What was a more productive issue for the western blogosphere to focus its attention on right now? A fictional Syrian lesbian, or real live Syrians – queer or otherwise – who are being persecuted for their courage in demanding freedom for their country? Tom MacMaster, creator of the Gay Girl In Damascus blog, reckoned it was the former. Sure, he created his fake blog before the Syrian uprising began, but once it started to get mainstream media interest, he carried on. He tried to stop himself on numerous occasions, he claims, but it seems his vanity project continually overpowered him.
Amina Abdallah Arafa al Omari, the supposed Gay Girl In Damascus, wasn’t real. This is a comfort, given that I lay awake at night afraid that she would be raped in prison. MacMaster is right to hope that western audiences will “pay as much attention to the people of the Middle East and their struggles in this year of revolutions”. But in taking matters into his own hands by creating this character, his assertion that he only tried to “illuminate” events rings hollow.
Oversimplification and orientalism make regular appearances in mainstream western narratives on the Middle East. As Amina pointed out, western liberals are liable to fall into the trap of a false binary which leaves them reluctant to support the Arab spring or criticise imperial wars “on account of those who are suffering ain’t as gay friendly as those who do the oppressing […] They want to pretend that us homos and queers will all come to forget that we have fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters and so on. We’ll forget that we have been oppressed not solely or even primarily as faggots and dykes but, instead, as Arabs, as Muslims, as Middle Easterners, as Palestinians and Iraqis and Syrians and so on. They want us to shed all those aspects of ourselves and embrace the oppressor if the oppressor lets us dance in his disco or make out in her coffee house.”
These were powerful words, but now that we know their actual source, they do no favours to legitimate critiques of pinkwashing. In fact, replacing a problematic narrative with a fictional one in the name of enlightenment rather infantilises the intended audience, in addition to usurping the voices of already marginalised people. As a white, American man, presumably straight and cissexual, living in a country where he could say what he liked, Tom MacMaster didn’t need to assume identity drag to make his point, despite his justification to the BBC that inventing an Arab name allowed him to “keep the focus on the actual issue”. He could have been honest about both his privilege and his distance; there are, in fact, plenty of western commentators on the Middle East who have earned respect for their knowledge and insight. But if MacMaster’s deception was motivated by a feeling that people would listen more to a Middle Eastern lesbian (if only!): too bad. He was not giving queer Arab women a voice by writing these words; he was failing at the first hurdle of Shut The Fuck Up And Listen, which is where the privileged need to start if they’re going to be effective allies to those whose rights and lives they profess to care about.
The first internet hoax I recall hearing of was that of Kaycee Nicole, supposedly a teenage girl whose death from cancer occurred ten years ago. Like Kaycee Nicole, Amina generated a great deal of real-life concern, but her story crosses a new line, set as it is against the backdrop of the wave of torture and murder taking place in Syria. We don’t know how many of the westerners who rushed to sign petitions and pressure ambassadors for Amina’s release have done likewise for genuine prisoners, but scolding them for caring about someone would seem to deflect the blame from where it truly lies.
“I do not believe that I have harmed anyone,” wrote Tom MacMaster in his first of two blog posts entitled Apology To Readers. The word “sorry”, or any expression of remorse, was curiously absent throughout this post, although its successor took a far more repentant line: perhaps reactions in the blogosphere and/or being grilled by journalists had caused him to reflect further on what he had done. Sandra Bagaria, who had exchanged over 500 e-mails with Amina and was planning a holiday with her, said on Twitter that she was deeply hurt. Her online relationship with Amina had first been thrown into turmoil by an apparent abduction, then by the revelation that she had been exchanging correspondence with a 40-year-old man all along. How betrayed must she feel? This was no noble experiment. Even before the Syrian uprising that led Amina’s blog to attract worldwide attention, MacMaster saw this young woman’s emotions as expendable.
“This experience has sadly only confirmed my feelings,” MacMaster continued, “regarding the often superficial coverage of the Middle East and the pervasiveness of new forms of liberal Orientalism.” Rather than provide any explanation, this self-righteous accusation showed a failure to take responsibility for his own actions. Chillingly, Sami Hamwi of Gay Middle East Syria writes that he had started to investigate Amina’s disappearance himself, which could have put his own life in grave danger. In an open letter to MacMaster, Syrian activist Daniel Nassar says “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 time.”
If nothing else, given that both of MacMaster’s apology posts are receiving so many hits, he could have done some last-minute good by suggesting directions for concerned readers’ energies now that Amina’s safety is no longer a concern. While we unpick his motivations, non-violent activist Osama Nassar is being held in an undisclosed location in Syria, at risk of torture. In his absence, his wife Maimouna Ammar gave birth to their baby girl a few days ago. Her father, Dr Mohammad Ammar, is also imprisoned – arrested a few days after speaking about non-violence at a rally. Maimouna’s friend, Dana Jawabra, a prominent human rights campaigner, was rounded up along with hundreds of others calling for democracy. Blogger Tal al-Mallohi, taken from her home in December 2009 at age eighteen, received a five-year sentence this February on baseless allegations of espionage. Dr Mohamad Ibrahim was imprisoned for privately treating wounded protesters who were too scared to go to hospital in case the authorities intercepted them. Brothers ‘Abd al-Rahman Hammada and Wa’el Hammada are believed to be held in Damascus by the Air Force Security, while Wa’el Hammada’s wife, prominent human rights activist Razan Zaitouneh, remains in hiding. ‘Maher Ibrahim and Tarek Ghorani have been imprisoned since 2007 for discussing democracy on the internet. It is clear that these cases are just the tip of the iceberg.
As children are tortured to death, soldiers risk execution by deserting, and thousands of refugees flee to Turkey, there are compelling stories that need to be told. They need our attention and our action. But Tom MacMaster’s literary efforts were a wildly inappropriate substitute for showing solidarity or educating the masses. As Ethan Zuckerman states, “it’s hard to imagine a more orientalist project than a married, male American writer masquerading as a Syrian lesbian to tell a story about oppression and democratic protest.”
Nine is a zinester from Northern Ireland via Scotland, and is travelling indefinitely. She is Pro: documentaries, sex workers’ rights, sesame brussels sprouts, corgis, the Eurovision Song Contest and the DIY punk ethic. She is Anti: Smug Pontificating Straightboy Syndrome, islamophobia, Brian Souter, giant cockroaches, and Facebook. @supernowoczesna