Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Irony unites Khouri and McAuley

Australian kayaker Andrew McAuley must qualify for a Darwin Award.
The adventurer died recently on while trying to become the first person to paddle alone across the Tasman Sea from Australia to New Zealand.
Shortly before his death he had said that, although he didn't think adventure was worth dying for, nonetheless, some people needed to put their lives at risk to appreciate how precious life is.
And his death proved what, exactly?

Meanwhile, Norma Khouri did not turn up for the world premiere of Forbidden Lies, the film in which she stars. Instead, she has been sending out letters of protest saying that the film is all lies.
I'm starting to get the giggles.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Norma Khouri unravelled

Norma Khouri took us all in, hook, line and sinker. But what reason did we have to suspect that she was not telling the truth when she emerged as the author of Forbidden Love, (Honor Lost in the US), the emotional expose of honour killings in Jordan?

We brought her to our city as our guest to celebrate her courage in writing the book, promoting it as a Big Book Club selection, providing discount coupons to make it easier for our readers to afford. We invited the city to meet her - and they came in numbers so large that we had to open the huge Hilton Hotel ballroom to its maximum size and still had people standing.

I introduced her to that sea of people in a paeon of praise - as a woman fearlessly championing a cause.
On meeting Norma, I had been entirely charmed. She was modest, amusing, self-deprecatory and, above all, passionate about her cause. I will admit, however, that I had earlier found it necessary to quiz her in a way that I would not usually do in the course of an author interview. I had found some strange discrepancies in her book and wanted to clear them up. I could not, for example, understand the why and how of her move to Greece. When I asked about this she answered at some length with such fluency and ease that it was not until I went back over my notes that I realised that there had been no actual answer in her words. I had thought I heard an answer, but it was a charming zig-zag. There was no "there" there. I was more annoyed with myself than with her. How come I still had no answer to such a simple question? Now I would have to write around it - "when in doubt, leave it out". But that was not the only puzzle. On first speaking to her, I exclaimed at her American accent. I'd never met a Jordanian with such a strong American accent. "How much time had she spent in the US?", I asked. She gave a long response in which she attributed her accent to the American School in Amman, a diet of American movies and television and a passion for emulation. I could only comment at how well she had mastered the accent - for, I had no reason to suspect that she was not on the level. None of us did.

I suppose the thing that convinced me about Norma Khouri's authenticity in writing Forbidden Love was how bad she is as a writer. The book's text is simplistic in style, clearly put together by someone who is trying to tell a story but who has absolutely no talent as a writer.
And, of course, the book's cover brandished the promise that it was, indeed, a "true story". One tends to trust the Random House label. No, we had no cause for suspicion.

It was Sydney journalist Malcolm Knox who smelled the proverbial rat, and we all went into shock. His revelations reverberated around Australia, where Khouri had been living in high secrecy - to protect her from jihad, or so she told me when first I reached her on a super secret phone number.

Malcolm Knox, in a fine piece of investigative journalism, discovered that she is not only Chicago-raised but also allegedly wanted by the FBI for swindling an elderly woman in Chicago. She turns out to be married with two children.

Wrote Knox:
"Khouri's hoax will take its place in a long Australian tradition of literary fraud, from Ern Malley to Helen Darville-Demidenko. But no other fraudulent book has had such wide sales or impact..."

Many pennies dropped about Khouri's inconsistencies when I read this, but I still wondered. It all seemed so odd to fake with altruistic intent. After all, her mission was to shame the tradition of Islamic honour-killings - to save young women from death at the hand of their families. And, frankly, I could not dislike Khouri.

Now at the Adelaide Film Festival a documentary on Khouri and her story as a fake has its world premiere. Forbidden Lies allows Khouri to tell her own story to camera and then accompanies her to Jordan where she promises to prove that her friend Dalia was a real person who was genuinely killed by her brother because of her association with a young Christian man. But, come Jordan, Khouri is suddenly backpedalling and fudging. She cannot find those promised locations and there is no record of the victim ever ending up in any morgue or cemetery. Under the cool gaze of the camera, we watch Khouri unravelling, coming up with sequential excuses and layers of desperately transparent lies. Oddly, it is really sad. But she has chutzpah. Denying the swindling allegations, she creates a whole new story in which she casts herself as the victim - and we discover a new book is on the way, an autobiography of an abused child whose only way of coping with life is by inventing it...
What a pity we don't believe her.
But somewhere, somehow, we still like her.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

The state of the states

Unlike America, Australia has always been in some denial about the differences in character and attitude between the states. While America is proud of the contrast between, say, New York and California or Georgia and Vermont, we have been a bit secretive about state contrasts - seeing it as some sort of dirty family business. The feelings between Australian states have not been exactly affectionate.

