Truth, History, and Honor Killing

In recent years, two best-selling titles have appeared on the subject of honor killing in the Arab world. Norma Khouri’s Forbidden Love (also published under the title Honor Lost) and “Souad’s” Burned Alive were both published in 2003. In that fateful year, while the international media raced us toward the invasion of Iraq, these books evidently met a public appetite for information about the Middle East.

Both are entirely undocumented memoirs, which ask the reader to take the story on trust. In the case of Forbidden Love, this trust was misplaced. The book was set in Jordan, and an investigation by Jordanian women’s rights activists showed that the author was a complete fake, having lived in America all her life and invented the story. Burned Alive, by contrast, has not been subject to public scrutiny. It is, however, a controversial text.

The Book

Burned Alive, published pseudonymously under the name Souad, tells the story of a Palestinian girl who survived an attempted honor killing, fled her homeland in 1979, and now lives under a false name in Europe.

Like Norma Khouri’s Forbidden Love, Burned Alive has been very favorably reviewed, without any criticism at all. Extracts have been printed in the leading conservative London newspaper the Telegraph. It has been praised not only as a memoir, but as a document that gives an insight to the entire Israel/Palestine conflict. The Washington Post Book World declared that “this is not a literary effort so much as it is a rare artifact whose mere existence should be regarded as nothing less than a miracle.”

The British edition of Burned Alive identifies Souad as the author and copyright holder. However, the text has contributions from others and is partly narrated by “Jacqueline,” a European aid worker. This co-author has been interviewed in the French media and is Jacqueline Thibault. Burned Alive appeared first in French, under the title Brûlée Vive. Both the French and the English texts have been consulted in this study. The English translation is generally accurate, but some parts of the text have been subject to editing. (Except where otherwise noted, all quotations are taken from the U.S. hardcover edition.)

An important point to note is that Burned Alive is a work of “recovered memory.” None of the reviewers who praised this book found it worthwhile to mention, but it is a very pertinent detail. Souad did not always know of the events she recounts. In the past, she used to tell people that her burns were the result of an accident. This misunderstanding was widespread – for some reason, the medical staff who treated her at Lausanne hospital were not informed that the burns were the result of an assault. She writes, “The people around me in this hospital did not know my story.” Only recently, after years of mental health problems, has she remembered, and to remember torments her: “I would like to forget all these horrible things completely, and for more than 20 years I unconsciously succeeded in doing just that.”

According to interviews given when Burned Alive was published, Souad even forgot how to speak Arabic. She is said to have altered her appearance through plastic surgery.

Some psychologists and scholars regard all works of recovered memory as fictional. Even those who are willing to regard them as valid stress that they are assessed differently from ordinary accounts, and need to be confirmed by the use of other sources. This has been shown by the case of Binjamin Wilkomirski’s 1995 memoir, Fragments, the story of a child survivor of the Holocaust. Like Burned Alive, this book came from Switzerland and was a work of recovered memory. It was praised by historians and received many prizes, and the author was personally recognized by another “child survivor” of the death camps. However, a lengthy investigation by one skeptical writer uncovered that Binjamin Wilkomirski was a Swiss citizen who had never been near any Nazi death camp. Apparently, the whole story was a product of false memory syndrome.

There are similarities in most works of recovered memory and unreliable memoirs. The authors’ stories are extreme, they are the victims of every conceivable circumstance, and everyone they meet tends to be a sadist. Their survival is always a miracle.

The Victim

Our society is strongly marked by the culture of victimhood. As Andrew Ross acutely observed in Bookforum, much literary and artistic criticism is conditioned by a notion promoted by the Maoists of China’s Cultural Revolution – that only victims speak the truth. This longing for victim voices causes sensationalist accounts to be favored, and the more delicate testimonies of real people are drowned out in an irrational clamor.

Engagingly, the writers of recovered memories usually state that they are wrestling with a past too difficult for rational thought. Binjamin Wilkomirski wrote, “My earliest memories are a rubble field of isolated images and events. Shards of memory with hard knife-sharp edges, and events, which still cut flesh if touched today. Mostly a chaotic jumble, with very little chronological fit.” Souad wrote, “I remember very little of my earliest childhood, and my memory is still full of gaps. The first part of my life is made up of images that are strange and violent, like scenes in a film for television. I have so much difficulty putting these images back in order that it sometimes doesn’t seem real.”

The story of Souad’s childhood is one of persecution. She was illiterate and extremely poor, and she was beaten daily by her parents. The entire community was filled with hatred, and women were worthless. Families that practiced infanticide were socially honored, and Souad suggests that the dead bodies of murdered children may have been fed to dogs.

