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Burned Alive    by Souad order for
Burned Alive
by Souad
Order:  USA  Can
Warner, 2005 (2004)
Hardcover, Softcover

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* * *   Reviewed by J. A. Kaszuba Locke

Souad narrates a true account, as best as she can remember it, as the victim of an honor crime. Her story is shocking, and disturbing, the cruelty incomprehensible, and her courage incomparable. Souad writes, I am a girl. A girl must walk fast, head down, as if counting the number of steps she's taking. She may never stray from her path or look up, for if a man were to catch her eye, the whole village would label her a 'charmuta'' (a slut).

In Souad's society, a girl must be married before she can raise her eyes, go into a shop, wear jewelry. Souad had six sisters - three were older, two from her father's second wife Aicha. A son is finally born. Assad, a year younger than Souad, is 'adored and born in glory'. The brother had to be served in the same way as the father - from a groveling position and with head lowered. There were supposedly fourteen children, but where did the rest go? Souad recollects her mother giving birth to a girl, and smothering the baby with a sheepskin. She recalls seeing brother Assad choking one of her sisters to death with a telephone cord.

Souad and sisters faced daily beatings with a leather belt, a cane, and kicking feet from their father, Adnan, for the slightest infraction of rules, e.g., arriving home a few minutes late with the flock of sheep from the fields. If she cried, the whipping became more violent, and if mother Leila attempted to intervene, she was beaten as well. Souad tells of how her father 'pulls me by the hair and he drags me on the ground into the kitchen. He strikes me while I kneel, he pulls on my braid as if he wants to pull it out, and he cuts it off with the big scissors used for shearing wool. I have hardly any hair left. I can cry, yell, or plead but I'll get more kicks.' Cries could be heard from surrounding homes throughout the village. 'This is what it was like in our village. It was the law of men ... The girls knew no play, no schooling, only submission, and hard work in bare feet, in hot climates.'

At seventeen, Souad fell in love with a man named Faiez, whose family asked for her hand in marriage. The marriage was delayed because an older sister needed to be married-off first. She remembers spying on her beloved from a terrace, and she remembers the wheat field where the 'sin was committed'. Souad's crime was sex before marriage. From that act, she became pregnant, and her intended abandoned her - 'a man who has taken a girl's virginity is not guilty - a man with self-respect doesn't marry the girl he deflowered.' This dishonor to family was punishable by death, and brother-in-law Hussein committed the task. 'I suddenly felt a cold liquid running over my head and instantly I was on fire. It is like a movie that has been speeded up ... I start to run in the garden, barefoot ... But I remember almost nothing after that.' He poured gasoline and set her on fire, and became a community hero, for executing a crime of honor. Souad miraculously survived, rescued by village women who put out the flames and took her to the hospital. 90% of her body was burned, and there were attempts to 'finish the job'. All alone she gave birth to a seven-month baby.

This is a heartbreaking, inspiring story. Souad's resolve to survive, build a new life, and bravely share her story is a call to action to end heinous traditions (if one can swallow the use of that word to apply to such barbarism). Souad tells us 'So, this was my first life, as an Arab woman in the West Bank. It lasted twenty years, and the person I had been there died. She is no more. My second life began in Europe at the end of the 1970s in an international airport ... on a stretcher.' After escaping the Middle East with the help of a European aid worker, Souad was flown to Switzerland, where she underwent numerous operations to repair her burned skin. When Souad became physically safe, she still struggled for a sense of self worth. Souad married and raised three children in her lifelong exile, and her testimony is still held anonymous for her protection.

Burned Alive is a compelling, personal account. With encouragement, Souad decided, even if she cannot write, she will 'speak a book'. Now she often speaks on behalf of victims of honor crimes for an aid organization called SURGIR (the name means Arise), a Swiss foundation that works with women, anywhere in the world, who are subjected to criminal traditions, and with the children of these women. SURGIR fights vigorously against the injustice of customs that victimize women (website

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