Driven by the mirage
by Darshan Singh Maini

Forbidden Love
by Norma Khouri.
Bantam Books, London. Pages 253. £ 6.99.

Australian and British publishers have withdrawn Norma Khouri’s controversial book Forbidden Love from sale following revelations that her story of female repression in the Arab world had been fabricated, according to ABC Online and The Age. However, such is the nature of literary scandal that for all those turned off by the recent revelations, just as many are likely to be intrigued. Norma Khouri has told her publisher and her lawyer that she’s getting documents together to prove her book really is a true story of an honour killing in Jordan.

Forbidden Love by a Jordanian Christian woman reminds one strongly of the book, The Princess, also a harrowing tale of "honour-killing" in Saudi Arabia. The present story may not be a real-life tale told by the victim’s friend in Amman (as the author claims), it is still very horrifying, the controversy surrounding it notwithstanding. The author was determined to bring this tragic story to the notice of the outside world —especially to that of human rights groups, and to the UN agencies.

No wonder, then, she had had to leave Jordan secretly, and get the volume published abroad. Settled first in Greece, and now in Australia, Norma Khouri wants the readers to have the story disseminated as widely as possible. It’s an appeal for smashing the laws and codes that destroy thousands of innocent women in the Arab and other Muslim countries, including Pakistan.

The figures are properly documented and cited. Though a patina of "modernity" is boasted of by the Jordanian high society, living in palaces of marble and glass, and unaware of the ghettoes inside their own homes, where the inner landscape of their wives and daughters remains draped, the facade of liberalism is torn to ribbons by Norma Khouri.

The writer’s rage, fury and feelings of revenge are eloquently expressed to move the imagination of pity and compassion. This story is the secret and "forbidden love" account of Dalia and a Jordanian Christian, Michael (trained as lawyer in London and in Athens, and now serving his time in the Royal Guard of the King in Jordan), who meet in a salon where both Dalia and the narrator, Norma, are the owners—a rare indulgence where a mixed clientele is served.

Forbidden LoveNo wonder, Norma soon becomes a conduit through whom secret telephone calls and love-letters are exchanged, and through whose help meetings are arranged between the two lovers in downtown Amman hotels.

The Koranic code regarding women’s position is stated and quoted straight from the holy book, though in practice, the Arab nations openly disregard these injunctions which ask the Muslims to respect and honour their women-folk. It appears as though the desert that surrounds Amman has entered the very souls of Jordanian men, and darkened their vision.

Even though their men are adulterers, fornicators and profligates, there are no laws to make them account for their heinous crimes. A stone-age code still governs their mind and imagination. Women, on the other hand, have no defence of any kind available to them, even when their "sins" are related to love (love with respect and freedom). No mercy, no appeal, no reprieve. That’s the sad story of Jordanian society told in a telling idiom and powerful, yet simple style.

The drama is chiefly enacted through dialogues, and there are no long descriptive details or great poetic passages. The "authenticity" of the narrative carries the reader before its inexorable force. The Arabic language, sonorous with its oceanic fall and swell, has moved millions of Muslims and others, but here, it’s the language of "demonology" only that translates the agony and shame of "imprisoned" women living in perpetual danger. The spirit of Jehad is taught in schools and colleges and their daughters imbibe the lesson with their mother’s milk. A holy war for justice is converted into a story of conquests by the sword, and the meaning of Jehad is openly flouted.

Michael, the Christian lover, is ready to sacrifice his life, and smuggle Dalia and Norma out of the cruel country, with proper passports, visas, etc., but fate wills it otherwise and poor, dear Dalia, a desert bud, is snuffed out before it opens out to the glory of the fierce sun that shines over that desert land.

Michael himself remains untouched, though his life is under threat all the time, but he’s determined not to leave his country, but carry on a crusade against the heartless oppressors of innocent women in Jordan. The salon, their place of rendezvous, is closed down and the family of Dalia takes hold of the books and other equipment. A chapter of Bedouin savagery is, thus, brought to an end.

In the last few lines, Norma describes her state of mind: "I boarded the plane and, as it took off, I wept. I cried out of joy and fear. I cried for my mother, and for the empty seats that should have been Dalia’s and Michael’s. I cried for the stark rose beauty of the desert, the mystique of Aqaba`85." "`85And I thanked God`85for how many generations more?—exuberant, idealistic innocents like Dalia faced the daily possibility of death." The lyric lament abides.

In between the narrative, a fair amount of the Arab history and its blood-stained pages is given, and the geographical features of the land that has conditioned their character, and made the Arabs a race of aggressors out to conquer the world with the sword and the zeal of blind faithfuls is well reported. That’s the impression the book creates so eloquently.