The List

Straight Guy in Scotland

What the "Gay Girl in Damascus" hoax tells us about ourselves and the media in the era of the Arab Spring.

We're naive about the perils of anonymity.

It has to be said: The life of Amina Arraf was a good story. On a website called "Gay Girl in Damascus," this purportedly Syrian-American lesbian blogger wrestled with issues surrounding her national identity, her sexuality, her faith, and the future of her country at a time of open revolt. At a time when most of the information coming out of Syria comes in the form of choppy, graphic YouTube videos or breathless tweets about the Assad regime's crackdowns, here was a young woman writing from Damascus in flawless English about her country's social and political turmoil.

And then it all fell apart. Following a post on Amina's blog by her "cousin" reporting that she had been arrested and that her whereabouts were unknown, journalists and readers sprung into action, emailing one another and looking for friends and contacts who might know where she had been taken. Oddly, there were no real leads. None of the many people who had befriended her online had ever met her in person, pictures allegedly of Amina turned out to be a Croatian woman living in Britain, and an old blog written by the same person was self-described as a blend of fact and fiction -- "and I will not tell you which is which."

On June 12, Amina finally came out -- as Tom MacMaster, a 40-year-old American man who is currently pursuing a master's degree at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. In an initial apology post that included a hint of defiance, MacMaster admitted that Amina was fictional, but that "the facts on this blog are true and not misleading" about the events in Syria. Finally, facing international opproprium, in a more contrite June 13 post, MacMaster donned sackloth, writing, "I feel like I am in some ways the worst person in the world."

This conceit gives MacMaster too much credit. It does not take an evil genius to launch a fictional blog. MacMaster is certainly a fool (and one hopes there's no Jayson Blair-esque book deal in the offing), but the more important question is why this particular fool was able to mislead so much of the Western media, and the public it serves. Part of the reason is that media standards have yet to catch up with the realities (and temptations) of instant online publishing: Tools like e-mail, Twitter, blogs, and Facebook may represent a digital revolution, but they also can conceal an author's identity -- and, in this case, a lie that would have easily been exposed with a quick phone call.

But MacMaster's hoax has implications that go beyond the damaged credibility of the New York Times and CNN, two of the many media outlets that reported on Amina over the past several months. The story played perfectly into Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's effort to portray the domestic revolt as one guided by shadowy outsiders -- indeed, Syria's official government mouthpiece prominently featured a profile of MacMaster, claiming that the hoax "aimed at enhancing continuous fabrications and lies against Syria in term of (sic) kidnapping bloggers and activists."


We're too eager to believe liberal interpretations of the Middle East.

Amina's great appeal was her ability to transcend religious, ethnic, and political lines. "I am complex, I am many things; I am an Arab, I am Syrian, I am a woman, I am queer," she wrote, in a post that paid homage to both famed Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish and American founding father Patrick Henry.

She also hated the Assad regime with a passion and offered a comforting version of post-revolutionary Syria. "The New Syria will be a better place for Kurds. It will be a better place for Muslims. It will even be a better place for Communists," she wrote. "And one thing is becoming clear; we're done with dictators and rule by strong men.… We've learned to respect one another even when we disagree."

It is a pretty thought, and perhaps there's a chance that for a segment of the population it's true. But it is also a message that Western audiences undoubtedly wanted to hear.

We like a good yarn.

The neat, linear narrative of Amina's story made it very attractive to casual readers -- not unlike fiction, funny enough -- but not quite in the way that real life often plays out.

On April 26, four days after Syrian security forces massacred at least 72 protesters in what was then the bloodiest day of the revolt, Amina broke through in the Western press in a big way. In a post titled "My father, the hero," she described a late-night visit by pro-regime enforcers intent on arresting her because of the contents of her blog. The regime thugs insult and grope Amina before being chased off by her father, who delivers an impassioned plea against religious extremism and for coexistence between the Sunni and Alawite sects.

It was all too convenient. As stability in Syria deteriorated, Amina's posts oscillated between erotic poetry and a visit to a Damascus mosque, disguised in full hijab, to meet fellow revolutionaries. Following another spasm of violence in Syria, Amina's "cousin" posted on June 6 that three men had grabbed her off the street and wrestled her into a car, and that her whereabouts were unknown.

We're suckers for a pretty face.

"I knew what she looked like in my head and I grabbed photos of a woman whom I have never met who looked exactly like what Amina should look like," MacMaster wrote in his second apology, describing how he created this character.

It just so happened that Amina's alter ego was Jelena Lucic -- a fetching, pale-skinned Croatian woman working at the Royal College in London. The images, which had been lifted from Lucic's Facebook page, helped to spur a digital romance with a Canada-based lesbian blogger that extended to over 500 emails, and still adorn Facebook groups calling for the fictional girl's release.

