Loading ...
Sorry, an error occurred while loading the content.

debunking a myth

Expand Messages
  • Israel Shamir
    http://www.antiwar.com/orig/ttaylor.php?articleid=5801 Truth, History, and Honor Killing A review of Burned Alive by Thérèse Taylor In recent years, two
    Message 1 of 1 , May 18, 2005
    • 0 Attachment

      Truth, History, and Honor Killing
      A review of Burned Alive
      by Thérèse Taylor
      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

      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

      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

      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

      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

      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

      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

      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

      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."
    Your message has been successfully submitted and would be delivered to recipients shortly.