An American Honor Killing: One Victim's Story

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Noor al-Maleki

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Americans would like to believe that a Phoenix suburb, with concrete strip malls that look like any other in the U.S., except that some storefronts have writing in Arabic, is a far cry from a rural village in Jordan or India. But is it?

The practice has followed immigrants from countries like Yemen and Iraq to the West. Phyllis Chesler, an emerita professor of psychology and women's studies at the City University of New York, has documented 40 attempted and successful honor crimes in North America and Europe between 1989 and 2008; 10 of those were in the U.S. According to Layli Miller-Muro, executive director of the U.S.-based Tahirih Justice Center, which provides free legal service to women fleeing violence, her nonprofit organization has received a number of calls in the past several years from young women who fear being killed for honor because they refused an arranged marriage.

New Land, New Ways
More than 36,000 Iraqis have settled in the Phoenix area in the past four decades, according to Farouk al-Hashimi, chairman of the Iraqi Cultural Association in Glendale, Ariz. They arrived in three waves: the first consisted of largely educated, upper-middle-class Iraqis in the 1970s and '80s, the second was dominated by refugees of the first Gulf War, and the latest has been people displaced by the recent war. The second group comprised Shi'ite soldiers of limited education, al-Hashimi says, adding, "They struggle to adapt to American thinking and American standards."

Among the second wave, Faleh seemed eager to accept America on its own terms. After living in a refugee camp in Saudi Arabia, he resettled with his family in Dearborn, Mich., in 1994. He got a job as a truck driver, often leaving home for days or weeks at a time. Back then, Faleh's and Khalaf's families were, as Khalaf says in Arabic, "like one big family." Both families are from Basra in southern Iraq, and they lived within doors of one another in Dearborn.

Wearing a black-and-white sheer scarf over her hair, with a similarly colored tunic over black pants, Khalaf is sitting at her home. She has largely recovered from the fractured pelvis and femur that she sustained during the attack. Her son and Noor's sweetheart, Marwan al-Ebadi, a skinny 21-year-old with tattoos running up his left arm, is translating, while her husband listens.

When the Ebadis moved to Glendale in 1999, the Malekis followed, living with them for a couple of months. In Arizona, according to his friends and family, Faleh became a heavy gambler, often borrowing money from friends. He rejected their suggestions that he go to a mosque. His wife got a job simulating the role of Iraqis in training exercises at a U.S. military base in California.

Despite embracing aspects of American culture, the Malekis didn't allow their children the same latitude. They expected the children to speak Arabic at home, dress modestly and be obedient. "They all basically had a cage around them. They had so much stuff to talk about, and they couldn't," Khalaf recalls. "Once they said something, they got hit."

During her teenage years, Noor began asserting herself. She was striking, with long, dark hair and tawny eyes, and she flirted with the idea of modeling — a taboo for a good Muslim girl. She worked hard at school, getting good grades and writing for the school newspaper, but she also wanted to hang out with her friends and have fun.

Faleh felt his control slipping away. He told Thamer al-Diney, his friend and a fellow truck driver who had lived with him in the Saudi camps, "Noor gives me a hard time. She tires me." Al-Diney advised Faleh to take Noor back to Iraq. According to al-Diney, Faleh responded, "I will take her, marry her [off] and say, 'Stay here.'"

When Noor was 17, Faleh took her to Iraq, marrying her to a man who wanted to emigrate to the West. Noor went along with her father's plans at first, but she returned to the U.S. after half a year, without the husband, stalling on the paperwork to facilitate his green card. "In her mind," al-Ebadi says, "she wasn't married."

Noor's parents saw matters differently, and her relationship with them deteriorated. In May 2008, Noor got into an accident in her father's car; he tried to press criminal charges against her for theft. He told the police that he'd argued with Noor because he'd seen a photograph of her with men he didn't know. In Noor's interview with the police, she explained that she was in the process of moving out of the family home. Over the speakerphone on Noor's cell phone at the police station, Faleh told Noor that he wanted her to return home because of how her being gone "would look on the family."

Noor returned home, only to argue once more with her parents. Soon after, Khalaf told the police, she found Noor sleeping in a van in the driveway and took her in. Noor's parents went looking for her, but they didn't find her. Meanwhile, Noor began exploring how to get an order of protection against her father.

By summer's end, Noor had learned that her mother was casting spells on a doll that was supposed to be her. "You may refer to me as Layla Diab," she wrote to al-Ebadi, informing him that she was changing her name. (Al-Ebadi was in prison for having hit Noor; he insists it was an accident.) Noor explained, "This way when my crazy mother does witchcraft or whatever evil it is she does, it won't affect me.'"

The Manhunt
Fortunately, a Phoenix suburb differs from an Iraqi village in at least one sense. While their counterparts abroad might look the other way, the police and prosecutors in Arizona pursued Faleh aggressively.

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