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Fake Syrian Lesbian Does More Harm Than Good

Monday, June 13, 2011, 13:47 EST Leave a comment Go to comments

Both the virtual world and the mainstream (print/broadcast/cable) media have spent the last few weeks caught up in the story of a blogger called “A Gay Girl in Damascus” who was supposedly taken into custody by Syrian security forces. After the arrest/abduction and a post by the girl’s cousin, the blog went viral as an example of anti-gay sentiment in the highest levels of Middle Eastern governments. But the whole thing was a hoax.

“A Gay Girl in Damascus” was really a straight man in Edinburgh. A straight, married, American man studying in Scotland and writing fiction disguised as fact.

Like all frauds, he initially denied suggestions that the sympathetic Syrian character might be merely a figment of his active imagination. When he finally fessed up yesterday on the blog (to which I will not link, refusing to give him any more traffic), it was in defense of what he had done:

I never expected this level of attention. 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.

I only hope that people pay as much attention to the people of the Middle East and their struggles in this year of revolutions. The events there are beıng 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.

However, I have been deeply touched by the reactions of readers.

Best,
Tom MacMaster,
Istanbul, Turkey [where he was on vacation]
June 12, 2011..

The sole author of all posts on this blog..

Smugly self-important? Yes, indeed. It’s OK to lie if you’re lying about things that are true. Maybe this guy aspires to be a politician. He proved his worthiness with the requisite faux apology given in a Skype interview with The Guardian today:

“I regret that a lot of people feel that I led them on. I regret that … a number of people are seeing my hoax as distracting from real news, real stories about Syria and real concerns of real, actual, on-the-ground bloggers, where people will doubt their veracity.”

He doesn’t regret what he did, merely what other people feel about it. If only people didn’t feel led on, if only people didn’t see his hoax as a distraction, if only everybody else wasn’t so stupid and gullible, than he would feel just ducky, thank you very much.

Maybe he got some push back over the interview or maybe he just decided to man up, but for whatever reason, he posted another apology today on the blog that was more direct:

Statement Regarding the Gay Girl in Damascus Blog

Tom MacMaster

Istanbul, June 13, 2011

I am the sole author of this blog and have always been so. Any and all posts on the blog are by me.

Before I say anything else, I want to apologize to anyone I may have hurt or harmed in any way. I never meant to hurt anyone. I am really truly sorry and I feel awful about this. Words alone do not suffice to express how badly I feel about all this. I betrayed the trust of a great many people, the friendship that was honestly and openly offered to me, and played with the emotions of others unfairly. I have distracted the world’s attention from important issues of real people in real places. I have potentially compromised the safety of real people. I have helped lend credence to the lies of the regimes. I am sorry.

I have hurt people with whom I share a side and a struggle. That matters. I have hurt causes I believe in sincerely. That is wrong.

It started innocently enough without any intention whatsoever of creating a massive hoax or duping the world. Ever since I was a child, I,ve wanted to write fiction but, when my first attempts met with universal rejection, I took a more serious look at my own work and I realized that I could not write conversation in a natural way nor could I convincingly write characters who weren’t me. I tried to get better and did various exercises (such as simply copying overheard conversations). Eventually, I would set up a number of profiles on dating sites with identities that were not my own as ways of interacting with real people in conversation but with a different personality than my own.

I was also very involved in issues surrounding the Palestine and Iraq struggles. Ever since my childhood I had felt very connected to the cultures and peoples of the Middle East. It’s something that I came by naturally. My mother had taught English in Turkey before I was born and my father had been involved with Middle East refugee issues when they met. They are both people whom I admire immensely and have continued to do many wonderful works that I can only aspire to.

I’m also an argumentative sort and a bit of a nerd. I was involved with numerous online science-fiction/alternate-history discussion lists and, as a part of that process, I saw lots of incredibly ignorant and stupid positions repeated on the Middle East. I noticed that when I, a person with a distinctly Anglo name, made comments on the Middle East, the facts I might present were ignored and I found myself accused of hating America, Jews, etc. I wondered idly whether the same ideas presented by someone with a distinctly Arab and female identity would have the same reaction.

