“Burned Alive” is a best-selling memoir that recounts an Arab woman’s survival of an honor killing. It has been translated into numerous languages, is in school libraries, on university reading lists and recommended to anyone seeking the “truth” about Middle Eastern women’s life stories. Despite its wide circulation, “Burned Alive” has never been authenticated. Australian historian Thérèse Taylor describes how she came to doubt every word of it.
Few books by Arab women gain a worldwide audience. However, the 2003 publication of “Burned Alive: A Victim of the Law of Men,” by an author who uses the pen name “Souad,” was internationally hailed as an important new development.
This book is marketed as a genuine memoir by a survivor of an attempted honor killing. It describes how Souad survived a violent attack by her brother-in-law, during which he set her afire after dousing her with gasoline. She fled to Europe with the assistance of a French aid worker, Jacqueline Thibault. These events apparently occurred in 1979, and Souad is now at liberty to tell her story. The book cover shows the masked face of an Arab woman, and carries a commentary from a British newspaper: “The terrifying memoir of a young Palestinian woman…. Her ordeal reveals the scandalous treatment of women that is the real human rights abuse in the West Bank.”
When I read “Burned Alive” it struck me as having all the characteristics of a fake memoir – too many of which have been published in recent years. The importance of honor killings makes the doubtful nature of this memoir a grave ethical issue.
There is nothing improbable about a story of an honor killing – about 20 such cases currently occur every year on the West Bank. But the flaws in this account are obvious, and some of the events described are physically impossible. For instance, Souad claims to have been kept in a hospital on the West Bank for at least six weeks, with burns to most of her body, yet received “no nursing at all.” The medical staff even withheld water from her, and Souad says, “I knew they were letting me die.” This is nonsense, because Souad claims to have suffered third-degree burns over most of her body, including her head. A person with this type of injury will surely die if not provided with immediate and high-quality medical care.
In May 2005, The Diplomat published a critique in which I contended that “Burned Alive” should never have been published as a work of nonfiction. Despite my accusations that they lied appearing on newsstands across Australia, the authors of “Burned Alive” have never publicly responded to my criticisms. (The review of “Burned Alive,” titled “Truth, History and Honor Killing,” is available on the Internet at www.antiwar.com.) Since the publication of this review, many people have provided me with invaluable insights. Not one person has written to confirm the story in “Burned Alive.” Instead, readers have pointed out additional errors in the text. Israelis revealed errors in geography, wedding customs and funeral rites. An Armenian noticed that Souad describes making tea with a teapot. Teapots are not used in the Middle East: the tea is boiled on the stove. My Australian students, in a rural university, asked why Souad describes sheep as if they are pets – this is not an authentic view of a farm worker – and why both shearing and lambing are described erroneously.
Even more damning, people in Europe have forwarded copies of media interviews during which the authors of “Burned Alive” recounted differing versions of events. Souad and Jacqueline always tell a good story – they just don’t tell the same story twice.
Memory and Truth
The scenes that Souad describes as normal are in fact bizarre. For instance, “Burned Alive” claims that after a mother kills her infant, she is congratulated by close relatives who visit and reassure her that they, “would have done the same.” Other reported customs, such as Palestinian parents feeding the dead bodies of their children to dogs, are really quite extraordinary. Souad writes, “The sheep’s blood, the blood of the virgin woman, always blood. I remember that on every Eid… To get inside, you had to pass through this door painted in blood. It made me sick.” Souad’s imagination seems to be out of control.
However, despite the memories Souad evokes, she has lost all memory of her native Arabic language. Her native language could have been the indisputable evidence, authenticating her claim to be a Palestinian. As she explained to Die Weltwoche in 2004: “I am no longer an Arab, I am a European woman … I no longer speak Arabic.” When questioned by the interviewer, she was unable to translate a single word of that language.
During an interview with English journalist Jane Warren in the Express on May 20, 2004, Souad stated, “For years my memory was fractured, I forgot how to speak Arabic, I felt weak all the time… I was living in the shadows, but after I wrote the book I got stronger and stronger: I started to exist. It was good therapy for me.” She continued, “When people used to ask me about my scars I pretended I’d had an accident, but now I feel strong enough to explain what really happened. Telling my story has helped me to reconcile the truth.”
