By Dr. Devika Brendon
Many years ago, in the early 2000s, I read an article in a magazine called The Diplomat. The cover story was about a woman calling herself ‘Souad’ who had written a best-selling memoir called ‘Burned Alive’. In fact, the story was not just ‘about’ this woman, but an exposure of the inconsistencies in her sensational story. The writer, an Australian academic and historian called Therese Taylor, did a brilliant job of applying logic and scepticism to the story told by Souad. Objective, factual and determined in her approach, Taylor wrote a relentless piece of hard-hitting analysis.
I used this article as a teaching resource material for a groundbreaking course which was part of the A-Level English Literature syllabus in New South Wales, and part of a learning module called Representation and Text. The course taught critical thinking skills - deconstructing texts to remove the distorting impacts of exaggeration, understatement, selective omission, sensationalisation and other forms of misrepresentation of truth.
Taylor’s article was perfect for the topic. Her deconstruction of the narrative of Souad noted patterns of contradiction and assertions which directly conflicted with each other.
She applied scientific method, starting by identifying the emotive nature of the reviews of the book, and the way they ignored the inconsistencies in Souad’s narrative. This raised an alarm bell for her. The overview presented Souad as a victim, and Taylor identified the factors which made this representation so credible, including the historical context of the story.
Taylor summed up the story in a succinct but pointed overview: ‘Burned Alive’, published pseudonymously under the name Souad, tells the story of a Palestinian girl who survived an attempted honour killing, fled her homeland in 1979, and now lives under a false name in Europe.’
Souad told a story of horrific and sustained suffering, from extreme poverty in childhood to chronic misogynistic treatment, the terrible normalisation of barbaric cultural practices perpetrated on her because she was a woman, and finally her survival of attempted murder through an honour killing.
Step by step, Taylor countered in her subsequent analysis the claims made by Souad with investigative questions and contextual facts. Inevitably and sequentially, she formulated a theory which explained the inconsistencies she observed. Only then did she reach a conclusion.
Taylor noted several discrepancies in the harrowing tale of suffering detailed by Souad in her origin story. The two most significant are her description of seeing a sister of hers strangled with a telephone cord, and the actual degree to which she had suffered burns to her body by having kerosene poured on her head and set alight.
Taylor points out that at the date Souad said the strangling incident occurred, ‘None of the villages in the West Bank were connected to the telephone line as early as 1977... In fact, the vast majority of smaller communes still have no phone lines.’ In the article I read, Taylor notes without drama that ‘the means to commit this murder did not exist’.
As for the burns: The visible sign of her victimisation? Taylor says, ‘Initially Souad claimed she had burns to 90 per cent of her body, and the British translation stated that her son was born three months premature.’ When Taylor checked these assertions, and sent queries reproaching the publishers for such impossible claims, the London publishers explained that these points ‘had been made in error’ and would later be revised. The sensationalised story was a best seller in 2003.
The estimated degree of severity of the burns was reduced from 90 to 60 per cent. If the reporting of a medical fact like this can be so wildly divergent, the whole story looks less than credible.
Taylor places this fantastic story told by Souad in the historical context of the immediate aftermath of 9/11. A tale in which a woman who has been victimised by her own countrymen and whose narrative supports the demonization of the Arab world got great traction in that vengeful, anti-terrorist world, in which bearded men in robes were otherised and maligned, and believed capable of every atrocity against innocent women.
Taylor’s publication of her article in The Diplomat, the Australian magazine where I saw it, resulted in Burned Alive coming under critique, as it ‘showed that the entire story was filled with errors of fact, and that Souad’s central claim to have survived for six weeks without any medical care, despite having petrol burns to most of her body, was physically impossible’.
The truth is hard to reach when it is veiled and layered with multiple falsehoods and serviceable subterfuges. Taylor’s articles on Souad, ‘Truth, History and Honour Killing’ and ‘Fabricated: A Tale Of Two Memoirs’ are available online.
Taylor’s conclusion after her detailed investigation into the incident was that Souad had spun the story to specifically appeal to the biases of the Western audience. ‘Our society is strongly marked by the culture of victimhood,’ says Taylor. ‘This longing for victim voices causes sensationalist accounts to be favoured and the more delicate testimonies of real people are drowned out in an irrational clamour.’
In ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’, that famous story of justice, bias and prejudice by Harper Lee, the young girl who narrates the story tells us ‘Atticus (her father, a lawyer) told me to delete the adjectives, and I’d have the facts’.
That’s an excellent rule of conduct, when dealing with people who have vested interests in exaggerating and distorting facts in order to present themselves as worthy of our investment in them and their suffering.