So, I invented her. First, she was just a name. Amina Arraf. She commented on blogs and talkbacks on news-sites. Eventually, I set up an email for her. She joined the same lists I was already on and posted responses in her name. And, almost immediately, friendly and solicitous comments on mine appeared. It was intriguing. That likely would have been the end of it; I’d just keep her as a nearly anonymous handle for commenting on issues that mattered to me but …

Amina came alive. I could hear her ‘voice’ and that voice and personality were clear and strong. Amina was funny and smart and equal parts infuriating and flirtatious. She struggled with her religious beliefs and sexuality, wondered about living in America as an Arab; she wanted to find a way to balance her religion and her sexuality, her desire to be both a patriotic American and a patriotic Arab. Amina was clever and fun and had a story and a voice and I started writing it, almost as though she were dictating to me. Some of her details were mine, some were those of a dozen other friends borrowed liberally, others were purely ‘her’ from the get go.

And I did something really, really stupid at that point. I should have left the original ‘brief experiment in nerd psychology’ go and, if I continued to ‘hear’ the Amina voice, I should just use it in a novel.

I didn’t. Instead, I enjoyed ‘puppeting’ this woman who never was. 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. That was stupid and possibly evil of me and I’m really, really sorry about that. I gave Amina a facebook page; she soon had friends and admirers.

Amina kept growing. And I kept trying to ‘kill’ her. Her story was great; I can easily write in Amina’s voice because I know her like she was a real person. I know what she likes and what she dislikes, how she feels and what makes her angry or elates her.

It was a terrible time suck but it was fun. And, regularly, I tried to stop. Amina moved overseas, she dropped out of sight repeatedly and so on and so forth. I meant to stop her … but is was hard. I’d read news stories and I’d find myself fighting the urge to respond as Amina … and occasionally giving in.

I wasn’t trying to pick fights or stir up controversy … I was instead trying to enlighten people. I posted comments on a blog; the owner asked me to contribute columns. I did so. I set up a blog to publish some of the things I’d written as Amina and, maybe, get a few comments. I did not expect anyone to read it or to care if they did.

And in the first month and more it was up, it received only a few visits. That was more than I had expected. Then, I wrote a perfect little story about the situation in Syria and the mutual affection between father and daughter … and to my shock, it went viral ….

And everything spiraled out of control. I couldn’t think of how to shut Amina down but …. It just kept on growing …

And now, I have ended it. She is me. She never really existed. I feel like I am in some ways the worst person in the world. I’ve hurt a lot of people, including people who thought of ‘me’, when I was her, as a good friend. I want to apologize clearly and explicitly and personally to Jelena Lecic, Paula Brooks, Sandra Bagaria and Scott Palter. Each of them, in very different ways, was hurt deeply by me and each of them will get a personal apology from me. Each of them is more than entitled to hit me.

I didn’t mean to hurt them.

I didn’t mean to harm anyone who is upset. I didn’t mean to hurt the causes which I myself believe in. I didn’t mean to malign anyone. My intentions were good; I got carried away. I owe apologies to those I hurt and will do all in my power to make things right. I only wanted to set forth real information through the use of artfully crafted fiction. I was too successful and I was too caught up in what I was doing. I ignored the consequences of my action.

I am sorry.

I want to turn the focus away from me and urge everyone to concentrate on the real issues, the real heroes, the real people struggling to bring freedom to the Arab world. I have only distracted from real people and real problems. Those continue; please focus on them.

And there we have it. A frustrated writer who couldn’t get anyone to read his stuff figured out a way to get read anyway. He liked the attention, even if it wasn’t actually being paid to him. He liked the fact that he could fool people. He liked the power. He liked creating a reality to which he wanted to bring attention.

But why did he have to make it all up? It isn’t like there aren’t homosexual people in every Middle Eastern country who are oppressed. Isn’t the reality of, for example, homosexuality being a capital crime in Iran dramatic enough? Isn’t the reality of tyrannical regimes arresting and torturing protesters horrifying enough? Isn’t what has been happening throughout the region over these last few month exciting enough? The answers are, in every case, “Yes, but they weren’t about me.”

And of course, he wasn’t truly, deeply sorry until he got caught and his reputation went down the toilet, as it should.

The internet is an amazing thing, giving power to the powerless and voice to the voiceless. But like everything else, it can be used properly or it can be misused. It can be a tool with which to do good or a weapon with which to do evil. It can bring out in its users the very best or the very worst. It can tell us a lot about ourselves and others.

In this case, it revealed a selfish attention whore who didn’t care who he hurt until the one getting hurt was himself. Good riddance to him.

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