She duped the literary world into believing that she fled Jordan with a fatwa on her head after her best friend was murdered in an "honour killing". Now Norma Khouri is the star of a film that tries to help her to clear her name, but ends up painting her as a compulsive liar.

Khouri's "memoir", Forbidden Love, published in 2003, sold half a million copies in 15 countries. The book, which recounts the fatal love affair between her Muslim friend Dalia and a Christian army officer, tapped into the apparently unquenchable appetite for "confessional" autobiographies.

But, like increasing numbers of books in that genre, her story turned out to be fabricated. Khouri, far from being a Jordanian refugee, had lived in Chicago since the age of three and had an American passport. She was not a virgin, as she claimed; she was married with two children. And Khouri never had a friend called Dalia who was murdered by her father.

When the hoax was exposed in 2004 by a journalist from the Sydney Morning Herald, Malcolm Knox, her publishers, led by Random House Australia, withdrew Forbidden Love from sale - resisting a trend simply to reclassify such books as fiction.

Knox received death threats and Khouri went into hiding. But despite having being revealed as a conwoman, interest in her is apparently undiminished. An Australian film director, Anna Broinowski, and a producer, Sally Regan, have spent two years making Forbidden Lie$, which will receive its premiere at the Adelaide Film Festival on Sunday next week.

Broinowski said yesterday that she approached Khouri in late 2004. "She persuaded me that she had been seriously maligned by the press, and if we flew her to Jordan, she would prove that everything in her book was true." But Khouri, who insisted on hiring a bodyguard to accompany her, led the film-makers on a "wild goose chase" around the capital, Amman. Instead of presenting them with proof, she invented one new story after another. Meanwhile, Jordanian campaigners against honour killings denounced her book as a tissue of lies, and said that it had set back their cause.

Khouri, also under investigation by Chicago police for various alleged scams, including defrauding an elderly neighbour, reveals in the film that she was sexually abused by her father and beaten up by her Greek-American husband. Court papers confirm that the two men were charged, although both maintained their innocence.

The film reunites Khouri with her father, Majid Bagain, who she had claimed would kill her if he ever saw her again.

Instead, he appears delighted to see her and intensely proud of her literary success. Her book, he declares, is entirely truthful.

Broinowski said: "She's a brilliant, intensely charismatic woman, and the minute I met her, I thought she was utterly genuine. She could be a narcissistic sociopath or an intensely damaged person who craves attention and doesn't know the difference between truth and lies. Or she could just be a very good actor."

Regan believes that Dalia was "probably an amalgam of a couple of women she either read about or knew distantly". She said: "I think it triggered the fantasist in her, and she invented the story and put herself in it and acted it out." In the film, Khouri says: "I lied for a reason." She changed names, places and times in order to protect people, she claims.

Defiantly, she adds: "I will never say that Dalia didn't exist, and I'll never say that this is a made-up story, because it's not."

On the confessional bandwagon

Some authors have been tempted to embellish the truth - or dispense with it altogether.
by Rachel Johnson


James Frey's "memoir" claimed he was jailed for 87 days after hitting a policeman in his car while drunk and high on crack. But this turned out to be exaggerated: he was held for no more than five hours.


Tom Carew's tale of his SAS exploits, training Afghan guerrillas. The MoD confirmed he had served in the Army in Afghanistan, but not in the SAS. He is believed to have failed selection.


Australian account of Stalinist collectivism in the Ukraine, purportedly written by Helen Demidenko, daughter of a Ukrainian taxi driver. Won the country's top literary prize, but the author turned out to be Helen Danville.


Acclaimed "autobiography" of a Native American orphan was actually written by Asa Carter, a Ku Klux Klan member.


Binjamin Wilkomirski's memoir of a Polish concentration camp was withdrawn after doubts over its authenticity.