Souad’s story quickly escalates into a drama of endless death. Burned Alive describes how she witnessed murder after murder. She saw babies smothered and her sister strangled; a companion on a bus trip is murdered by the driver. At the village shop, one of the customers is decapitated and her head is paraded around the village. Souad was also subject to many attempts on her life. Each of her parents tried to kill her, on separate occasions, but they failed. This is surprising, as they seem to have killed off as many as eight of their other children.

When Souad was around 20 years old, she fell pregnant out of wedlock, having been seduced by a young man who lived in the house next door. She claims that she did not know his father’s name, an unusual situation in the close society of a Palestinian village. When she was six months pregnant, she was attacked by her brother-in-law, who poured petrol over her and set her on fire. She managed to escape and was then relocated to a hospital on the West Bank, where the staff tried to kill her by withholding care. Her baby was born severely premature, and he too was menaced by people who wanted him dead.

Finally, Souad was rescued by a European aid worker, identified in the text only as Jacqueline. Jacqueline states that she was employed by the European aid agency Terre des Hommes and worked with disadvantaged children. Souad, the baby, and Jacqueline took a flight to Europe, where a new life beckoned.

This is a remarkable story. The book makes many grave allegations, yet produces no evidence at all. Rana Husseini’s reaction to Forbidden Love – she was “astonished that Khouri’s book contained not a single reference for any of the thousands of ‘facts’ it reported” – could be applied with even more effect to Burned Alive.

The Village

Souad’s village is described as an isolated hamlet, so remote that you will not find it on any map. It could only be reached by an unpaved road that was almost impassable. Her family was deprived to such an extent that they had no shoes to wear even when attending a wedding. However, elsewhere in the text, Souad says that her sister was murdered in the family home by being strangled with a telephone cord.

This is a serious error. None of the villages of the West Bank, which have the features she describes, were connected to the telephone line as early as 1977. In fact, the vast majority of smaller communes still have no phone lines. If Souad’s village had a telephone line, by definition it would be on the map and would also have had a paved road and a school.

Almost casually, Souad states that she and her relatives had telephones, and also that the house had running water plus a hot water service. Some of the statements about these amenities in the house have been revised out of English-language editions. Probably, this is because Souad also claims that she had to do the laundry outside, drawing water by hand from a well and heating it with a wood fire.

Souad shows no understanding of the layout of the West Bank, and she claims that one of her childhood memories was “working near Tel Aviv with my father when I was still small, maybe about 10 years old. We had been taken there to pick cauliflowers for a neighbor who had helped us harvest our wheat. There was a fence that protected us from the Jews because we were practically on their land.” Souad comments that this visited showed “the Jewish people never did me any harm.”

Why is Souad’s neighbor on a field near Tel Aviv, if she lives in a village 40km (25 mi.) deep into the West Bank? No Arabs from the West Bank are allowed to own or lease fields in Israel, and only adults are allowed to visit Israel for employment. Even during the 1970s, access was severely restricted and the border closely policed. Elsewhere in Burned Alive, it is noted that at the age of 17 Souad had no identity papers.

The story of the carefree visit to Tel Aviv, by a young girl from the West Bank, to “pick cauliflowers for a neighbor” sounds inaccurate. Another one of the journeys in Burned Alive also indicates that the authors are not very good with maps.

Jacqueline claims to have rescued Souad by taking her to Switzerland on a commercial flight out of Israel. It was, she crisply states in the French edition, “Direct flight to Lausanne.” In the U.S. edition, Vol direct pour Lausanne is translated as “We are on a direct flight to Lausanne.” There are no direct flights from Tel Aviv to Lausanne, there never were, and the airport at Lausanne has a short runway that cannot take the large jets used for international flights. From any departure in Israel, one can only fly in to Geneva. When confronted with questions about this, the publishers claimed that this “was deliberately stated in the book in order to make it impossible to trace the location of Souad’s new home in Europe.”

I am not sure how pretending that one flew direct to Lausanne in 1979 will really help conceal one’s location a quarter-century later. It seems more likely to be an error, similar to the geographic mistakes in Forbidden Love. The description of the flight to Lausanne is very detailed and dramatic, showing the quiet heroism of Jacqueline and the abject plight of Souad. The scene, Jacqueline solemnly informs us, was “surrealistic.”

The Allegations

Critics have not noticed the contradictions in this text. Booklist magazine has even praised this as a “narrative that drives home the statistics.” Actually, the stories told fly in the face of statistics. Although individual lives do not necessarily reflect social norms, in Burned Alive, the departures are excessive and constant. Souad’s allegations that women are kept illiterate, and that girl babies are routinely killed, are not reflected by profiles of the population as a whole.