After the hoax became public, observers raced to point out that choice of a pretty, unveiled woman as "author"  garnered the "Gay Girl in Damascus" attention that would have been denied to other Arabs. "Tom MacMaster's ‘Freedom' is not a group of brown women shouting in solidarity with signs and heads covered, demanding that Syria is their country," wrote one incensed blogger. "Freedom is a single white face, a delicate femininity performing innocent submission for the camera, an ‘out' blogger who appears to have no community to be out to, a Syrian who is really an American, and the ‘ultimate outsider' who ends the story when she escapes from the Middle East, presumably, to return to the USA."


We missed obvious details.

With the benefit of hindsight, it's hard to see how the hoax survived as long as it did. Amina supposedly hailed from a prominent Sunni family in Damascus -- very powerful, apparently. In a May 3 post, our protagonist described getting drunk with her father, who revealed that she was "on the list" of potential wives for President Bashar al-Assad. The father, increasingly intoxicated, later begins to dial Bashar's cell phone number to denounce the regime before Amina stops him.

It doesn't take an expert in Syrian politics to understand why it is far-fetched that a woman as well-known as Amina claimed to be would denounce the regime so boldly, and so openly compromise her family's position. The prospect of a Syrian-American woman from one of the country's leading families openly criticizing Assad -- and remaining free for months -- would have been unthinkable when Syria was stable, let alone during the current crackdown.

And then there are the smaller details. Amina never referenced specific locations or events in Damascus. On the rare occasions that she reached for Arabic words, she wrote them in Latin characters rather than Arabic script. Again, that's our ignorance: the overwhelming majority of her readership was unable to distinguish between a graduate student with a passing knowledge of Arab politics and language and a true native.

In late May, in a passage that likely hints at MacMaster's own reasons for dwelling on this character, Amina described why she returned to Syria from the United States. "I had vague plans to finally finish the autobiographical novel that I've been steadily working on, maybe to finish a few of the science fiction and fantasy stories I had plotted," she wrote. "I'd reconnect myself to my roots and the price seemed low."

But as the Syrian bloggers who must now work doubly hard to prove the veracity of their work can attest, it was not as low as hoped.

The List

Beach Books for Wonks

Looking for some good summer reading? We asked our favorite contributors to suggest what books to pack along for a sunny afternoon.

Gary J. Bass, professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University:

Joseph Lelyveld, Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India. An epic account of Gandhi's unfinished struggles against racism, Hindu-Muslim hatreds, caste, and poverty. Evocative, humane, incisive, and beautifully written.

David Rohde and Kristen Mulvihill, A Rope and a Prayer: A Kidnapping from Two Sides. A super-sad true love story by the New York Times reporter who escaped from Taliban captivity, and his wife, who struggled to save him. A propulsive and harrowing read, packed with hard-won lessons about the Taliban, journalism, and bravery.

Petina Gappah, An Elegy for Easterly. A collection of lyrical, accomplished stories about lives in Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe. Full of compassion, satire, and wit.

 

Aaron David Miller, public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars:

Raymond Chandler's classic detective novel The Big Sleep. A book filled with life lessons for foreign-policy practitioners and analysts, as well as normal human beings. It's a cautionary and complex tale of deception, ambiguity, and illusion with real resonance for our current predicament in the Middle East.

Reinhold Niebuhr, The Irony of American History. Still the best take on the folly that America can (and should) run the world.

 

David E. Hoffman, Foreign Policy contributing editor and author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Dead Hand:

Ben Macintyre, Agent Zigzag: A True Story of Nazi Espionage, Love, and Betrayal. A story of espionage and betrayal during World War II, brilliantly told and perfect for the beach.

Tom Rachman, The Imperfectionists. For those who feel nostalgia or just plain curiosity about the wonders of daily newspapers and the life of journalists abroad, this is one you won't put down.

 

Gary Sick, professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs:

Bharati Mukherjee, Miss New India. An engaging look at the changes that have swept India in the past 20 or so years as advances in technology have opened doors to newfound prosperity and many young, savvy, and ambitious Indians have poured through those doors.

Ian McEwan, Black Dogs. An encounter with two huge, ferocious dogs is used as an overarching metaphor for the presence of evil in the world. Short, pithy, fast reading; full of suspense; thought-provoking. A little masterpiece by one of the great writers of our time.

Karen Russell, Swamplandia!. Novelist Carl Hiaasen says: "This was the first time I've read Karen Russell's work, and I was dazzled. It's very rare, among the tonnage of manuscripts and galleys that land upon one's desk, to come across a young novelist so inventive and versatile, yet so thoroughly in control. Also, I'm a sucker for any plot line that features man-eating reptiles." A summer feast!

 

Julia Ioffe, FP Moscow correspondent:

Edward P. Jones, The Known World. Besides the utterly beautiful writing and captivating, counterintuitive plot -- it's about blacks owning slaves in the pre-Civil War South -- this book turned my brain inside out. In a good way.

