifice, she refuses until the bitter end to own up to her falsehoods. It eventually becomes obvious that unlike a prankster such as Clifford Irving, Norma Khouri was psychologically driven to lie and cheat.

The documentary is constructed as a kind of point-counterpoint between Khouri and her investigators, particularly Malcolm Knox the Australian journalist who broke the story about the hoax. Khouri had claimed political asylum in Australia and had become one of the country’s best known celebrities. In an article titled “The Lies Stripped Bare” that appeared in the July 24, 2004 Sydney Morning Herald, Knox wrote:

Some of Forbidden Love’s detailing of Amman is fanciful and some of it plainly wrong, with suburbs in the wrong place, nonexistent hotels and confused geography (on page 2, Jordan is erroneously described as “bordered by” Kuwait).

These mistakes are understandable given that Khouri has never lived in Jordan since she was a young child and had, in fact, led a comparatively normal life as a married mother of two in those south Chicago suburbs before moving to Australia.

The unravelling of Khouri’s story began in Jordan, where the peak lobby group for women’s rights received an anonymous email from her three years ago. Addressed to the Jordanian National Commission for Women, Khouri’s email asked for a bank account into which she could deposit money that might arise from her coming book.

At this point Khouri knew she might have a goldmine on her hands. She had sent her manuscript to a New York agent, Christy Fletcher, who placed it with 16 publishers around the world. The book, about the murder of Khouri’s childhood friend Dalia, was going to draw global attention to the barbarity of honour killing. It was also going to put considerable wealth at Khouri’s disposal.

The director of the women’s commission in Amman, Amal al-Sabbagh, ignored the request: “I don’t respond to anonymous emails and I didn’t know anything about this book, so how could I give it our endorsement?”

After the book’s massively successful publication – it has sold an estimated 250,000 copies around the world – Khouri continued to seek cover by soliciting donations for the commission, which remained unconvinced.

“When I got the book I thought she doesn’t know anything about Jordan,” says al-Sabbagh. “It sounded fake. If this killing had really happened, we would know about it. Jordan is a small place and this is our job – people eventually hear about these things. And we knew nothing about this.”

Other matters in the book aroused al-Sabbagh’s suspicion. Khouri’s descriptions of Jordanian law were exaggerated and often incorrect. Opinions and myths were presented as factual statements.

“I began to think that this wasn’t a Jordanian,” al-Sabbagh says.

Touring the world publicising her book, Khouri was also raising eyebrows with her perfect, American-accented English after she had presented herself, in her book, as a feisty but oppressed ingenue. She said she had been sent to an American school in Jordan where she learnt English. No records of such attendance have been found.

In the summer of last year al-Sabbagh and a colleague, Rana Husseini, set to work researching Khouri’s claims. They found 73 errors and exaggerations in the book. Most damning, the unisex salon, which forms the focus for the book’s action, set in the early and mid-1990s, could not exist by law and was not remembered by any Amman hairdressers or their union.

While watching this movie, one cannot help but think of Bernard Madoff who pulled off a hoax even more elaborate than Norma Khouri’s. It inevitably makes one wonder what there is about capitalist society that leads so many people to become con artists. Like Madoff, Khouri calculated that there was money to be made from telling people what they wanted to hear. In his case, a yearly return of 10 percent was guaranteed. In her case, the anxious middle-class Westerner was reassured that the loss of life and treasure was worth it when it came to liberating oppressed women.

In August 10 2004, Ali Abunimah summed up the lessons of the Norma Khouri affair in the Lebanese Daily Star:

In the post-Sept. 11 era, Khouri’s book met a certain demand in the US and other Western societies, where the shortcomings and “backwardness” of Arab and Muslim societies have become a focus of intense interest to which precious little genuine expertise is brought to bear. Indeed the desire to “rescue” Muslim women has become a prominent theme in liberal justifications for US intervention in the region. This was most common at the beginning of the Afghanistan war.

There is also a Western tendency to assume that violence is a pathology when it occurs among Arabs and Muslims, and to apply spurious religious or cultural explanations to explain it. Murder rates in general, and specifically for the murder of women by male family members and intimates, are far higher in the United States than in Jordan, though few analyses attribute this to American culture generally, or to Americans’ devout Christianity.

Husseini points to the well-worn stereotypes that infect Western media discourse about the issues to which she has devoted her career. She notes the exotic artwork on the cover of Khouri’s book, which shows a women clad in black head-covering with only her long-lashed eyes peering out – dress that certainly exists, but is not typical in Jordan, where women outnumber and outperform men in secondary and higher education, and are increasingly present in all sectors of the economy.

“Forbidden Lies” opens at New York’s Cinema Village starting April 3, the Sunset Laemmle in Los Angeles on April 10, and at Chicago’s Gene Siskel Film Center beginning April 24. Highly recommended.