Hence, the immense schadenfreude we now feel at the Sydney Morning Herald's report of English psychologist and author Oliver James's analysis of the Australian states. He has said the things that we mutter to each other but dare not declaim. He has said that Sydney is the most vacuous city of superficial people obsessed with real estate, personal prestige and appearance.
The "Dolly Parton" of Australian cities!

He has hit the nail on the head. He has not mentioned, because he may not have known, that Sydney also produces the most astonishingly arrogant attitude towards the rest of Australia - a sense of absolute superiority. It would eliminate the other states completely, if it could. If it cannot ignore them, it will demean them. It is all-wonderful, all-powerful, it is simply all.
We call it "Sydneycentricity" here in the south.

Sydney has created its own image of the other capital cities - none of them friendly. We, the arts capital, are always dubbed "the city of churches" and accused of a conservatism which does not apply. We are also dubbed a "poofter" city because of our emphasis on the arts.

Melbourne is the upstart, greedy city, in the Sydney view. If Sydney disdains Adelaide, it loathes Melbourne - a feeling that is reciprocated by Melbournians. Hobart and Perth? Well, they are not worthy of Sydney interest at all. They are so remote, they are country towns in the big city view of the country.
Now, of course, Sydneysiders are in a lather of indignation. They have been internationally exposed as the vain and vapid, materialistic drears that they are. All they have is more. More people and more money, more traffic and more tourist.
I've always described Sydney as a "blousey" city - like an overblown rose. It is showy, gorgeous and big.
Adelaide is the pink bud rose - delicate, pretty and rich with promise. If one was to continue the rose metaphor, Melbourne would be the yellow climber, Hobart the wild bramble and Perth the standard rose, staked tall and isolated, but lovely.

Sydney has dominated the country like a schoolyard bully (yes, changing metaphors) - and we have all cowered in our geographic corners, quietly seething resentment but not nationally disloyal enough to repay the rudeness. Certainly in Adelaide we have always known that we are the creative crucible of the country. We export brains and talent to the rest of the country - and the world. The more we lose, the more we make. Perth may have had the first art festival, but we are the Festival city - simply because, like Edinburgh, we were made for festivals. We have the cultured population and the physical dimensions to make arts festivals into all-embracing happenings. Our festivals are not just a program of events scattered around a vast area, as is the case with Sydney. They are a city coloured in the arts.

Melbourne, our nearest capital neighbour, is jealous and predatory - thieving what it can from Adelaide's events. I quite like Melbourne, but I find its inability to come up with its own ideas a bit tiresome. I find Melbourne's pathological loathing of Sydney most amusing, however. Melbourne wants to be what other cities are. It lies and contorts history, it steals and generally behaves rather badly.

Adelaide? Well, at a million people it is just the right size. It is small enough to have a sense of community but large enough to have a thriving metropolis. It has a vast stretch of superb beaches and lush, agriculturally productive hills - along with fertile wine and dairy valleys. We eat extremely well - living an enviable quality of life which is untrammelled by congestion. We are what they call "a lifestyle city". A gentle decadence prevails. We neither need nor want what Sydney has. Particularly its attitude.

So why haven't we blown the whistle on the ugliness of Australia's most beautiful city?
Perhaps it is because we have a population of only 21million versus the USA's 310 million that we have kept a loose sense of nationalism rather than state identification, allowing the most populous city to stake its claim as gateway to the country. Perhaps we simply don't want to wash our dirty linen in public.

It took a foreigner.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Oh, Molly.

The geographical distance could not be greater but nor could the spiritual proximity.
Molly Ivins was one of my own kind - one of the very best. She may have been writing in Texas, but we were reading her in South Australia. Avidly. With absolute joy that she was allowed to have a voice in the American media landscape. The balanced voice, the funny one - satirist and wise woman. She wielded wit and irony as weapons of mass communication.
That breast cancer has taken her is an outrage and an injustice.