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.