Thursday, April 19, 2007

Worse than a Waste of Time

I'm running away for the weekend, but here's a quick, drive-by post:

When James Frey's A Million Little Pieces was revealed to be a work of fiction, rather than the memoir it purported to be, readers respoded with shock and horror. Frey's name was reviled and his publisher, his promoters, Oprah Winfrey, and, well, just about everyone, was called to account for the time and empathy readers felt they had wasted reading his tale of his [protagonist's] heroic battle againt addiction and depression.

When Nouma Khouri's Honor Lost, a memoir of an honour killing in Jordan, was revealed to be wildly inaccurate, (among other things, Khouri writes that the Jordan River once flowed into the Amman, but doesn't any more, and claimed that over 2,000 honour killings take place every year, in Jordan—the BBC reported 12, in 2003) well, I don't recall any cries of outrage. Do you?

Published in the same year that the United States invaded Iraq, Norma Khouri’s memoir of a tragic honor killing in Jordan was a success. Khouri claimed to be living in “exile” in Australia, after a Muslim friend of hers was murdered by her own family in Amman for loving a Christian man. The story of Dalia had all the right ingredients: a violently paternalistic society, an idealistic heroine, a verboten desire, and a bloody, horrific climax.

The marketing was flawless. Both the American, Australian, and UK covers of the book featured a veiled woman, a staple of practically every book or story on the Middle East. The American version shows the partial image of a covered head, one dark eye framed with lush eyelashes staring out forlornly. The Australian and UK covers feature a woman in the process of removing a black face-veil (not commonly worn in Jordan, by the way); her kohl-rimmed eyes somber and defiant.

Khouri gave interviews and lectures. Khouri made a lot of money. Khouri worked on a sequel. Yet in 2004, Jordanian activists such as Rana Husseini and the Sydney Morning Herald with Malcolm Knox at the helm exposed Khouri as a fraud. Khouri, whose real name is Norma Bagain, left Jordan as a child. She grew up in the United States. She barely knew Jordan, and the errors in her narrative, of which there are close to a hundred, were a testament to her ignorance.

Her ignorance and deceit fed into readers' prejudices and politics, and painted a picture of a Muslim country that allows Western readers to feel comfortable and justified in their outrage and horror of Muslim customs—after all, the author herself is a Muslim woman, so her voice must be authentic, right? If we're reacting with shock and horror over what a realy, love Muslim woman is telling us, we're not projecting our own prejudices onto the book, or looking for expiation for guilt over a war in another Muslim country, right?

So where's the outrage over this fraud?

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