A 'true life' memoir of an honor killing unravels in Australia

The facts of Norma Khouri's story were supposedly so explosive she had to flee Jordan to write it.

Her bestselling memoir, "Forbidden Love," tells how her lifelong friend, Dalia, is killed for loving the wrong man. In the book, the two 20-something women open a unisex hair salon in Amman, Jordan. Dalia falls for a Christian officer in the Jordanian military. But when her Muslim father discovers the cross-creed relationship, he stabs her 12 times.

Now the "true life" story may be a hoax.

This after Ms. Khouri's writing took readers by storm in Australia, where she made a new home with the help of her publisher, Random House. Her book sold a quarter-million copies in 15 countries - including a US edition from Simon & Schuster - and invigorated campaigns to fight so-called honor killings in Jordan and beyond.

The "Forbidden Love" scandal, though not the first fraud to slip up the publishing world, would be the largest to ever hit Australia, and threatens to undermine efforts to eradicate honor killings. Yet industry insiders are skeptical whether it will provoke substantial changes in an intensely competitive business driven by public hunger for true stories and publishers' bottom lines.

"It's become the publishing world's Jayson Blair scandal," says Shona Martyn, publishing director of HarperCollins Australia, referring to the disgraced New York Times reporter. "It can be classified as our worst nightmare if there is such a misleading book on the market."

So far, though, no heads have rolled at Random House Australia, with the author promising to furnish evidence. But the book has been recalled after the alleged fraud was uncovered 10 days ago.

A Sydney Morning Herald investigation brought to light public records showing that Khouri actually lived in the US from the age of 3, when her parents left Jordan, until she immigrated to Australia with her children about three years ago.

The Herald also uncovered a series of basic problems in her story, like the fact that she gave Jordan a border with Kuwait and named hotels which did not exist. Then there was the question of the unisex hair salon: Jordan does not allow such establishments to exist.

The National Commission for Women in Jordan had independently discovered more than 70 errors in her book and sent this information earlier to Random House and to Simon & Schuster. Random House replied at the time that they stood by their author after being satisfied that she had changed names and places to protect people in Jordan.

Khouri insists her version is true - that she really did grow up in Jordan and ran away to Australia via Greece when she felt her life was threatened for helping her friend. Her lawyer told reporters over the weekend that she was busy compiling information to back up her story and that "she was a few days away from completing her inquiries."

In the meantime, the Herald visited her parents' home in Chicago and was shown photos of her growing up in America.

As the evidence of literary fraud piles up, the publishing industry is doing its own search for answers about how a book like this can slip through the fact-checking process.

"I am surprised it does not happen more often," says Jesse Fink, a former editor with HarperCollins. "In the past there have been cases where there are too many factual errors in a nonfiction book and the publishers, instead of canceling the book, have just responded by telling the editor to work harder to get the book in a publishable state by Mother's Day, Father's Day, or Christmas."

Mr. Fink says there is a headlong rush to sign authors up, to fill gaps in publishing schedules, and to meet budget requirements. It's left to editors to turn around those books sometimes within six weeks, often while juggling three or four nonfiction books at once.

Independent fact-checkers are rare, and instead of requiring peer review for nonfiction manuscripts, as they do in academia, publishers are liable to dole out tens of thousands of dollars on the basis of single-page synopses.

Publishers respond by saying that if there are problems with a manuscript or published book, they have recourse to the contract with the writer.

However, in reality, publishers would prefer to write off a bad investment as a loss, rather than spend time and money in the courts. In this case, bad publicity may have actually generated reader curiosity here, say publishing insiders.

But some others in the industry are less concerned with any bottom line than the damage Khouri may have done to the cause of stopping honor killings, a crime committed against women who are thought to bring shame upon their families through illicit relationships or by being raped. The United Nations says at least 5,000 women worldwide are killed each year as a matter of so-called family honor.

"People who learned about this horror through her book might now feel that they don't want to know any more about it because they know they have been duped," says Rosemary Cameron, the director of the Brisbane Writers Festival.

Ms. Cameron, who has had many dealings with Khouri in Australia, said she never once suspected anything was amiss.

"She was easily accessible, did a whole lot of author events, and was charming, intelligent, and very emotional when she talked about honor killings in Jordan. She always insisted that the money she got for the talks should go to the cause of fighting honor killings."

The Australian Refugee Review Tribunal even used "Forbidden Love" as part of its argument to convince Australian immigration - one of the toughest in the world - to accept some Jordanian women who feared persecution by their families, into the country.

According to independent bookseller David Gaunt of Glebe Books in Sydney, nonfiction books, especially those about the Middle East, have had a solid market ever since Sept. 11, 2001.

"I suspect that this story about a Middle Eastern woman suffering at the hands of Muslim men just fell into the publisher's lap at a perfect time, [overriding] any doubts about the integrity of the book," says Fink.

When choosing an author in a competitive market, says literary agent Rachel Skinner, it all comes down to gut feeling.

"There has to be a basic level of trust with the author you are going to work with although there are always exceptions" says Skinner, of Rick Raftos Management. "After all, it's not good for the relationship if you view them with suspicion from the very start."

Already the dark humor is flying around between literary agents and publishers about doing awkward dances around authors in the future, asking them with raised eyebrow: "Are you sure you are telling me the truth?"

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