Flim-Flamming the Hoax Catchers

August 9, 2004
Category: Uncategorized

Dear Margo,

Norma Khouri is hardly a household name in this country. But in Australia, the 34-year-old author has developed quite a reputation — first, as author of a memoir hailed as one of the best ever, then as the possible perpetrator of the first big literary hoax of the 21st century. And even though the case may be unfolding Down Under, it’s clearly a story with international scope.

In 2003, Norma Khouri’s book — called “Forbidden Love” in Australia, “Honor Lost” in the U.S. — was published for English-speaking readers worldwide. It is — or rather, claimed to be — the true tale of Khouri’s closest friend and business partner in Jordan, a Muslim woman named Dalia, who fell in love with a Christian soldier. Dalia’s father allegedly murdered her for this transgression, causing Khouri to flee the country. The book sold 50,000 copies in the U.S., and 200,000 in Australia — whopping numbers for Kangaroo Country.

But its success may have been its undoing. Khouri’s campaign against honor killings brought her to the attention of two Jordanian women, one an investigative reporter for the Jordanian Times, Rana Husseini, who found the book larded with factual errors. Meanwhile, at the Sydney Morning Herald, literary editor Malcolm Knox had his suspicions. Fluent in Arabic, he was puzzled that Khouri could barely speak the language. After his 18-month investigation, the Herald went public with its findings on July 24, claiming that Khouri was a fraud. Random House Australia, Khouri’s publisher in that part of the world, put out a press release saying that she would respond “within days.” But Khouri disappeared until this week, when her lawyer showed up with evidence in support of the book’s veracity. Random House immediately sent back the material, asking for translations and further verification.

At this point Khouri could still redeem herself. But until further notice the book has been pulled from the shelves. All of her publishers are distancing themselves. A series of Random House Australia press releases emphasize, in fact, that the original deal was cut between “a reputable New York literary agent,” and that the book was edited in New York.
However, the Sydney Morning Herald‘s expose was not the first warning shot fired at Khouri’s book.  More than a year ago, the Jordanian women sent their critiques to Random and Atria, an imprint of Simon & Schuster that was the book’s New York publisher. According to Simon & Schuster’s Adam Rothberg, Khouri provided “satisfactory responses to the matters raised,” but “nothing indicated to us or Random that her work was fiction.” Factual errors were corrected in the paperback versions.  Larger complaints about the book’s point of view were interpreted as a difference of opinion.

But as this story evolves, it looks to me like a cautionary tale for publishers: It reveals their exposed flanks. Two enterprising journalists don’t seem like a sufficient stopgap. What do you think? Should publishers take more responsibility for vetting their authors and books?

Dear Ellen,

I don’t think the problem lies only with publishers failing to vet their authors — a determined liar, as we have seen in this country, can fool a lot of people. I think a greater problem is the rush to print books these days that feed into current prejudices. Khouri, of course, has to be held ultimately accountable for perpetuating a fraud, if she cannot prove the truth of her tale. But why did her story resonate so much with her English-speaking audience? Answer: because in this post -9/11 world, her story of evil in the Muslim world fit perfectly into the Western world’s stereotype of how women are treated in the Middle East. Her “memoir,” if that is what it was, wouldn’t have received so much push (her Australian publisher supported her application for a visa in the category of “distinguished talent”), and reader interest otherwise.

After 9/11, there understandably has been a heightened interest in the Muslim world, but that should put both publishers and journalists on the alert for self-serving stories about the Middle East and its people. The social and political-cultural climate into which a book is introduced cannot be discounted. It’s no coincidence that a journalist who spoke Arabic — and presumably has a more thoughtful view about that part of the world — was among those to smell a rat in the first place. That certainly underscores the need for diversity in our profession.

This case reminds me of another Australian-related literary fraud: Marlo Morgan’s “Mutant Message Down Under,” which also involved cultural stereotypes. Morgan, a white, middle-aged American woman, self-published her book in 1990, claiming she had been kidnapped by a tribe of Aboriginals (“The Real People”), who taught her their rites and secrets of life. Wildly popular among New Agers, the book was picked up four years later for a cool $1.7 million by HarperCollins. For legal reasons, the publisher labeled it fiction, because by then scholars were questioning the tale’s veracity, and Aboriginals had denounced the book as cultural theft. Meanwhile, Morgan apparently still insists it all happened — and many of her readers believe her. The truth is out there — but some people prefer their own version.

<Well, Margo

The literary landscape is littered (how poetic) with make-believe. Check out the “Top 10 Literary Hoaxes,” which includes the most infamous in recent times: the $2 million sale of “Hitler’s diaries.” The forgery was the dirty deed of a reporter for the German newspaper Stern, a man obsessed with the Fuhrer. Gerd Heidemann successfully pulled the wool over the eyes of even the historian Hugh Trevor-Roper and Rupert Murdoch, until an analysis of paper and ink proved that the work had been written post-WWII. Heidemann and his accomplice got four years.

Publishers protect themselves by putting a line in authors’ contracts that stipulates they are telling the truth. All the same, they shouldn’t make money on a falsehood, which explains why Random House Australia has offered to give booksellers their money back on returns of Khouri’s book.

“Egg on your face?” I asked Judith Curr, who as head of Atria published Khouri’s book in the States. But Curr rejected the notion of embarrassment or responsibility. “It took a journalist 18 months to uncover this, and we don’t have resources like that,” she said. “We trust people who represent things to us.”

Trust seems too — well- trusting to me. I’d prefer a policy more in synch with Reagan’s famous dictum: “Trust but verify.” The publishing industry doesn’t have to send out a private detective, but it may need more than a line in a contract to keep the flim-flammers (and disenchanted book buyers) at bay. At the same time, book critics also need to look beyond a given work for contradictory evidence, either in other books about the subject, their own research or in the writer herself. This is what establishing credibility is all about. As Simon & Schuster’s Adam Rothberg pointed out to me, the skeptics were few when Khouri’s book came out. “She was interviewed by numerous journalists. She tells a very convincing story.”