Souad suggests that, “If I had lived there, I would have become ‘normal’ like my mother, who suffocated her own children. Maybe I would have killed my daughter. … Now I think that is monstrous! But if I had stayed there, I would have done the same!” If this behavior really was “normal,” it would be documented. Societies that practice the infanticide of females cannot hide the fact – it soon declares itself in their population statistics. The West Bank population shows no imbalance of males over females – their ratio is the same as that found in Spain, France, and Australia. On the West Bank, as in most other parts of the world, slightly more boys than girls are born, but more boys than girls die in infancy and early childhood. Indeed, the population statistics on the West Bank show that it is the Palestinian male, rather than the Palestinian female, who is more likely to die before the age of 20.

The text actually suggests that the people of the West Bank have control of their own legal system. “The land there is beautiful, but the men are bad. In the West Bank, there are women who fight for legal protection. But it is the men who vote the laws [Des hommes qui votent les lois].” This is a preposterous statement. How can anyone describe the West Bank in these terms? The Palestinians of the West Bank have no functioning legislature. They are subject to laws made in Israel and Jordan. They have no state.

Burned Alive is also inaccurate on the details of private life. Souad’s only description of the domestic customs of Palestinian women is that of pubic-hair removal. It is obviously an important topic to her, as she mentions it on five separate occasions. Yet she reports this practice inaccurately, “Hair on certain parts of women’s bodies is thought of as dirty and I can’t stop thinking about this. We don’t remove hair from our legs or our underarms, only from the vulva.” She also claims that the pubic patch is removed for the first time as a ritual before the wedding.

Arab women practice hair removal – but it includes the legs, underarms, pubic area, and stomach. The idea of removing only the pubic hair strikes Arab women commentators as bizarre. A complete depilation is customary before the wedding, but it is not the first experience – body hair is removed from the time of puberty. Every Arab woman knows this. Souad’s ignorance is astonishing.

The most sensational allegation in Burned Alive is that the medical staff on the West Bank maintain a custom of withholding care from victims of honor crimes in order to ensure their death. Further, it also claims that illegitimate babies are at risk of being murdered when placed in Palestinian orphanages.

It is claimed that Souad gave birth prematurely, entirely unassisted, under “nightmarish conditions.” He was placed in an institution where some such “children die without any explanation.” “[M]ore a rathole than an orphanage,” writes Jacqueline, who describes how she found and rescued the baby. He had been in the custody of ruthless people, some of whom were “in favor of the child being submitted to the same fate as his mother. There are those who favor getting rid of a problem and a mouth to feed….”

It is incredible that so grave an allegation can be made without offering any evidence.

The official press release for Burned Alive in the United States actually stated that Souad had burns to 90 percent of her body, and the British translation stated that her son was born three months premature. This is now being scaled down, after I sent queries reproaching the publishers for such impossible claims. The London publishers have since explained that these points had been made in error.

The official story now is that Souad had burns to 60 percent of her body – the U.S. publishers have been told to amend their statement, but most recently, they claim that she had petrol burns to 70 percent of her body. Souad’s baby was born at seven, rather than six, months, as stated in the earlier French version. The mention of six months will be corrected in a later edition.

A textual error is not blameworthy, and is quite a common event in publishing, but the strange thing about this slip in the translation is that it happens consistently in different parts of the book. Even in the last chapter of the book, the question “C’est vrai que tu as accouché à sept mois?” – “Is it true you gave birth at seven months?” – is rendered in the British edition as “Is it true that you gave birth at six months?” The French text claims that the baby “had known neither an incubator, nor any care,” and the U.S. hardcover edition reads, “He was never cared for in an incubator, even though he was born prematurely.” It would be too ridiculous to say this of an infant born at six months, but it is hardly less absurd even when the date is changed to seven months. Premature babies do not look after themselves.

Possibly the reason for this oscillation in the dates is the time and season given for the birth. The chronology of events in Burned Alive works better if one changes the time of the birth from seven months to six. The child is supposed to have been born at the very beginning of October, but the text also states that the baby was conceived in spring, amid descriptions of lush greenery, a field of wheat, and bees feeding on wildflowers. It sounds like a description of May. It is at least easier to believe that this took place in March/April, rather than February/March.

The reduction of Souad’s burn injuries from 90 percent to 70 or 60 percent is not sufficient to make these claims credible. A person with burns to 60 percent of her body is in critical condition and cannot possibly survive without an intensive care unit.

American hospitals in the early 1960s had antibiotics, sterile dressings, IV lines, and other adequate medical technologies, but, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, “As recently as the early 1960s, doctors couldn’t save a patient with burns over more than 30 percent of the body.” (FDA Consumer, vol. 19, 1985). Even in the 1980s, “burns covering half the body were routinely fatal” (FDA Consumer, vol. 36, 2002). The West Bank hospital where Souad was allegedly treated had none of these amenities, yet we are told that a patient with 60 percent burns survived.

Jacqueline writes that when she arrived at the hospital some weeks after Souad’s admission, “I … learn[ed] that, in effect, [Souad] ha[d] received no care.”