If one strips away the sentimentality, we have a statement from a woman who cannot speak Arabic, has long-term mental health problems and, by her own account, has repeatedly lied about her past.
When Souad held press conferences in Europe, Christelle Méplon of De Standaard reported that “for security considerations, no interviews will be permitted to persons of Arab ethnicity.” This was conveyed in admiring terms: Souad has the courage to speak amidst such dangers. However, one cannot help wondering if persons of Arab ethnicity might endanger Souad’s credibility because Arabs can recognize a true Palestinian immediately upon hearing them speak.
A Tale Which Grows in the Telling
Prior to 2003, Souad and her co-author, Jacqueline Thibault, gave many public testimonies to raise funds for their campaign against honor killings in the Middle East. In those days, the tale was that Souad had been an innocent untouched virgin, attacked by her family because of neighborhood gossip that she had been speaking with a boy. “Tortured for speaking to a boy!” was the headline in Elle magazine. By 2003, following the publication of “Burned Alive,” the story had transformed into that of a seduced and abandoned girl, burned alive because she was pregnant.
In June 2003, Souad told the journal Ouest France her little sister Hanan had been killed by her brother Assad when Hanan was only 10 years old. Later, in April 2004, Souad was interviewed in Switzerland by Menschenrechte fur die Frau and said that her “fourteen year old sister had been killed.” She has produced endless variations of this murder, always changing the times, the ages and the chronology of events.
In “Burned Alive,” Souad describes how a young woman in her village died in childbirth, while attempting to give birth to twins. It is a touching story, and in fact the only natural death known to her – all the other deaths in her village being the result of murders. This seems statistically unlikely, but as Souad explains, “it was normal to kill.” Indeed, by the time she was interviewed in Spain by El Mundo in November 2003, she claimed to have witnessed many murders – including that of a young woman in her village who was killed because she was expecting twins. The sole natural death in her village has become, in this retelling, yet another murder.
Remarkably, no journalist has confronted Souad over the improbabilities of her story. They report her words with admiration, describing her as a “spirited” lady, and presenting each version of events as true.
In “Burned Alive,” Souad emphasizes that her mother, like all the women in her community, was uneducated. She explains that women were prohibited from reading or writing, and instead “were kept illiterate.” In later interviews, she describes how publishing “Burned Alive” is a form of revenge for her, and told El Mundo: “Now it is going on sale in Israel and I hope that my mother and her neighbors read it.”
Evidently, it is Souad who needs to read “Burned Alive,” to refresh her memory of exactly what her testimony is supposed to be.
In a 2004 interview in Switzerland, Souad was asked if there was any symbolic significance in the white mask she wears during interviews. Souad replied that she wears white “Perhaps, because in the past, in my village, I always had to wear black.” In “Burned Alive,” she states the opposite. The girls always wore long dresses: “They were grey, usually, or sometimes white, very rarely black.” As a free woman in Europe, “I love … black, maroon, all the colors I could never then have.” This detail about clothing is a slight, but telling, mistake. What woman forgets the clothing she wore in her youth?
Perhaps the type of woman who forgets her father’s face. When interviewed by La Vanguardia in November 2003, Souad explained that when first meeting Jacqueline Thibault she was amazed, having never seen blond hair in her life: “I saw her so blond, so luminous, that I thought it was God.” This is like an episode in a children’s story about colonial Africa, such as “King Solomon’s Mines,” where the ignorant natives are so amazed by the sight of a white face that they are ready to worship a European.
The story is an obvious fable, and an inaccurate portrayal of the West Bank in the 1970’s. People with light-colored skin and hair are common in the region. In an almost comical mistake, Souad has apparently forgotten her previous descriptions of her own father. He is described as a menacing creature with light, gingery hair: “he had a pale complexion with red splotches … and mean blue eyes.” In another part of the text he is “almost an albino.” One really ought not to claim, on one occasion, to be the daughter of a sinister near-albino, and on another occasion, to have grown up without ever having seen a fair-skinned person. These are both good stories, but they contradict one another.
