Review: Forbidden Lie$

Norma Khouri in Forbidden Lie$

You might remember one of the most outrageous (and let’s be honest, totally juicy) literary hoaxes of recent times. Norma Khouri, con artist and, quite possibly, sociopath, was exposed as a “fake” in a Sydney Morning Herald series by journalists Malcolm Knox and Caroline Overington in 2004.

The scandal? Khouri claimed she was escaping danger in her homeland of Jordan after her best friend and business partner, Dalia, a Muslim (Khouri is Christian), was the victim of an honour killing. Her wildly successful “memoir”, Forbidden Love, detailed Dalia’s alleged romance with a Christian man. It was published as non-fiction — a tad inconvenient for her publisher because the book was all a lie. Khouri was in fact a US resident, a wife and mother of two, and apparently under investigation by the FBI for fraud.

Enter Australian documentary-maker Anna Broinowski (she won an AFI for her documentary, Helen’s War). She confesses that she was quickly won over by Khouri’s charm when she met her. Convinced that Khouri was the victim of a media witch hunt, she set out to make a documentary that would prove the veracity of Khouri’s claims that Forbidden Love was not fiction.

The result is Forbidden Lie$, a highly engrossing, humorous and almost whimsical look at the scandal and those affected by it. This is not a film about honour killings. They are discussed, realistically and passionately, and we see that those working hard to eliminate the practice are but one casualty in this affair. But ultimately, this is the story of a con and its perpetrator.

In her search for the truth, Broinowski ventures to Amman with Khouri (and someone Khouri alleged was a “bodyguard”). Hoping to retrace the events, instead the documentary-maker is sent on one wild goose chase after another. Broinowski’s frustration is clear soon enough – but she’s equal parts exasperated and intrigued by her subject.

This is one aspect that is difficult to understand, although it’s no less intriguing. Perhaps you need to be face-to-face with Khouri to “get it” – to understand how she has gotten away with so much, and why so many people were so quick to believe in her and her story. Because really, arguably quite ordinary in looks and speech, Khouri’s not your standard femme fatale. But I suppose you can forget quite quickly that this isn’t Hollywood. It’s just an outrageous story spun by an experienced, deeply troubled con artist.

There are a number of voices in this film, allowing room for several perspectives on this increasingly bewildering journey. There’s Khouri’s rather unnerving (and estranged) Greek husband, who speaks with an accent, in husky tones — think Sopranos. Actually, scratch that. Think mafia spoof.

We also meet her one-time neighbour in Queensland’s Bribie Island (where Khouri sought ‘refuge’ following publication of the book). She took care of Khouri’s children when Khouri fled Australia after the scandal broke. Three months later, she had to send them to the US embassy, unable to cope with the financial burden it was placing upon her. Now, she says, she’s broke and still waiting for money Khouri owes her.

Add to this the journalists who broke the story, as well as the doctors, journalist and activists Broinowski speaks to in Jordan. They’re well-spoken, intelligent and funny – and they’re deeply offended by the factual inaccuracies littered throughout Forbidden Love, providing Broinowski with some priceless moments.

Broinowski has found interesting ways to tell the story too. For example, when dramatically recreating Dalia’s romance with her Christian boyfriend, Michael, the scenes are reminiscent of cheesy, B-grade soap operas – a reflection of Khouri’s hackneyed storytelling.

This is a deeply thought-provoking, frustrating and fascinating look at a hoax and its aftermath. The tagline reads “Con or artist? You decide”. I don’t think the answer to that is terribly difficult to find. The trick to this film is trying to decipher what truth, if any, exists beneath the lies.



#1 ERS on 09.20.07 at 8:55 am

One of the casualties of Norma’s deceptions seems to be the truth. The baby is getting thrown out with the bath water.

Although her book is fictional, the fact remains that “honor” killings do occur in Jordan (some sources claim it has one of the highest per capita rates in the world). They occur more or less in the manner of the fictional Dalia’s (some are even more baseless and brutal). And there have been few, if any, actions taken in Jordan that would better protect these at-risk girls and women. The laws don’t protect them (in fact, there are three penal code articles on the books in Jordan that offer leniency to the perpetrators). There are no women’s shelters that will accept them. And, according to research I recently conducted in Jordan, approximately one in five Jordanians believes Islam tells them they must avenge affronts to family honor by killing. Islam says no such thing but, clearly, there is an opportunity in the mosques and in the schools to correct this misperception.

Ellen R. Sheeley, Author
“Reclaiming Honor in Jordan”

#2 Amal on 09.20.07 at 11:01 am

Hi Ellen,

One of the casualties of Norma’s deceptions seems to be the truth. The baby is getting thrown out with the bath water.

