On 6 June, followers of Amina Abdallah's Gay Girl in Damascus blog became hugely concerned after a post by her cousin claimed Amina had been arrested. Six days later this concern turned to anger as “Amina” was revealed to be a man called Tom MacMaster. While MacMaster has posted an apology, he doesn't seem particularly sorry for his actions – or aware of their very real implications. By THERESA MALLINSON.
“Perhaps, then, we can start this account as though it were a fairy tale: 'Once upon a time, there lived…' or 'Kan wa ma kan'; it was and it wasn’t'…” This is an excerpt from one of “Amina Abdallah Araf al Omari's” first posts on her blog, A Gay Girl in Damascus. Or rather, it is and it isn't. On 12 June the blogger behind A Gay Girl in Damascus, Tom MacMaster published a mea culpa, stating that he was “the sole author of all the posts on this blog”.
“Amina” started blogging in February this year and, over the last few months, built up a loyal following. Her decision to blog under her “real” name, was crucial to her project. “I live in Damascus, Syria. It's a repressive police state. Most LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender] people are still deep in the closet or staying as invisible as possible. But I have set up a blog announcing my sexuality, with my name and my photo. Am I crazy? Maybe. But I'm also aware of the winds of freedom and change blowing from one end of the Arab world to the other. And I want that freedom wind to bring with it our liberation, not just as Arabs and as Syrians, but also as women and as lesbians.”
Amina's impassioned posts about the revolution in Syria were interspersed with other writings describing her family history; coming out as a lesbian and some forgettable poetry. Then, on 6 June, her “cousin” Rania, posted that Amina had been arrested. “Amina was seized by three men in their early 20s. According to the witness (who does not want her identity known), the men were armed. Amina hit one of them and told the friend to go find her father. One of the men then put his hand over Amina’s mouth and they hustled her into a red Dacia Logan with a window sticker of Basel Assad. The witness did not get the tag number. She promptly went and found Amina’s father. The men are assumed to be members of one of the security services or the Baath Party militia. Amina’s present location is unknown and it is unclear if she is in a jail or being held elsewhere in Damascus.”
Pretty terrifying stuff. If it was real – as initially assumed – Amina had to be located. Even the US state department began investigating the situation. Amina had many international supporters, and her case swiftly garnered attention on the internet. However, almost as swiftly, doubts began to emerge about this Amina character. Blogger Liz Henry thoughtfully posted her reservations on 7 June, with National Public Radio's Andy Carvin also questioning Amina's story.
Syrian activists, none of whom had met Amina in person, disputed the validity of several details in her posts; the photos she'd used on her Facebook page belonged to one Jelena Lecic, a Croatian living in London; the US embassy in Syria could find no record of Amina, despite her claims of dual citizenship. And no one was able to come forward who had ever met Amina face-to-face, although she had had several email correspondences, some going back as long as five years.
After internet detective work by Ali Abunimah and Benjain Doherty of Electronic Intifada, as well as a separate investigation by The Washington Post the case began to unravel completely. On Sunday, Electronic Intifada published information connecting Tom MacMaster, and his wife, Britta Foelicher, with the blog. The evidence included the fact that Amina’s home address in the US was the same as MacMaster’s, a photograph posted on the blog was also posted on Foelicher's Flickr account, and the blog posts were made from an IP address in Edinburgh where MacMaster and Foelicher now live.
MacMaster refused to discuss these examples in detail, instead mailing Electronic Intifada, stating: “I am not the blogger in question. Whomever that person ‘really’ is, I have doubtless interacted with her at some point. I do not know further than that about her.” But by Sunday evening, the game was up, and MacMaster outed himself on the Gay Girl in Damascus blog, with an apology to readers, signed from Istanbul Turkey, where he is on holiday with Froelicher.
Although termed an “apology”, the post was more defensive than apologetic. “While the narrative voice may have been fictional, the facts on this blog are true and not misleading as to the situation on the ground. I do not believe that I have harmed anyone – I feel that I have created an important voice for issues that I feel strongly about,” he wrote. Just what exactly was “factual” about the imprisonment of a fictional character, MacMaster failed to elucidate.
“I only hope people pay as much attention to the people of the Middle East and their struggles in this year of revolutions. The events there are being shaped by the people living them on a daily basis. I have only tried to illuminate them for a western audience. This experience has sadly only confirmed my feelings regarding the often superficial coverage of the Middle East and the pervasiveness of new forms of liberal Orientalism.” MacMaster seems largely lacking in self-awareness, for what is his experiment if not a form of paternalistic liberal “Orientalism”, a Westerner appropriating the voice of the other, because he can “illuminate” it?
In addition to as his mea culpa, MacMaster has confirmed separately to Electronic Intifada, as well as Andy Carvin, that he is behind the hoax. How much a part his wife played is yet to be determined. The fact that prior to her blog Amina had online dating profiles and participated in Google chat groups (one, tellingly enough, on “alternative history”) going back five years, lends a whole new level of creepiness to the situation. Just what was MacMaster playing at? It seems an awful lot of effort to go to for a literary hoax.
In one of her first posts, Amina wrote: “But this isn’t a fairy tale or an Arabian night’s tale; instead, what I’ve written down is a 'True History', of everything that happened (and most of it is true) with only minor embellishments, conflations, name-changes (to protect the guilty), and a few events made up out of whole cloth (do recall that I – as well as some others involved – am an Arab and, if you’ve read much of the current, how shall we say it, more 'Orientalist' press, you’ll know that it’s axiomatic that Arabs are unreliable and prone to lie (if not to lie prone), so, if you buy that whole reasoning – and why not? It is the dominant paradigm – you’ll expect me to lie at every turn. I won’t but what’ll it matter?”
“Name-changes (to protect the guilty)” sounds about right. MacMaster, of course, did nothing but lie at every turn. And it does matter. It matters because the Syrian regime has long claimed that the protests are instigated by outside forces, and the creation of Amina plays right into their hands. It matters because the case of Amina diverted attention from the protesters that are languishing in Syrian jails as you read this. It matters because it undermines the credibility of every journalist, blogger and LGBT activist who is in danger from repressive regimes.
As Syrian LGBT activist Daniel Nasser wrote after finding out about the hoax: “You took away my voice, Mr MacMaster, and the voices of many people who I know. To bring attention to yourself and blog, you managed to bring the LGBT movement in the Middle East years back. You single-handedly managed to bring unwanted attention from authorities to our cause and you will be responsible for any LGBT activist who might be yet another fallen angel during these critical times.”
MacMaster has indicated that he will talk to “a journalist of [his] choice” shortly. He certainly has a lot of explaining to do. And, given the world we live in, it won't be surprising if he gets a book deal out of this fiasco after all – as “Amina” hoped to do on her blog. Let's hope he has the decency to donate any profits to a legitimate Syrian LGBT rights organisation; it's the least he can do. DM