Revealing a lie of forbidden love

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

KATY CLARK: I'm Katy Clark, and this is The World. Norma Khouri's book ?Forbidden Love? was an international sensation in 2003. It told the story of Khouri's best friend in Jordan, a Muslim woman named Dalia. Khouri wrote that Dalia was murdered in 1996 by her father and brothers ? the victim of a so-called ?honor killing.? After the book's release, Khouri told audiences her own life was at risk because she'd written about what happened to Dalia.

NORMA KHOURI: I wrote it to try and put pressure on the Jordanian government to abolish the existing laws that allow for this to continue.

INTERVIEWER: Tell us more about your friend. Why did her brother murder her?

KHOURI: She was in love with someone that she could not be with. She was Muslim and he was Christian. So she was in love with someone that she could not be with, and she was killed for that.

CLARK: Audiences ate it up. More than 500,000 copies of ?Forbidden Love? sold worldwide. Problem is, it turns out Khouri made up the story. The author wasn't actually a Jordanian virgin with a Fatwa on her head -- as she claimed. She was an American from Chicago who was wanted by the FBI for fraud. Australian filmmaker Anna Broinowski attempts to get to the bottom of this literary hoax. She's made a documentary called ?Forbidden Lie$?. The film centers on Norma Khouri herself. She actively cooperated with the filmmaker. But Broinowski says on a broader level, the documentary is about what we choose to believe and why.

ANNA BROINOWSKI: I did give myself from the very outset a 50 percent chance that Norma would con me too, simply because I'd already interviewed the Chicago police who told me that she was, in their opinion, one of the best con artists operating today. So I knew that she would probably lie to me as well. But the other 50 percent of me had grown to like Norma. I mean, she's a very charming person. I was swept into her orbit, and I really wanted her to prove for my camera that Dalia did exist, and that in fact the book wasn't a lie ? because then I could have made a film that was very personal and about honor killings. But of course halfway through the movie, when we're in Jordan, the whole itinerary falls apart and I realized, ?Okay. She's going to con me, too.? And that's when personally I was annoyed, but professionally I was very happy, because there's -- one of the most engaging things of all is someone lying directly to the camera.

CLARK: One of the people you interview is a female journalist named Rana Husseini. Husseini works for The Jordan Times, and she flat out calls Khouri's book ?an insult to every Arab Muslim woman.? We're going to play another clip from the film in which Husseini fact checks many of the statements Khouri makes in her book.

HUSSEINI: This is one of my favorites: ?Life in Dalia's home was basically like life in all Muslim homes. A man must authorize everything in her life, from the person she marries to her wardrobe.? Did your family intervene in what you were supposed to study? Did they force you to study something?


HUSSEINI: So when you move around, does your brother escort you anywhere?

WOMAN: No. I go shopping alone.

HUSSEINI: There are many women who travel alone to other Arab countries to study. We don't have any male escorts with us. There's more than 24 percent of women in the labor force ? this is the official numbers. Do all these women go with men? See, they're walking close to man without male escorts. Where's her male escort? We should ask her.

BROINOWSKI: Rana's like the Jordanian Michael Moore. All I had to do was point my camera at her and she'd do the rest. You know, she'd fox pot pass us by and stop and grab people. She took took me to the morgue and the investigators and the police. Jordan is an interesting place in the movie and one that I was happily able to dedicate 12 minutes to, because I believe there's two Middle East's right now. There's Middle East Inc, which is sold to us by the big publishing houses and the media, and then the real Middle East. Now, the real Middle East has people of all types of beliefs, as Rana points out ? and I was quite amazed. You know, I turned up in Jordan in fear of my life wearing long baggy clothes ?cause Norma Khouri had told me that if I had short skirts, they'd spit on me in the street. And of course it wasn't like that at all ? it was like walking down the main coffee shop street in my own town, in Sydney. And Norma was just laughing at me because that was another con. She had conned me into believing the Middle East Inc. version of the Middle East.

CLARK: So when it comes to fact checking, it doesn't seem as if many people at all bothered to look at this and question it. I mean, the publishers didn't. It wasn't until some investigative journalists there in your native Australia decided to say, ?Hmm. Just doesn't sound right. She has a distinctly American accent,? and started checking up on things and found out that the book wasn't all it was reported to be here.

BROINOWSKI: Yeah. I mean, there's two reasons for that. One is that Norma herself is incredibly persuasive. I mean, I have to say I've filmed many actors in my time. Norma is hands-down one of the best actors I've ever met. Another reason that Norma's con really succeeded in Australia and indeed the Western World is because it came out just before the Iraq War, when Western readers were hungry. They had an appetite to know about the Middle East. And the line that was being peddled to us by the people who wanted to invade Iraq was partly ?We're going to go in there and free these women from those barbarian men.? It was a dominant cliche that ?Forbidden Love? played right into.

CLARK: Tell us who Norma really was or what you found out about her?

BROINOWSKI: Norma in fact was born in Jordan, as she claimed in her book, but as far as we can work out from all the documents and speaking to authorities everywhere in the world, she moved to Chicago when she was 3 and was in fact raised there, which is what makes her con of the world so audacious. I mean, here is a women bred on the south side of Chicago who is walking around literary festivals around the world with her best-selling memoir ?Forbidden Love?, and claiming to publishers, publicists, whoever meets her, ?Oh, my God. I've never seen the West before. Oh, is that a skyscraper? Besides, I'm a virgin and I'm 35.? Now, of course she had two kids.

CLARK: A husband and two kids.

BROINOWSKI: And was married.

CLARK: Yeah. Well, is there anything about this story that you think is true?

BROINOWSKI: Look, I do think that Dalia exists. I think that Dalia exists in the form of many women who are unjustly and wrongly and cruelly killed in honor crimes around the world. So yes, Dalia exists. Dalia is a symbol for those women, and I think Dalia was never so real as she was when she was inside Norma's head. I think Norma herself suffered abuse, and the book was written as a kind of exorcism of Norma's own demons. The sad thing for Norma is that she chose to tell the world that it was factual and correct ? and it wasn't.

CLARK: What is Norma Khouri doing now? Where is she?

BROINOWSKI: Norma is living with a ferret, a three-legged dog called Stinky and her two teenage kids in Chicago, and when I last saw her which was under a year ago ? we've remained friends, by the way ? she was selling car insurance by day and studying to be a human rights lawyer at night, and doing very well at both.

CLARK: Anna Broinowski's documentary ?Forbidden Lie$? makes its US debut today in New York City. To see a clip from the film, go to our website, Anna Broinowski, nice to speak with you.

BROINOWSKI: Thanks, Katy.