As mentioned in the review, honour killings are discussed in the film, but it’s ultimately a look at Norma Khouri, the con artist — not the cause.

I don’t find it at all surprising that those who genuinely work to eliminate the brutal practice of honour killings are mightily disgusted and annoyed by Khouri. I don’t think the baby has been thrown out with the bathwater. I think many still work to change the status quo — but this is in no small part thanks to Khouri.

#3 muslim_perth on 09.20.07 at 12:02 pm

i read somewhere that according to the UN jordan had 17 honour killings last year….. this is small compared to the amount of women that are brutally murdered by people they know in so called enlighted western nations

#4 Yakoub Islam on 09.20.07 at 7:08 pm

“Honour killings” are a classical piece of Orientalist (anthropological) flim. It is a very broad way of defining how murderers in some cultures justify their crimes. It suggests something inherent in the culture that “causes” people to murder women – but the reality is, responses to izzat (shame) vary hugely – in the UK, women (and e.g. gay men) are overwhelmingly more likely to be ostracised than killed. According to Akbar Ahmed, if you’re Pathan living in the North West frontier of Pakistan (circa 1980s), then bloodshed is likely. Moreover, honour killing is used as a distraction for the murder of and violence against women in Europe/USA. Between 1981-1996, the largest increase in VIOLENT crimes in the UK was incidents of domestic violence. (British Crime Survey 1996, Home Office) and between 1 in 3 and 1 in 4 British women report having suffered domestic violence at some time in their adult lives. If this level of violent crime was PUBLIC and AGAINST MEN- how do you think the British media would react? But when Amnesty launched its campaign to end violence against women internationally, most of the British media ignored it.

#5 ERS on 09.21.07 at 1:57 am

I wouldn’t expect all the brouhaha over Norma Khouri’s book to be a distraction in other countries where “honor” killings occur, and I hope it wasn’t. But I’ve been working on this problem in Jordan throughout the years of this Khouri situation (and then some), and nothing has changed for the better for the at-risk people throughout this distraction. It has diverted much-needed attention from improving the lot for the people there. It’s fine to be angry and disappointed when you’ve been lied to and about. But is it worth it to take your eye off the ball for years at a time when people are dying?

The comparison of the number of “honor” killings in Jordan with violence figures elsewhere is an apples and oranges comparison. Jordan’s “honor” killings figures are believed by some reputable sources to be the highest per capita in the world. And “honor” killings in Jordan by no means represent the sole form of violence there. In the West, there are laws that punish all kinds of murder. In Jordan, there are three laws on the books that protect the perpetrators in “honor” killings, so much so that they are treated as misdemeanors and the average sentence is just six months. Lastly, Jordan’s population is only about six million. No reasonable person would expect the number of cases of violence there to be as high as more populated Western countries.

#6 Noor Hammad on 09.21.07 at 4:25 am


If you have details regarding those Jordanian laws regarding honour killings I would be interested to find out more.


Noor Hammad

P.S. Khouri made a lot of money selling the product of her lies. What could that money have done to combat the situation of honour killings in Jordan? I doubt she gives it a thought.

#7 Amal on 09.21.07 at 8:41 am

Hi Ellen,

First, honour killings are tragic and criminal. Whether the number of victims is “low” or “high”, the act is very clearly wrong and forbidden in Islam.

But this is a discussion of a documentary film and a woman who misused a cause; watch the film if you haven’t already and see for yourself how she invokes the cause at random. I don’t buy it coming from her.

So when you say:

It’s fine to be angry and disappointed when you’ve been lied to and about. But is it worth it to take your eye off the ball for years at a time when people are dying?

I’m not really sure what your point is. Who is taking their eye off the ball exactly? From what I can see, people, including yourself, are still working hard to see this criminal practice eliminated, and you are to be commended for it. The Norma Khouri scandal really shouldn’t change that, even though she has misrepresented facts for her own personal gain.

#8 Antish on 09.21.07 at 2:07 pm

I’m always pleased when an author pulls off a hoax. it validates fiction as an artform and, if the hoax is exploded, gives us all a good laugh.

#9 James on 09.27.07 at 8:18 am


There is no good that came of this womans hoax. She gave aid and comfort to those who would deny honor killings.
She is suspect in a FBI investigation, that means she has been a very naughty girl.
For god’s sake man she dumped her kids off an unsuspecting neighbor for three solid months. I’m sure the Feds were real happy when those kids finally showed up at the Consulates’ door.
More to the point what kind of damage have those kids sustained now they have entered the maw of Children’s Services?
Personally I hope the Feds nail this witch to the wall.

#10 Gab on 03.13.10 at 8:04 am

So that’s the only way an author can sell it’s work? by pulling an hoax… very dam sad.

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