Friday, August 06, 2004

“…nay, is not the Universe itself, at bottom, properly an Intrigue?” – Thomas Carlyle

In the late nineties, Norma Baig was in trouble. She had, for instance, the FBI on her tail. They were interested in whether she had tried to defraud her mother, Asma Bagain, by claiming that her mother’s house was her own in order to borrow money against it. Then there was the court complaint that she had beat her mother in law and threatened to kill her, which was part of the general mess, apparently, of being married to John Toliopoulos. During one of her separations from Toliopoulos, she stayed with a woman named Brandy Murphy. According to the Australian paper The Age, Brandy only learned that she was living with a genius when Norma left:

"Norma left Chicago on the Labour Day weekend in August 1999. I had been her best friend for five years. We were inseparable. I thought I knew everything about Norma, so when she left I was really upset. I used to sit in her room and cry."

"She once told me that she was writing a book," Ms Murphy said, "but that it was too private and personal to show me. After she left, I found some things she had written which were pure fantasy about her father, and how she wanted to die and thought she was evil. It was really heartbreaking stuff."

One likes to hear stories like this. It is like an anecdote in Vasari – one of those about a famous artist who was discovered, all naïve and shepherding and shit, drawing some perspective laden scene by another artist, and taken up and educated in a studio. For Norma’s little sketch pointed to the larger life ahead of her as a Fake. Not a minor fake, not an everyday seller of promises that never pan out, not a down on her high heels confidance man – no, that wasn’t Norma. The sketch about being, to use Alice Walker’s disgusting verb, incested, was all about an instinct. Yes, in the early nineties, if you were going to make it big in the confession game, incest was what it was all about. Daddy peeping in on you, Daddy and you in the shower, the return of all your repressed memories via the wonders of modern therapy, with its rediscovery of an innocence within children of all sexual knowledge that a psychoanalyst could only gape at. Roll over Sigmund Freud and tell Mrs. Grundy the news. This was when we were living in a nation that believed, in its tiny little heart, that day care centers could double as Satanic cult drive-ins; this was a nation willing to arrest, in one case, almost a whole police force (in Olympia, Washington), on the charge that they had been making with the big cloven hoofed guy and forking babies and such. This, as we now know, was the acme of progress and Western Civilization.

But I am getting ahead of myself. Norma left that sketch behind because, I believe, she knew, with the instinct of a great artist, that the time for mere tales of sodomizing were past. The fake’s art consists of finding just the right combination for the historical moment. Norma, fleeing the US with her husband in 1999, arrives in Australia. And then – another Norma appears. Norma Khouri. This Norma has a heartfelt tale to tell, a tale to make you cry. It is an especially heartwarming and shocking tale in the age of the new Crusade, the Post 9/11 era when the West discovered how civilized it was, after all, especially compared to the Middle East. In the era of the New Crusade, the right, which formerly gave its considered opinion about feminism by coining the term femi-nazi, was suddenly very, very upset at the condition of women in Moslem countries. In the Clinton years, Wendy Shalit could write a feeble anti-feminist book that ends on a note of respect for the Taliban’s enforcement of the laws of chador, and that book would be praised by no less than George Will; but in the era of the New Crusade, it turns out that feminism is one of the things that make us Good – as compared to the Bad, which was, in general, anything Middle Eastern (save Israel). Whether from instinct or from sheer brilliance, Norma Baig dropped the memoir about being ‘incested’ and wrote a book that conformed perfectly to the new victim vogue. How much better to show how much better we were than our enemies -- who, it turns out, weren't even Christian! So was born a seering memoir of Norma’s adventures in Lebanon, and the death of her best buddy Dalia. Dalia, the ravishing daughter of a Moslem brute, falls in love with a Christian. Secret, chaste meetings ensue, but Daddy (borrowing the murderous patriarch theme from Norma’s previous sketch) lurks, dagger in hand, in the shadows. With twelve blows of the dagger he dispatches his fair daughter, with only Norma left to tell the tale.