15 Comments »

  1. Lou, why was she wanted?

    Comment by mperelman — March 29, 2009 @ 8:13 pm

  2. For defrauding an old woman with Alzheimer’s out of her life savings.

    Comment by louisproyect — March 29, 2009 @ 8:20 pm

  3. Fascinating, and thanks for the Ali Abunimah link. This sort of Islamophobic will-to-believe finds a strange corollary in the silence around the honor killing of Du’a Khalil Aswad in Iraq, horribly filmed on their cellphone cameras by the male relatives and neighbors killing her.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Du%E2%80%99a_Khalil_Aswad.

    The reason this case is so little known is that Du’a was neither an Arab nor a Muslim, but a Kurdish Yezidi, killed by her relatives for converting to Islam and planning to marry a Muslim. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a reference to her on the usual hate sites (FrontPage Magazine, etc.), because frankly, who the fuck cares about Kurdish Yezidi violence? Unless it works inside the government- and culturally-approved hate campaigns, and feeds into PR for the next Predator drone attack on Gaza or Pakistan or Sudan, it simply doesn’t register.

    Comment by JimHolstun — March 29, 2009 @ 11:49 pm

  4. JimHolstun is right to point out that Washington’s solicitude for Muslim women is one of its covers for meddling in Muslim countries. D.C. think-tankers also spend sleepless nights feeling for African women who undergo circumcision. Why don’t these armed-do-gooders shed their crocodile tears over the hardships of Ultra-Orthodox Jewish women or over the victims of so-called “honor crimes” in the NATO Mediterranean countries? It’s hard to believe that the public is really so stupid to think that an American invasion and take over of a country will be a good thing for its women. When progress comes it’s from inside a society and without help of the U.S. Marines. Turkey is a good example. The facts are scary. Between 2000 and 2005, 1,806 women died in “honor killings”, and 5,375 committed suicide under family pressure. The present government has brought in legislation to increase the penalties for these crimes, but there’s no short-cut for changing age-old customs. It’s Turkish women who have aired the problem and are doing something about it. See Ayse Onal’s 2008 book, “Honour Killing, Stories of Men Who Killed.”

    Comment by Peter Byrne — March 30, 2009 @ 10:52 am

  5. Norma Khouri isn’t the only “cultural entrepreneur” able to spin ‘a story in which the villains and the victim are known—to borrow a phrase from Gabriel Garcia Marquez, a “tale foretold”‘. Following is an excerpt from an article on a Muslim writer:

    “No matter how much a Muslim woman may want to tell a more nuanced story, by the time it goes through the ‘machine’ of the publishing industry, it is likely to come out the other end packaged as either ‘Victim Story’ or ‘Escapee Story.’…In an essay on victim and escapee stereotypes, Kahf articulates a discomfort that had remained ineffable for Western Muslims, built up from years of reading such stories and feeling that something was amiss. Here are just a few of the guidelines she offers for creating palatable female “Muslim victim” heroines: “Portray her as powerless to speak, but for the Westerner speaking on her behalf. Eliminate the subculture of women from the picture, all her empowering relationships with sisters, grandmothers friends. Ignore homegrown non-Western feminisms. Include no kindly brothers or uncles and no Muslim men who champion women’s rights. Make sure there are no nice imams around. Make the mosque a nasty-smelling place. Have the adhan [the call to prayer] called while she is beaten by her husband, like in the movie Not Without My Daughter.” And the most necessary feature of all, the element that no work authored by a Muslim woman is complete without: “Jacket the book with a picture of an inscrutable niqabi [a woman wearing the full veil covering the face], or an army of identically hijabed Muslim women looking sullen. Or how about a Muslim woman staring from behind a barred window? Now that’s original.

    There’s a long history of lurid “atrocitarian” narratives—with their attendant rescue tropes—that lend themselves nicely to stoke smug group narcissism. As Mahmood Mamdani wrote not long ago:

    …every major intervention has been justified as humanitarian, a ‘civilising mission’. Nor was it mere idiosyncrasy that inspired the devotion with which many colonial officers and archivists recorded the details of barbarity among the colonised—sati, the ban on widow marriage or the practice of child marriage in India, or slavery and female genital mutilation in Africa. I am not suggesting that this was all invention. I mean only to point out that the chronicling of atrocities had a practical purpose: it provided the moral pretext for intervention. Now, as then, imperial interventions claim to have a dual purpose: on the one hand, to rescue minority victims of ongoing barbarities and, on the other, to quarantine majority perpetrators with the stated aim of civilising them. Iraq should act as a warning on this score.

    Comment by sk — March 31, 2009 @ 6:05 am

  6. While watching this movie, one cannot help but think of Bernard Madoff who pulled off a hoax even more elaborate than Norma Khouri’s. It inevitably makes one wonder what there is about capitalist society that leads so many people to become con artists.

    “One cannot help” and “inevitably,” perhaps in Lou Proyect’s world.

