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A story of "recovered memory" with no credibility ...for the gullible and easily fooled
on 1 September 2007
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. 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.
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.
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 book is full of ludicrous absurdities e.g.
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. ocieties 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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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. It's director is Jacqueline Thibault - the books co-author!! and the foundation worked with the administration set up by the Israeli Defense Forces!!
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.
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.
Thank God for giving us an intellect which makes us able to not just swallow everything we read no matter how absurd.