And so Norma’s memoir appears, and Norma is everywhere – Norma Khouri, the woman who fled from Lebanon. Tears spring to her eyes, a fund is mounted for the victims of honor killing, there are readings in high schools and art festivals, and appearances on American tv to promote Honor Lost – the title of the book for the American market – and everything is going swimmingly. In the background, it is true, there is the nattering of Arab women – Jordanian women, actually. According to the Christian Science Herald:

“The National Commission for Women in Jordan had independently discovered more than 70 errors in her book and sent this information earlier to Random House and to Simon & Schuster. Random House replied at the time that they stood by their author after being satisfied that she had changed names and places to protect people in Jordan.”

Alas, as the spirit of the New Crusade has dwindled, we have discovered a lot of, uh, intelligence errors. That first fine bloom of Western Civ triumphalism – that period after 9/11 when some of our greatest intellectuals, like Italian prime minister Berlusconi, proclaimed the unadulterated superiority of the West, or that portion of it with white faces, over the East, a sneaky and retrograde part of the Earth that needs a good invasion to set it straight – has rather wilted.

And so too has Norma’s story. The Sydney Herald investigated Norma Khouri and found Norma Baig. They found a married woman, not a single one; they found a refugee from Chicago and debt, rather than Lebanon and honor killing. And they published the story.

In so doing, they have elevated Norma Khouri. As a victim, Khouri was minor. As a Fake, however, she’s become a Rorschach test for the Zeitgeist. The crossing over of a particularly malignant strand of liberal decay – therapeutic liberalism, with its blind identity of victimhood with goodness – with conservative resentment finds its great artistic achievement in Norma. Her book could be praised not only by Ms. magazine, but by the National Review. A particularly heartfelt review of the book appeared in the American Outlook, penned by a NR contributor, Katherine Lopez. It begins with the standard Rightwing windup:

“To most Americans, and Westerners generally, it is inconceivable. A father kills his daughter because she fell for the wrong guy. But move East, and in some cultures that is just what is done. A reality no one speaks of.
Norma Khouri can’t stand the silence. She’s written Honor Lost: Love and Death in Modern-Day Jordan in honor of her best friend, Dalia. Dalia and Khouri met when they were three, and, as Khouri tells it, were nearly inseparable for the next twenty-two years. They were always challenging their culture, Dalia’s religion, and her father. They managed to convince him to allow them to open a hair salon in Amman. It was in the salon where she found the happiness that would ultimately lead to her death penalty.

Dalia, twenty-six years old, was killed—stabbed twelve times with a kitchen knife—for the sake of her family’s honor. Her scandalous behavior? She was seen in public with a Catholic man.”

You will not see such an outpouring of sympathy from the NRO about, say, the statesponsored kidnapping of the children of lesbians in this country, or the stabbing to death of some prostitute and the malign neglect of the ensuing police investigation. But for one brief shining moment, the party of Phyllis Schlafley was on the barricades with Gloria Steinem.
This was not simply an accident. Norma’s book, like all great Cons, is designed to confirm the beliefs of its marks. There is a delicacy in these things that shouldn’t be underestimated. There are two parts of Norma’s work that are particularly beautiful and must be saluted.

One was the creation of Dalia. As the daughter of a Moslem, of course she longs for fairer, Christian men. The opera must go on! But if Norma’s drama were set in, say, America, Dalia would have probably been, shall we say, physically intimate with her Christian knight. But no – Dalia, in her twenties, was entirely chaste! For a crowd that advocates the teaching of abstinence with truly Taliban like fervor, this was a dream come true. However much the New Crusaders vaunted the freedom of women, briefly, in that small post 9/11 moment, they were still the standard anti-abortion, anti-sex, and pro-family crowd we’ve all come to know and love. The same people who consider the showing of Janet Jackson’s nipple a major cause for legal reform. Norma’s infallible instinct here is truly dialectical. It elevates her, to my mind, from mere con artist to artist, period.

