How a straight guy in Edinburgh seduced us with 'A Gay Girl in Damascus'
Until Monday, ‘Gay Girl in Damascus’ was one of Syria’s most popular English-speaking bloggers, a 35-year-old lesbian activist in fear of the regime. Today, she’s a 40-year-old American man, a certain Tom MacMaster, based in Scotland. Duped? We were.
An outspoken and vulnerable lesbian living in the repressive lair of the Bashar al-Assad regime, Amina Arraf was the perfect martyr. Her sentimental outpourings and poems, unshakable faith in god and determined criticism of the powers that be, earned the purported American-Syrian activist a dedicated following of supporters and sympathisers from around the world.
Alas, when we awoke Monday to discover that our cherished Amina was in fact a 40-year-old caucasian American with no relation to Syria and, rather more, an unhealthy dose of indifference to the distress he had caused, a great sense of betrayal swept across the online world.
Looking back at Gay Girl in Damascus (GGID), it’s easy to imagine MacMaster (left) sat at his computer in Scotland, where he is based, concocting Amina’s tender tales of repression as she went about her life in the Syrian capital.
But what is impossible to imagine, is how MacMaster managed to shamelessly keep up the pretence, knowingly causing distress to his readers. When he reported Amina’s kidnapping on June 6, the response was colossal. Articles sprung up all over the world and a “Free Amina” Facebook page soon attracted over 15,000 followers (this number has now dropped). A US consular in Damascus even appealed to Amina’s cousin (also fictional) to get in touch. The embassy said it was preparing to “discuss the case with the Syrians” once they had verified Amina’s US citizenship. But of course, they found nothing.
MacMaster’s fantasy facade
MacMaster introduced Amina to the world way back in 2007, in an autobiographical blog penned by a “Muslim princess” and “confused geek” who was brought up in the US by Syrian parents.
Back then, however, Amina’s supposed scribblings were delivered with a cautionary note: “This blog will have what may sometimes seem like deeply personal accounts,” s/he wrote. “And sometimes they will be. But there will also be fiction. And I will not tell you which is which.”
By 2011, Amina was a fully-formed personality, no sign of fiction in sight. Disturbingly, she had even formed real life relationships. The principal victim (unless she was in on the hoax too), was French-Canadian blogger Sandra Bagaria (right), who described Amina as her girlfriend and said the pair had exchanged more than 500 emails over the past six months. Not surprisingly, they had never spoken over the phone.
Despite such a clear case of deception, MacMaster was far from apologetic when the curtains came down. “I do not believe I have hurt anyone,” he said on Monday.
Well, that’s if you discount LGBT activists, citizen journalists and Middle Eastern dissidents whose lives depend on anonymity…
Apology not accepted
Syrian Sami Hamwi, who blogs for GayMiddleEast.com, posted a lengthy rebuke on the website Monday, addressing it directly to MacMaster. “What you have done has harmed many, put us all in danger, and made us worry about our LGBT activism. (…) Your apology is not accepted, since I have myself started to investigate Amina’s arrest. I could have put myself in a grave danger inquiring about a fictitious figure. Really… Shame on you!”
Blogger Mustapha, who writes BeirutSpring, drew attention to the perils of those who publish in English. “Thank you Tom MacMaster,” he wrote on Monday. “You have forever tarnished the reputation of bloggers in this region who choose to write in English. One day if I’m kidnapped by my government, many readers won’t care because I could turn out to be another Amina.”
Meanwhile, Liz Henly, one of the bloggers who helped unveil the true identity of Tom MacMaster, denounced the hoax as “infuriating”. “Many people have good reason to conceal their identity and to develop relationships online under a screen name. (…) None of those, however, are excuses for deception and manipulative behavior,” she wrote.
Amina in her most recent sense existed for a good four months before MacMaster was found lurking behind the scenes. But while he might be a talented trickster, he didn’t manage to fool the web forever. After photos posted by Amina on Facebook (right) were found to be of someone else – a London-based Croatian woman named Jelena Lecic – web users quickly got to work in discovering the true identity of the blogger.
Ali Abunimah and Benjamin Doherty of pro-Palestinian website the Electronic Intifada set about tracing IP addresses used to publish GGID. Four days later, they published the evidence against MacMaster and his wife, Britta Froelicher. Twelve hours after that, MacMaster gave in, admitted that Amina was a work of fiction, and posted his so-called apology.
A happy ending after all? Well it’s certainly a relief to think that one less person is being held in prison by the Syrian authorities. The worry is, now that Amina has been proved fictional, that all the other Aminas will be thought of as fairytales too.