Vladimir Nabokov, Laughter in the Dark. This is one of Nabokov's lesser-known works, and because it's a very early one, it is rawer, more experimental than the novel it was clearly a proto-version of -- Lolita.

Vladimir Sorokin, Day of the Oprichnik. The first of a dystopian trilogy, it has just been translated -- twice -- for an American audience. I can't speak for the quality of the translations or how Sorokin's dark, violent world (a metaphor for High Putinism) translates for an American eye, but the original is powerful, compelling, and utterly disturbing.

V.S. Naipaul, A House for Mr. Biswas; Margaret Atwood, The Blind Assassin. To my mind, these are probably the best "beach read," complex family sagas -- with a heavy side of tragicomedy -- that suck you into their richly textured universes. A perfect distraction from the heat.

 

Paul Salopek, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist currently at work on The Mule Diaries, a book about wandering:

Ryszard Kapuscinski, The Shadow of the Sun. Not new, and not really about Africa as much as it is about the author's mind. But he's got a brilliant one. And he's always complaining about the heat.

J.M. Coetzee, Diary of a Bad Year. A funny elegy to deep thinking -- and deep writing -- by the South African Nobelist.

 

Daniel W. Drezner, professor of international politics at Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy:

John le Carré, The Secret Pilgrim. The spy thriller is the one crossover between international relations and bestselling fiction. This one features Le Carré at his most reflective, as his alter ego George Smiley and Smiley's pupil Ned recount their Cold War adventures. More a collection of short stories than a novel, the tales crackle with wit and flair.

Max Brooks, World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War. I'd like to think I know a thing or two about zombies, and this book is the one thing I recommend to even those who don't like the genre. Starting with an absurd premise, Brooks tells a Studs Terkel tale of a war against zombies 10 years after its end. The writing spans the globe from China to Brazil to South Africa to the United States, and Brooks perfectly captures how every major country in the world would likely respond to such a threat.

Jhumpa Lahiri, Unaccustomed Earth. Lahiri's protagonists are usually Indians navigating the Western world, feeling the pull of modernity on one side and the tug of tradition on the other. This collection of short stories -- especially the last one -- captures the ways in which Lahiri can translate the global into the particular.

Will Inboden, distinguished scholar at the Strauss Center for International Security and Law at the University of Texas-Austin:

My criteria for a good summer read are threefold: that the book can keep me awake either on the beach or in bed at night, that it teach me something new, and that it not be too "academic," i.e. not a book that I would assign in one of my graduate classes. So for those foreign-policy mavens out there who are looking for captivating reading that will still enhance your insights about the human condition, here are my suggestions:

Sam Tanenhaus, Whittaker Chambers: A Biography. Chambers, one of the most enigmatic and prophetic voices of the 20th century, meets a biographer worthy of his dramatic life in Tanenhaus.

Langdon Gilkey, Shantung Compound: A Story of Men and Women Under Pressure. A gripping firsthand account of life in a prison camp in Japanese-occupied China during World War II that also presents a disquieting account of human nature.

Carlos Eire, Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy. An enchanting, elegantly rendered memoir of a boyhood in pre-Castro Cuba.

 

Thomas E. Ricks, FP contributing editor and Center for a New American Security senior fellow:

I just finished David Ignatius's new novel, Bloodmoney, which is set mainly in Pakistan, the United States, and London. I think anyone who reads FP would enjoy it.

I think fiction must use a different part of the brain. I wouldn't read an academic analysis of CIA-ISI relations until past midnight, but after a long day of travel, I stayed up hours to finish reading this book. As it happens, the other day I ran into an American diplomat who is an expert in the Middle East and strongly recommended Ignatius's previous novel, The Increment, about Iran.

So what should foreign-policy wonks read on the beach this summer? I'd say the complete works of Ignatius, which amount to a grand tour of the Middle East. Start with Agents of Innocence (Lebanon, and worth the price of admission just for the stomach-churning chapter in the middle about being an Israeli agent in Syria) and work your way with him through the region. You won't sleep any better, but you'll learn a lot. And you will be entertained.

Stephen M. Walt, Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University:

There are two kinds of beach books: those that you say you're going to read (out of a sense of professional obligation) and those guilty pleasures that you actually do read. I'm going to spend a couple of weeks on Fire Island later this summer, and here's what I'm packing:

Peter Trubowitz, Politics and Strategy: Partisan Ambition and American Statecraft. Peter's an old friend, and this book is the culmination of a research program he has been pursuing for some time now. The book seeks to explain why some U.S. leaders pursue ambitious grand strategies while others do not, using a combination of domestic and systems-level variables. I've perused the contents and skimmed a few pages, and it looks really interesting, so it's going in my beach bag.

