LiteratEye #25: A Case of Catch Me If You Can

Filed under: Literary Hoaxes

Here’s the twenty fifth installment of LiteratEye, a series found only on The Art of the Prank Blog, by W.J. Elvin III, editor and publisher of FIONA: Mysteries & Curiosities of Literary Fraud & Folly and the LitFraud blog.

LiteratEye #25: A Case of Catch Me If You Can
By W.J. Elvin III
August 7, 2009

“All Arab men are taught that it is their responsibility to discipline the women in their lives, and that the best way to do so is corporal punishment.”

51636G4GY0L._SS500_200That’s not a true or false question, at least it didn’t start out that way. It’s a pivotal “fact” in Norma Khouri’s formerly best-selling Honor Lost: Love and Death in Modern Jordan. Internationally, with the title changed to Forbidden Love, the book was published in at least 15 countries.

Khouri presented herself as an oppressed young Jordanian woman fleeing the wrath of religion-maddened murderers. Her persecutors were ticked off because of Khouri’s part in her best friend’s very tame love affair, hardly more than a flirtation.

Under Islamic tradition and law, Khouri told readers, such carrying-on warranted killing.

A few years back, Australian journalist Malcolm Knox exposed the book as mostly imagined.

It was revealed that Khouri actually grew up in Chicago as Norma Bagain and later as Mrs. John Touliopoulos. She relocated to Australia, somewhat hurriedly due to the FBI’s desire to question her about a real estate scam.

Khouri admits to fabricating minor details and says she did so in order to protect herself and others.

Reporters and other commentators say she also made up major details.

But Khouri hasn’t dodged questions, exactly. She seems always to have answers, though today’s may be different from yesterday’s, and tomorrow’s are anyone’s guess.

The author sprang back into the public eye recently via the documentary, Forbidden Lie$, an Australian production written and directed by Anna Broinowski. The film has been making the rounds of smaller U.S. theaters. (There’s a great interview with Broinowski posted on Spout blog).

Khouri participated whole-heartedly and enigmatically in the documentary.

Now, as you may have noticed, the film has made it to Showtime where it airs over the next few days. It is also available on demand through Sept. 3.

Having scanned the reviews, I thought I’d pass along a few gleanings:

  • Rotten Tomatoes sums it up this way: “Weaving murder, deceit, greed, the East/West clash and an international literary scandal into a web that entangles us all, Norma Khouri’s real-life drama is even stranger than her fiction.”
  • Variety, the entertainment industry magazine, praises the film but advises, “prospects would be enhanced by trimming 20 minutes from the repetitive back end.”
  • The PopMatters movie review site calls it “complicated, fascinating, troubling.” Among highlights, the reviewer suggests, is the stabbing scene, replayed with a different ending “with the actress and her attackers laughing as she climbs up from her bed covered in blood-red liquid yuck.”
  • The New York Times describes the film as “a literary whydunit” and celebrates “Ms. Khouri’s devastating charisma and resilient intellect.”
  • And the winner is:

  • Vanity Fair, the once marvelous magazine now reduced to “Half-Naked Celebrities on the Beach” fluff. But there are saving graces, as in Frank DiGiacomo’s take on Forbidden Lie$. He says it’s “like one of those National Geographic nature films in which some exotic creature is captured on film for the first time. But instead of, say, a giant squid, Broinowski gives us Khouri, a human chameleon with preternatural powers of persuasion and an ability to talk her way out of the tightest of spots.”
  • And then there’s the good old New York Post offering a generally favorable review with a few caveats, such as the likelihood that kids will be bored.

    I went back and had a look at the book to refresh my memory. It reads like a mediocre soap opera script framed by a few gee-whiz facts, if they are facts, regarding honor killing.

    The story is about the clandestine meetings of would-be lovers Michael and Dalia, resulting in Dalia’s death and threats to Khouri’s life.

    Under harsh Islamic law, according to Khouri, husbands, fathers, brothers and sons may take part in violent punishment of women for incidental infractions of the ancient honor code. What is considered an infraction? Well, “wrong” food served at a meal or dawdling over laundry. These are things that can disgrace a family.

    And under that code, death is the punishment for any close contact with a non-relative male, or even suspicion or rumor of such activity. Honor killing, according to Khouri, is legal murder, which, if noted at all by authorities, is likely to be classified as accidental death or suicide.

    The murder of the man involved may result in misdemeanor charges, with perpetrators facing probation or a fine, according to the author.

    The Jordanian National Commission for Women presented U.S. publisher Random House with a list of 73 serious errors in the text of Khouri’s book, such as misrepresenting the legal code and enormously inflating crime stats. The Commission is a government-supported agency devoted to promoting the rights and status of women in Jordan.

    Well, there probably aren’t many of us here in the U.S. who would take a report by a government commission as gospel, and it seems reasonable to have doubts about one coming from a monarchy where law and religion are one. But in this case other independent investigators have made the same charges, among others.

    The film leaves it to the viewer to judge Khouri. But the director, Broinowski, definitely formed a strong opinion in the course of the project.

    She put it this way to Australia’s Herald Sun newspaper: “(Khouri’s) a real-life femme fatale, the bastard child of Goebbels or Rumsfeld or Hitler with a bit of Paris Hilton thrown in.”


    (Copyright 2009 WJE, exclusive to The Art of the Prank, for reprint rights contact

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