The accounts of Souad’s persecution in the hospital are extreme. She was deprived of water: “I hadn’t eaten or drunk anything since I’d arrived there. … I knew they were letting me die, because it was forbidden to intervene in a case like mine.” She was forced to have a shower in ordinary non-sterile tap water while her wounds ran with blood. The nurses ripped her dressings and even tore off pieces of her skin. Her wounds were “infected” and bled “continuously.”

There are too many improbabilities in the story told in Burned Alive. If one credits the Palestinian medical staff with wishing their patient to die, it is inexplicable that she survived. She was in this hospital for at least six weeks. Even in optimum conditions, the nursing of burn victims is an exacting task that often fails if infection takes hold, or if organ failure sets in through dehydration and shock. Effective medical aid has to be given immediately, and a patient with 60 percent burns cannot wait for days or weeks.

When describing the hospital, Jacqueline stresses that the medical staff could not act differently because of their ingrained cultural values. Even the one doctor who cooperated with her could do no more than ask her, as a foreigner with different values, to aid Souad. He would not offer effective medical assistance. Jacqueline tried to persuade him to move the patient elsewhere: “The argument makes sense to him because he is a doctor. But he is also from [the West Bank], like the nurses. And as far as the nurses are concerned, Souad or any other girl like her should die.”

The authors of Burned Alive are not willing to name the hospital or the orphanage where these supposed events took place.

The Charity

In order to understand this book, one needs to look at the people who are promoting it. One reason why Burned Alive has been accepted without any form of documentation is because of the understanding that the anonymous tale is supported by reputable charities. As one reviewer noted, “Souad’s story has been verified by Fondation Surgir.”

Fondation Surgir is a privately owned Swiss foundation created in recent years. A notice appears in each copy of Burned Alive asking readers to donate for their work in rescuing women “throughout the world” who are menaced with violence. Its director is Jacqueline Thibault, the former Terre Des Hommes employee mentioned in the text. In a clear conflict of interest, the same person who verified the story is also the one recounting it. I wrote to Surgir inquiring about their charitable work. However, they declined to even name their board of trustees, and ended the correspondence.

When seeking information about Surgir, I spoke to women activists in Jordan, who did know of the organization but regarded it with misgivings because of their activity in transferring young women, in secret, from the Middle East to Europe. They expressed grave disquiet about this, and pointed out that women’s refuges in the Middle East itself, under the scrutiny of registered social welfare organizations, are a much safer option.

Several leading Palestinian women’s rights activists did not know of Fondation Surgir, and the only account I could find of their work in the West Bank indicated that they were working with the administration set up by the Israeli Defense Forces. This link with the Israeli occupation authorities is not mentioned on the Surgir Web site.

The influence of Israeli political culture might be the explanation for one of the minor puzzles of Burned Alive. Although it is set in the Palestinian community, it avoids the words “Palestine” or “Palestinian.” In the original French text, the authors refer to “the people of the West Bank” and occasionally to “Arabs.” Translators have followed this to varying degrees. The refusal to use the word “Palestinian” is a characteristic of literature from the far-right wing of the Israeli political spectrum. They believe that the people who live in Palestine are not a genuine nation and should not be described as such.

Truth and History

When researching this article, I made every attempt to obtain information from Fondation Surgir and Terre Des Hommes about their activities in the Middle East. The London press, Transworld Publishers, answered my queries politely, but seemed to know little about the real background to the manuscript. The French publishers asserted that the story was so entirely true that it was beyond question. I have not been in contact with the U.S. publishers. (The U.S paperback version is due out in a couple of weeks.)

I asked the Swiss charities if they could substantiate any of the grave charges against Palestinian social workers and medical staff that are made in Burned Alive. Fondation Surgir flatly refused to enter into any discussion. Terre Des Hommes, who have directed funds toward Fondation Surgir, would not provide any project reports giving details of the activities. Nor would Terre Des Hommes give a statement, in writing and on letterhead, as to whether the story told in Burned Alive is true in all respects.

For the record, Palestinian social services deny that children in their care can die without explanation, or that they employ people who wish to murder their charges. If Palestinian hospitals have a “system” that involves the systematic fatal neglect of honor-killing victims, why has this not been observed and recorded? Authorities in this field, such as Professor Nadera Kevorkian of the Hebrew University, a distinguished writer and activist, have never even mentioned such an idea. During the late 1980s, Kevorkian and other activists, including health workers on the West Bank, were engaged in the important initiative of setting up a telephone help-line for women at risk of honor killing and domestic violence.

Ultimately, the last word might be given to Souad, who commented that many of her memories are like scenes from a film. When reading Burned Alive, I did find myself in agreement that “it sometimes doesn’t seem real.”