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.
"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.