Every year, more than 5,000 women worldwide are killed "in the name of honour" to "restore" their family's reputation. What is it that makes a father put societal values above the lives of his own children? This is the question at the heart of Inside An Honour Killing. Written by investigative journalist Lene Wold, the book tells the story of an honour killing from two perspectives: the killer's and the victim's.
While living in Jordan for three years, Wold meets and interviews Rahman, a man who killed his mother and daughter and attempted to kill a second daughter. Wold interweaves their story with her own experiences of Jordanian culture; her meetings with imams, journalists, lawyers, government officials, police and human rights workers; and visits to prisons, hospitals, homes and graveyards, all in an effort to understand what drives a person to kill a loved one.
Rahman killed his daughter because she was having a relationship with a girl. In the following extract, Wold meets some new friends at a bar and discovers how they live as members of the LGBT community in Jordan. Wold herself is gay and writes beautifully about how she feels so vulnerable and in awe of people who defy the law to be themselves.
My first impression of the place is surprisingly positive. A dozen people – mostly men in their thirties – are sitting with beers in front of them, chatting with each other. Their voices are relaxed, the interior is dark wood, and the speakers in the corners of the room are emitting a kind of Arabic attempt at rock – which quickly gets me feeling like I could be back in any pub in Europe. I sit down at an empty table and order a beer from the man behind the bar. He smiles, fills a glass, and places a bowl of warm nuts in front of me. I regard those around me curiously. I’m the only woman here but it seems to be fine, I think. Maybe Samir is right after all.
Shortly after, Samir struts through the door with two friends and a woman with uncovered bleached hair. She is wearing eyeliner and dark red lipstick, and I am immediately struck by her beauty. The two other friends are well dressed in tight pants and light shirts and have perfectly groomed eyebrows and freshly trimmed beards. If I didn’t know any better I’d have guessed a group of models had just entered the room. Samir himself is tall and dark with a medium-length beard, green eyes, and a big smile. He is undoubtedly a handsome man with a lot of charisma – which was why I started talking to him when I was out a few weeks ago. We exchanged numbers and stayed in touch, and have become good friends during the short time we’ve known each other.
The gang surrounds me, shaking my hand and giving me long hugs. Samir says we’re going to drink arak, a strong liquor with an alcohol content of up to 60 percent. I grimace sceptically, and Samir pats me carefully on the shoulder.
"You’ll be fine," he says, laughing. "You’re a Viking!"
"Arak!" cries out the friend who introduced himself as Ali. Shortly thereafter, an enormous bottle with blue writing is placed on the table along with five narrow glasses and two pints of water. Ali mixes the liquor with the water in the small glasses, and the liquid turns into a cloudy, milky substance. I’m getting the chills just looking at it, and even a bit nauseous from the sweet smell of anise that meets my nose as I take the drink.
"Nnakhbak — to health," says Ali, and we all raise our glasses.
"Skål — cheers," I respond and knock back the liquid that tastes a lot like cough syrup.
The hours pass quickly, and the bottle is soon empty. We eat mezze and indulge in freshly baked Arabic bread that we dip in hummus, baba ghanoush, and labneh – a dip that resembles a cross between feta and cream. Labneh is definitely my favourite, and I eat so much that my stomach starts to hurt. The conversation flows and the mood rises as we continue drinking. Samir says he wants to go out to a club, while Ali would prefer to drive around town and listen to music in the car. On Saturday nights, the streets of Amman are packed with cars full of friends, alcohol, and loud music. In Norway, I would perhaps have called them hooligans, but here the practice has a slightly different social function, as it’s the easiest way for young people to meet. Hidden in their own cars, men and women can be out on the town together, drink, and get to know one another – without being exposed to the critical gaze of the outside world.
The woman, Mary, says she’d rather go out since there’s so much traffic. They’ve already been sitting in the car from Irbid for an hour and a half anyway, she points out. I say I can go along with whatever they decide. I’m not so familiar with Amman’s nightlife and just want to see what they want to do.
"We’re going to Books@cafe," Samir says.
"Books@cafe?" I ask, surprised. It’s the only place I actually do know of in Amman; it’s known for being a meeting place for the LGBT community. Samir blinks and pours another round of arak, proposing yet another cheers — without mixing the alcohol with water this time.
