Shortly after Norma Khouri’s book, Forbidden Love, about the “honour killing” of the Jordanian childhood friend she called Dalia, had come out, Khouri told an interviewer: “The most challenging thing was reliving all of the events, especially the days of her murder. I would become very emotional and upset, and would have to walk away from it for hours at a time to be able to cope with all of the emotions I was feeling.”
Forbidden Love, also sold under the title Honour Lost, shifted over 250,000 copies worldwide. Khouri became a poster child for women’s rights and her book was cited as one of the most moving authentic accounts of “honour killings”, the terrible practice of murdering women who are deemed to have transgressed antediluvian codes of honour, usually by falling in love with someone outside caste, clan or community.
As Khouri’s star rose higher, a few people began to ask questions. One of them was Amal al-Sabbagh, director of the woman’s commission in Amman, who became suspicious when she couldn’t find evidence of “Dalia’s murder”.
In an interview with The Sydney Morning Herald, al-Sabbagh said that she discovered errors that made her think Khouri wasn’t a Jordanian after all.
She wrote to Khouri’s publishers and received an angry, emotional response from the author: “Is it not enough that her father received nothing more than a slap on the wrist for [Dalia’s] murder … now you wish me to say that she never existed in the first place … and for what … the ‘image of Jordan’.”
The main thrust of Khouri’s response was simple: she was there. She saw what happened. She may have changed Dalia’s name and other identifying details, but she was speaking the truth.
The Herald launched its own investigation, with astonishing results. Khouri had been born in Jordan, spent the first three years of her life there and had visited the country since—but she seems to have been in America during the years she claims to have spent growing up with Dalia in Jordan.
She makes errors about the Jordanian legal system; the school in Amman where Khouri says she picked up her American accent has no record of her. She has said she’s single, but it seems she has a husband and children who haven’t heard from her in years.
Women’s rights organisations have records of most honour killings in Jordan, but there appears to be no trace of Dalia, of her romance with a Christian army officer, or of the killing itself.
The scene where Khouri confronts Dalia’s father may never have happened: “Dalia never shamed you, you shamed yourself. You’ve turned your home into a house of murder. The spilling of her innocent blood has stained your name, your hands and your soul forever.”
First, Khouri suggested that The Herald had got her confused with a half-sister whose name was also Norma; then she said she was composing a reply that would answer everything. There’s been nothing further from Khouri; her publishers pulled the plug on the book this Monday.
The evidence suggests strongly that she made it all up: the childhood in Jordan, the close friendship with Dalia, the clandestine romance, the killing, her flight from Jordan for fear she would be the next target. Even it is all true, Khouri has to explain the huge discrepancies in her story.
The Khouri affair raises two questions, the first easier to answer than the second. If this was indeed fiction from start to finish, why didn’t Norma just say so? Perhaps because a novel about honour killings is harder to place than a memoir.
The concern for women’s rights may be the same in both cases, but someone who has actually witnessed an honour killing has far more audience appeal than someone who’s just fictionalised the headlines.
Khouri probably didn’t think about the levels of rage and betrayal her actions might evoke in people who had suffered a genuine loss. If you’re amoral enough to think that passing fiction off as a true memoir is okay, you’re not going to think hard about levels of responsibility.
If you read her interviews, though, it seems that Khouri went far beyond just making things up. “I want the world to know Dalia the way I knew her,” she said in one interview.
In others, she speaks of her sense of rage and loss; even in her letters to al-Sabbagh and The Herald, what comes through is indignation rather than bluster.
She reminds me of Binyamin Wilkormiski. In 1995, Wilkormiski published Fragments, a memoir of growing up in a Nazi concentration camp. His Holocaust memories were resonant with terror: he remembered being hidden in the laundry room, he remembered the crematorium ash settling over him like dust, he remembered his father being crushed against the wall by a military vehicle and his mother dying in the camps.
Three years later, he was exposed: Wilkormiski wasn’t Jewish at all, but a Swiss man called Bruno Grosjean, who had grown up in an orphanage, not a concentration camp.
The funny thing about Wilkormiski is that he wasn’t lying, if you understand a lie as a deliberate attempt to falsify the truth. He genuinely seemed to believe that his stories were true.
Even when contradictions were pointed out to him, even when he was confronted by people who had believed in him, Wilkormiski displayed a vehement need to believe his own story.
Some years back, there was a huge controversy over “recovered memories”—suppressed memories, usually of childhood violence or sexual abuse. There are some cases of genuine recovered memory, when something too painful to admit returns to your mind; but in many cases, the memories that had been “lost” had actually never existed in the first place.
A recent experiment demonstrates that it’s perilously easy to “create” genuine memories of events that had never occurred. With enough suggestion and preparation, many people were prepared to accept even something that had never happened as part of their cache of “true” memories.
Perhaps that’s what happens in the case of writers like Wilkormiski or, to a lesser degree, Khouri. What begins as an outright, barefaced lie requires corroborative detail; the fiction in their heads begins to assert its claim to be seen as fact; and sooner or later, they walk over the edge of the precipice that stands between what is true and what is not. Once they’re over the drop, perhaps even they don’t know what is true any more.