Robert D. Kaplan, Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power. Kaplan is that rare journalist with a flair for big-picture strategic thinking. And he's clearly a realist, which puts him miles ahead of most people writing about U.S. strategy these days. This one I'm really looking forward to devouring.

Anatol Lieven, Pakistan: A Hard Country. Lieven has spent a lot of time in Central Asia, and he always has refreshing things to say about our engagement with that region. He is also not afraid to challenge prevailing wisdoms and self-congratulatory nostrums, which makes him even more important. I don't know nearly enough about Pakistan, and I'm hoping this book will help fill the gap.

So much for the books designed to assuage my workaholic sense of guilt at being on vacation. As for the guilty pleasures that I'm loading on my Kindle, I'll probably read another installment of Barry Eisler's saga of reluctant hit man John Rain, refresh my acquaintance with some vintage Rex Stout, and if I'm still feeling ambitious, I might make another stab at the new translation of War and Peace. Of course, I said I was going to read that one last summer, so I'm making no promises this time around.

 

James Traub, FP columnist and contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine:

Gary Shteyngart, Super Sad True Love Story. A work of science fiction half in love with the sickeningly familiar dystopia it describes. Shteyngart is a new Philip Roth -- mordant, madcap, kinky, and, withal, a Jew with spectacles on his nose and autumn in his heart.

Marti Leimbach, The Man from Saigon. A smoky, steamy novel set in Vietnam during the war. The story is not the mayhem -- though death always lurks -- but the terrible danger of love, the crossing of borders, the fear of betrayal.

Gordon S. Wood, The Creation of the American Republic. I have put aside fiction -- alas! -- as I have begun work on a biography of John Quincy Adams. So far, I have read one great book. Wood shows how the revolutionary generation turned English principles of liberty against the English, who had -- or so the claim went -- lost touch with their own great legacy.

Steve LeVine, FP contributing editor and author of The Oil and the Glory:

Henry Kissinger, On China. I want to finally understand whether I need to worry about China's rise, but I don't want to hear shallow histrionics. Among the crowd, I hope this one gives me the long view.

Ian Morris, Why the West Rules -- for Now. See above. An even longer view, but West-centric.

Michio Kaku, Physics of the Future. The long view, the other direction. Just to mix things up.

 

Parag Khanna, senior research fellow at the New America Foundation:

Pankaj Ghemawat, World 3.0. Ghemawat, famous for his "World Is Not Flat" rebuttal of Thomas Friedman, makes a reasoned and elegant case for why regional economic patterns, cultural uniqueness, and rooted cosmopolitanism are the future of globalization rather than any single cliché.

Garrett M. Graff, The Threat Matrix. With Osama bin Laden gone, counterterrorism returns to the unsexy arena of grinding intelligence gathering and police work. Graff vividly captures how over the past decade, the FBI has laudably gotten involved in the action in innovative and revealing ways.

 

Andrew Bacevich, professor of international relations and history at Boston University:

Although I rarely find time for fiction, I just now finished reading Through the Wheat, a 1923 novel by Thomas Boyd. I strongly recommend it. The book is a barely disguised account of Boyd's service as a young enlisted Marine serving on the Western Front during the War to End All Wars -- a searing, savage account of combat as experienced by those at the very tip of the spear. It is unsparing, unsentimental, and unsettling -- highly recommended for all neoconservatives still keen to send off young Americans to slay evildoers and save the world. The book made a bit of a splash when it first appeared -- attracting favorable attention from F. Scott Fitzgerald among others -- but was soon all but forgotten. Thanks to the University of Nebraska Press, however, it's currently available in a handsome and affordable paperback edition, with a helpful introduction by Brig. Gen. Edwin Howard Simmons. Apart from this very fine book, Boyd's literary legacy is pretty thin. He died young, having settled in Vermont and joined the Communist Party USA to fight for the common man! God bless him -- he'd earned the right to join whatever party he wanted to.

Blake Hounshell, FP managing editor:

 

David B. Ottaway, The King's Messenger. Somehow this gem attracted little interest when it was first published in 2008, but this masterful biography of Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan, by a veteran Washington Post correspondent, is even more relevant today. Bandar, the longtime Saudi ambassador to the United States and the longtime dean of the Washington diplomatic corps, is back in the limelight after years of mysterious absence. Want to understand how he operates? Read Ottaway's book.

Hisham Matar, In the Country of Men. Muammar al-Qaddafi's Libya was (is?) a terrifying place, a hall of mirrors ruled at every level by venal, evil men. Matar's haunting novel explores what happens to a little boy struggling to deal with the realization that he has unwittingly becoming part of the system.

Keith Richards, Life. Haven't yet read this brilliant, score-settling autobiography by the Rolling Stones' lead guitarist? Do yourself a favor: Put down the Economist and give Life a spin. Even if only half of what Richards remembers is true, every page will blow your mind.

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