    It’s a fascinating story, and I concur that the fraud appeals to those steeped in Zionism and anxious to promote intervention in the Middle East, both very bad ideas. Attributing fraud and elaborate lies especially to capitalism implies a rosier picture of other types of society (early empires, feudalism, whatever you want to call the Soviet Bloc) than is warranted. There were plenty of mountebanks, false heirs to thrones, purveyors of phony relics, etc. before capitalism, and the achievements of “the Stalin school of falsification” need no elaboration from me here.

    When I read this story (thank you for telling it), I think of Dostoevsky and the imagination of man being evil from its birth. You play your glass bead game, I play mine.

    Comment by Grumpy Old Man — April 1, 2009 @ 12:19 am

  7. To Grumpy, and anybody else interested in great literature, I think there is even something better than Dostoevsky–namely Melville’s “The Confidence-Man”, which is online at http://xroads.virginia.edu/~MA96/atkins/cmmain.html. I imagine that Thomas Mann’s “Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man: The Early Years” is also relevant but I have not read it.

    Comment by louisproyect — April 1, 2009 @ 12:25 am

  8. It’s interesting to see Grumpy and Louis, with opposing world views, both warming to Dostoyevsky. It makes you wonder how great authors can be applied to every-day thinking. A philosopher, supporter of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, first put “The Devils” (aka “The Possessed”) into my hands. It was his bible of anti-Communism. I’ve just read Nelson Algren (whose centenary comes up this week) on Dostoyevsky. Algren uses him to support his 1950s, ex-CP member’s, vaguely leftish thinking.

    Comment by Peter Byrne — April 1, 2009 @ 10:06 am

  9. This doco is good at shattering that bitches lies, she made a lot of money of people under fasle potenses. grrrrr

    Comment by Craig Stephens — April 8, 2009 @ 4:27 am

  10. There have been many Marxists who were con artists. Did you forget about Helphand and how he duped Gorky of his royalty rights? And don’t get me started on the black markets run by the “Marxists” throughout their brief tenures as rulers.

    Comment by Glock — April 9, 2009 @ 1:56 pm

  11. Maybe Norma Khouri did lie and fabricate this particular story about honour killings – but that does not mean that they dont happen. I should know because I live in Jordan and I read about it in the Jordan Times often enough.

    Just last week there was an article about a teenage girl who was beaten to death by her father and two brothers with a garden hose!! A hose!! Her body was bruised and battered and she died from a brain hemorrhage. Why? Because she wore make-up and was sitting on the sidewalk (near her house in broad day light). Upon forensic testing, the coroner confirmed that she was still a virgin. Clearly does not matter. This week I read another story about a young man who turned himself in after shooting his sister.

    According to the jordan times, we have approx. 20 honour killings a year in Jordan. There have been 9 so far.

    So yes maybe Mrs. Khouri fabricated this story – but thats not to say it doesnt happen.

    Instead of criticizing western media for anti-arab propaganda, we should acknowledge our problems and fix them first.

    Comment by J — April 9, 2009 @ 4:06 pm

  12. The movie actually interviews the leading anti-honor killing activist in the country who was angry about Khouri’s lies, especially the one about her donating money to the group that the activist led. Your numbers are correct. There are about 20 honor killings in Jordan each year. Turkey, my wife’s country, has many more. This is a serious problem that has to be resolved by activists in the affected countries, not by imperialist invasion.

    Comment by louisproyect — April 9, 2009 @ 4:19 pm

  13. Hi Louis,
    My name is Catherine and I am writing on behalf of the Levantine Cultural Center in Los Angeles. We are a nonprofit organization showcasing the arts and cultures of the Middle East. We would like to run your article on our website (especially since this film is opening in Los Angeles tomorrow). May we have your permission? Please email me back if you can.
    Most sincerely,
    Catherine

    Comment by Catherine — April 9, 2009 @ 5:11 pm

  14. Hi Louis – thanks for the insights and for opening the film up to a fascinating and much needed debate. I hope everyone above goes to see the film! I also hope it gives pause to those in America who continue to push for an interventionist approach to Middle Eastern affairs. We have our own crimes of passion to worry about. The stinking hypocrisy of the West is one of the reasons I made the film.
    anna

    Comment by anna — April 12, 2009 @ 10:49 am

  15. There was a similar case in Sweden over Liza Marklund’s “documentary novels” about a Swedish woman terrorized by her former boyfriend, a Lebanese immigrant. While the incident wasn’t completely fabricated as with Khouri, it appears the novels were heavily ’embellished’ and left out details like the woman’s new boyfriend trying to kill ther ex. The books were a huge hit all over Scandinavia and eagerly embraced by islamophobes, so it’s nice to see the truth come out.
    Here’s some links if someone’s interested further:
    http://www.stockholmnews.com/more.aspx?NID=2360
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liza_Marklund#The_Maria_Eriksson_series

    Comment by Vil — May 4, 2009 @ 6:07 pm


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