The examples given here are but a few of the many contradictions found in Souad’s interviews. Some are minor details – others are issues of life and death. Souad’s co-author, Jacqueline Thibault, who claims to have rescued her from the West Bank, is scarcely more reliable. Thibault is a human rights worker and an ardent Christian. A French national, she has a sentimental attachment to Israel, but her writings show little real knowledge of the Middle East. Like Souad, Thibault’s recollections of whether Souad was a virgin or an unmarried mother at the time of her rescue have changed over time. She has also altered many of the medical details, originally stating that she found Souad in a hospital in Ramallah, but later deciding that she had initially been in a hospital in Bethlehem. No wonder the authors of “Burned Alive” are unable to provide a crucial point which is always missing from each increasingly fantastic story – the name of said hospital.
Thibault has produced no evidence supporting her testimony. In particular, her allegation that children in the care of Palestinian social services “die without explanation” is unfounded. It should be noted that no Israeli journalist or writer has mentioned, much less documented, tales of infanticide and blood rituals like those found in “Burned Alive.” Such allegations are regarded with suspicion in the Jewish culture because they are similar to earlier anti-Semitic fantasies.
Tales and the Audience
In a 2003 interview, a journalist from ANSA noted: “Souad … remembers very well how her mother had strangled two newborn babies because they were girls.” In “Burned Alive” Souad says that she saw her mother giving birth and killing babies on two occasions: “I’m not sure I was present for the third one, but I knew about it.” One notices that the earlier “very well” remembered account is now being elaborated upon – two infanticides have become three. Following the publication of her book, the German television station ZDF broadcast an interview during which admiration for Souad’s stoic manner was expressed: “Laconically, she tells how she saw her mother kill four or five of her sisters, immediately after their births.” That was in January 2004. By April of that same year, Souad was claiming in De Groene Amsterdammer: “I have seen my mother suffocate seven of my little sisters. Seven!”
One would be mistaken to think that Souad’s chronic exaggerations about her misfortunes have raised even passing doubts in the minds of her audiences. As the book reviewer of The Australian enthusiastically proclaimed in May 2004: “Souad, for that is the arresting name emblazoned on the cover of this gripping and immensely brave book, was lucky. Nine of her siblings were smothered at birth.” In the same article, the reviewer comments that she knows that this story is authentic, because it is so similar to that told by Norma Khouri, the author of “Forbidden Love.”
Khouri has since been exposed as a fake. Her “memoir” about honor killing was a novel, and her “best friend” Dalia never existed. After she was discredited, people examined her book and interviews, and realized she had been altering and embellishing her story over time. This would be expected in tales of imagination. The author of “Forbidden Love” consistently claimed that it was necessary to keep Dalia’s family name a secret, lest she be exposed to violent revenge. This claim went unchallenged – but would not Dalia’s own family recognize their story circulating across the international market?
Souad says that she lives in fear: “Fear that her family will learn that she is still alive, and will return to kill her again.” This is why she must remain masked and anonymous. And yet, in an interview with L´Express in March 2003, Souad commented, “My greatest hope is that this book will be published in my country of birth, so that the population there will develop a conscience.”
If the story in “Burned Alive” were a faithful account, then the people concerned would easily recognize themselves. Hence, the anonymity of the story serves no useful purpose – although it does ensure Souad’s identity remain a secret, preventing those who might recognize her from her former real life in Europe. One can understand why she would conceal her current location, but not why she would rely on evasive stories about her past. Why are she and Thibault unable to name the village in which the midwives assisted in the murders of newborn children, or the orphanage from which the babies disappeared?
When praising this book, the Washington Post Book World said, “Her tale is so shocking that it has to be told plainly; this is not a literary effort so much as it is a rare artifact … nothing less than a miracle.”
But the story in “Burned Alive” has not been “told plainly.” It is replete with errors, and has been embellished over time through a series of increasing exaggerations. Critics and academics who have recommended this book as the product of an authentic voice from the Middle East must reexamine it, and must be more wary of undocumented memoirs in general. The charities and publishers who are using “Burned Alive” to earn money owe the public an explanation. Any evidence demonstrating the veracity of this story must be proffered.
As it stands, “Burned Alive” is an example of fantasy, tale-telling, and stage-acting.
This essay appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 12, nos. 56/57 (Summer/Fall 2006)