Documentary Forbidden Lie$ is based on the story of bestselling book Forbidden Love. Forbidden Love (published in the United States as Honor Lost) is the autobiography of Norma Khouri, a Jordanian woman who started a unisex hair salon with her best friend, Dalia. Dalia fell in love with a Christian customer, and Khouri helped her arrange clandestine meeting. When Dalia’s family discovered that she had a boyfriend, they killed Dalia, and Khouri fled Jordan in fear for her life, eventually ending up in Australia and writing her memoir.
Or so the story went until a 2004 article in the Sydney Morning Herald revealed that Khouri had never lived in Jordan in her adult life, having immigrated to the United States when she was only three years old. Furthermore, Khouri hadn’t fled to Australia to escape her vengeful family—instead, she had run away from Chicago, where the police were after Khouri for swindling a sick old lady out of her house and savings bonds. The supposedly single Khouri also had a husband and two kids in tow (she claimed that the husband was her American rescuer and that their children together were strictly his).
The heart of Forbidden Lie$ is filmmaker Anna Broinowski’s journey to Jordan with Khouri to find the truth behind Khouri’s story. Broinowski begins with the assumption that “Dalia” was real in some form, even if the exact details didn’t hold up. Was “Dalia” really Khouri’s cousin? Was “Dalia” a pseudonym for honor killing victim Ghada Abed? Is Dalia a representation of Khouri herself? Khouri was involved in a child abuse case during her teens, alleging that her father sexually abused her. Khouri’s father pled guilty, although he now says that he did so only to keep the family from further scandal. Was Khouri retelling her own story of abuse in a more dramatic, money-making form?
We never quite find out. However, the “truth” is less interesting that the sheer volume of the lies. Khouri is a wonderful personality to watch from the safety of the couch–I got the feeling that she’s completely convinced that whatever she does is right, and that anyone who dares question her motives isn’t just morally deficient, they’re deluded about the actual evidence. Of course, Broinowski catches her out multiple times, and each time Khouri has another excuse or another detail to reveal. She’s charming, but she’s dangerous to deal with–especially if you let her get near your money!
This raises the question–why would anybody would want to attempt to vindicate Khouri in the first place? I can understand why someone who was directly swindled by Khouri would want to believe in Khouri’s inherent goodness, if only to save face, but why would anyone get involved secondhand?
The attitude seems to be that, even if Khouri is lying, she’s lying for a good cause–even the journalist who originally exposed Khouri, Malcolm Knox, says that “her heart was in the right place.” The reader who picks up Forbidden Love/Honor Lost probably sympathizes with Khouri when she says that
politicians [lie] all the time and the Jordanian government has been doing it for 200 years […] I lied for a reason. It wasn’t fame and fortune I was after, not at all. It was about the issue. And I apologise to you for lying. I justified it in my head as the ends justifying the means. I hated lying to anyone about anything.
Well, Khouri did get a hefty advance and a lot of interviews, but really, who is the Western reader going to side with, Khouri or some nasty, woman-killing Sheik of Araby, who is presumably twirling his mustache as we speak? (The women and men who work against honor crimes in their own countries never come into it, of course.)
There’s a whole genre of these books about abused Muslim women, many of which have been debunked. But even though the details are incorrect, sometimes flagrantly so (Khouri stated that the Jordan River ran through Amman; in another “memoir,” Burned Alive, victim “Souad” manages to survive horrific burns while starving in a filthy Palestinian hospital), readers are sure that something in the books is true. I suppose that these books create a sort of false dichotomy–by reading them, you show solidarity, and by doubting them, you further oppress these poor women!