"To tonight!" he shouts, knocking back the drink and leaning toward me. He whispers that he likes both women and men.
I throw back my own drink and don’t know how to react. Then I stare at Ali in his tight shirt and with his perfectly groomed eyebrows.
"Do you know what kind of place it is?" Mary asks, and it grows quiet around the table. Everyone looks at me.
It’s not illegal to be homosexual in Jordan. Even though homosexuality is considered sinful behaviour, it is a private matter that the state mostly doesn’t get involved in.
I nod, still uncertain about how to act. Could it just be a coincidence that my closest new friend here in Amman is bi, or is he here to lure me into a trap? I go over the facts in my head. On paper, it’s not illegal to be homosexual in Jordan, and I’ve never read any cases of tourists being prosecuted or convicted for being openly gay in the country. Even though homosexuality is considered sinful behaviour, it is a private matter that the state mostly doesn’t get involved in. The family deals with the "issue" internally, and different families choose different solutions. The authorities can’t kick me out even if they have evidence that I’m gay, I conclude. Besides, I was the one who introduced myself to Samir when we first met, not the other way around, so the friendship seems genuine.
"I’ve been there before," I admit.
"I KNEW it!" shouts Mary, clapping her hands enthusiastically. "You’re one of us."
I look at the group in front of me and start laughing. The thought hadn’t struck me, but now it is obvious. The tight jeans and shirt Ali is wearing suddenly have a logical explanation, as do Samir’s delicate handshakes and the way his two friends are acting with each other. Stereotypes, maybe, but also facts in this case.
"Maybe," I say. "Are you all gay?" The group erupts into laughter.
"Yes!" Mary says, ordering another round, and the mood rises further. "Let’s celebrate!"
"But I’m not gay," Samir corrects eventually. "I just have sex with men. And I’m masculine. No one is really gay in Amman. Here, you’re bi, not gay."
I ask what he means by that, and he explains that he thinks it’s okay to have sex with someone of the same gender but that it isn’t okay to live in an open lesbian or gay relationship. "That would be selfish," he says. "It would be hard for the family."
"Would they kill you if they found out?" I ask.
He grins and says no. Jordan isn’t a primitive country where barbaric Arabic men kill their children before breakfast, he remarks.
I think about this comment for a while. In a way, he’s both right and wrong. After all, there are about twenty men who kill their children in the name of honour in this country every year, including for reasons such as this. But, like homosexuals in this country, they only represent a small subculture, a minority. Neither gays nor those who kill in the name of honour represent the majority in this country. I realise that I have been focusing only on two extremes of Jordanian society. For months, I have examined the darkest sides of the culture, looking for oppression, prejudice, and murder . . . but there are of course also parts of Jordan where people can more freely love whomever they want and be more open about their sexuality. Honour killing is an ancient cultural phenomenon founded on its own form of logic, and it is increasingly taking place in societies where modern values are gaining traction. It’s only at the extremes that things go wrong. This is an important nuance, I think, and empty my last glass of arak.
"How does it really work, concealing your sexuality?" I ask, wondering if the family won’t find out eventually anyway when they never get married.
"I’m going to marry a woman, get a good job, a house, kids. Like I said, I’m not gay." Samir hits his chest.
Mary leans forward and tells me that there are many ways of solving this issue in Jordan. Sometimes, gay people search for other gay people of the opposite gender with whom they can build a family. They share a home, have children, and live just like any other family – but they are also living a double life on the side with other partners. This way, you can both meet your family’s expectations and live the life you want.
"Doesn’t it feel like living a lie?" I ask.
"You just have to be considerate," she says. "You always have a choice between yourself and your family. Just like we cover up our women with veils, we cover up our secrets. As long as we hide our sins from the public, it’s fine."
Her perspective surprises me. And as we tumble out of the bar and drive toward Al-Rainbow Street in the humid summer night, I feel more out of place and illegal in this country than I have in a long time. My like-minded friends think that what they’re doing is a sin. They have given up the right to their own sexuality and are living a double life in which they are neither faithful to themselves nor to society’s norms.
Inside An Honour Killing, A Father and Daughter Tell Their Story by Lene Wold is available for pre-order from 2nd May from Greystone Books, £19.99.