An artist, as opposed to a con artist, longs for a signature. And this is the second brilliant thing about Norma. In that wicked Eastern land where, unlike the U.S. or Australia, men are brutes to women, a certain dream logic takes hold. Just as Shakespeare set one of his romances in a Bohemia with a seacoast, so, too, Norma’s individuality revolts in her very text and discretely devises a signal that says: I am the maker of this thing. This supposed refugee from Lebanon gives her country a border with Kuwait.

The New York times ran an op ed piece by an Australian writer who asked the question: how did she get away with it? For Norma was more than a writer – she was a personality. She loved the spotlight. One is reminded of Carlyle’s essay on the Affair of the Necklaces. That affair was recently a movie, starring Hilary Swank – which is how we get our history out here in the sticks. Jean de la Motte, aka Valois, tricked the Cardinal de Rohan into buying a diamond necklace, ostensively for Marie Antoinette. Jean found some strumpet to play Marie, pocketed Rohan’s money, and sold the diamonds before she was caught. Ever afterwards people have wondered how Rohan could fall for such an obvious dupe, and how Jean could have hoped to get away with it. Carlyle writes:

“Cheerfully admitting these statements to be all lies; we ask, How any
mortal could, or should, so lie?

The Psychologists, however, commit one sore mistake: that of
searching, in every character named human, for something like a
Conscience. Being mere contemplative recluses, for most part, and
feeling that Morality is the Heart of Life, they judge that with all the
world it is so. Nevertheless, as practical men are aware, Life can go
on in excellent vigour, without crotchet of that kind. What is the
essence of Life? Volition? Go deeper down, you find a much more
universal root and characteristic: Digestion. While Digestion lasts,
Life cannot, in philosophical language, be said to be extinct: and
Digestion will give rise to Volitions enough; at any rate, to Desires
and attempts, which may pass for such. He who looks neither before
nor after, any farther than the Larder and State-room, which latter is
properly the finest compartment of the Larder, will need no Worldtheory,
Creed as it is called, or Scheme of Duties: lightly leaving the
world to wag as it likes with any theory or none, his grand object is
a theory and practice of ways and means. Not goodness or badness
is the type of him; only shiftiness or shiftlessness.”

Which is all there is to say about Norma, probably. One so hopes she doesn’t spoil everything by reverting to plan A (Daddy abused me). An artist should not go back on her work. At the moment, she is in seclusion, compiling evidence that she really has been living on the coast of Bohemia. A parallel news story caught our eye, however, as we were relishing Norma. Among the complaints about Norma is that the money that has supposedly been collected, through her agency, to help the suffering victims of honor killings in Jordan has seemingly disappeared en route. In keeping with Norma’s perfect sense of the Zeitgeist, the WP, similarly, reported that the U.S., tenderly stewarding the oil wealth of Iraq for the Iraqis, has inezplicably spent that money (who’d have thought it!) on big American defense contractors:

“For the first 14 months of the occupation, officials of the Coalition Provisional Authority provided little detailed information about the Iraqi money, from oil sales and other sources, that it spent on reconstruction contracts. They have said that it was used for the benefit of the Iraqi people and that most of the contracts paid from Iraqi money went to Iraqi companies. But the CPA never released information about specific contracts and the identities of companies that won them, citing security concerns, so it has been impossible to know whether these promises were kept.
The CPA has said it has awarded about 2,000 contracts with Iraqi money. Its inspector general compiled records for the major contracts, which it defined as those worth $5 million or more each. Analysis of those and other records shows that 19 of 37 major contracts funded by Iraqi money went to U.S. companies and at least 85 percent of the total $2.26 billion was obligated to U.S. companies. The contracts that went to U.S. firms may be worth several hundred million more once the work is completed.”
Surely, if Norma is utterly shamed in Australia, she should have a job waiting for her at the Pentagon.

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