Last week, word went out that Amina Arraf, a Syrian writer who was behind the blog “A Gay Girl in Damascus”, had forcibly been taken from her home, causing a human rights scare and an Internet campaign to help find her. #FreeAmina tags were popping up over dashes, Facebook petitions were created and updates and thanks were given from Arraf’s page by her cousin Rania O Ismael. It was an example of the powers of the Internet and media working together collectively to help out a young woman living in an already tense and fractured political environment, now with sexual identity as a metaphorical tombstone.
Only, as everyone became more engrossed with the story of Amina, holes began emerging in the storyline. In Britain, Croatian administrator Jelena Lecic, recognized the photo of Amina as herself and issued a release through a London publicist, stating that Amina was indeed her. While confused, she expressed concern for the missing blogger and wished to make very clear that she was not Amina and was startled by the wide use of an old Facebook photo of her in Amina’s blog and the subsequent coverage that used her photo. More information came forward, including a trace of Amina’s IP address, which led back to Edinboro, email accounts set up in Stone Mountain, Georgia and photos of Syrian landmarks from a Flickr account that led to a woman named Britta Froelicher. As pressure built, it finally came out on Monday that Amina Arraf was actually Tom MacMaster, an American man living abroad in Scotland, currently traveling in Turkey.
Syrian security forces have killed an estimated 750 activists since the beginning uprisings in the country and most recently, 20-year-old blogger Tal al-Mallouhi was sentenced to five years in jail because of his Internet activities. Over the weekend, the Syrian government devastated the town of Jisr al Shughour, decimating a population of 50,000 to around 4,000, in one of the more serious and possibly most violent conflicts of the Syrian unrest. The fear of civil war is running deep, as tensions run high and those who speak out against the most horrible of crimes that are perpetrated by the Syrian government are silenced through whatever means possible. In a place where expressing your dissent or even your sexuality means possible jail or death, MacMaster’s attempt at being the “voice of a people,” is possibly one of the infuriating acts of what happens when “good intentions” (and even these I question) pave the road to hell.
I wouldn’t have necessarily thought I would be referring twice in one week to Olivia Marudan’s brilliant piece, “Because A White Guy Said It,” but seemingly, here I am again. The experience of someone who is actually Syrian and gay wasn’t valid enough for what MacMaster wanted them to say or whatever role he wanted them to inhabit. By inserting his words into an identity that is clearly not his own, he makes it very clear that whatever their experience is, it’s just not enough for him or for a Western audience. It needed more pizzazz, it needed more exciting Orientalist bedroom drama, it needed the touch of a white guy.
I feel really guilty and bad about it “¦While the narrative voice may have been fictional, all 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..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 ““ Tom MacMaster
Yes, this could be true, I’m sure your feelings are hurt. But what is also true is that your feelings are irrelevant and you appropriated the identity of a gay, Syrian woman and turned it into an online minstrel skit and perpetrated also what is known simply as lying. The realm of the Internet is fraught with “pseudo-identity” but it becomes very, very different when you base your ethnicity, sexual orientation, and gender into a “story” for consumption, especially when other people actually have to live it (and may lack the access to speaking so freely). Not only that, but to then participate in interviews and other outlets of media that benefit the press of your blog is to go beyond the realm of telling a story, but to market yourself as this identity . You co-opted the struggles of actual, real people risking their lives because of their voice, their identity, in a political climate that is clearly unforgiving to such, from the safety of your own home, a million miles away in distance and in actuality. You did it because you have a “great interest” in Syria and you hope “people will pay attention now.” You did so to better illustrate and cater to a predominantly, white Western audience because you felt like your voice was more authentic, more credible, than say Daniel Nassar or Sami Hamwi, two LBGT activist who actually live in Syria and are risking their lives by merely existing. You sir, have just risked your credibility. The greatest punishment you will receive is public disdain for your asinine and childish attempts at bringing a struggle, in your own imagined experiences, home. You will not be tortured or kidnapped or put to death. You will not watch as the rest of your neighbors and friends suffer under a political regime that clearly has no interest in human rights. You will not experience fighting for that very same country that feels no benefit from your existence, solely because it is your country and you love it and want better, want more. You will not have your voice questioned the next time a blogger or an activist goes missing, solely because the media doesn’t want the wool pulled over its eyes again. You sir, will sit comfortably in your privilege, feeling only guilt for being caught and possibly never realize the heavy and immense consequences for the same people who you were so trying to illuminate (save). You are the dictionary picture of white, Western, male privilege. Good intentions will not save you.
Because of you, Mr. MacMaster, a lot of the real activists in the LGBT community became under the spotlight of the authorities in Syria. These activists, among them myself, had to change so much in their attitude and their lives to protect themselves from the positional harm your little stunt created. You have, sir, put a lot of lives, mine and some friends included, in harm’s way so you can play your little game of fictional writing. 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 time. ““ Daniel Nassar, GME, Gay Middle East
As a side note, when the anger began building around the Amina story, it was also revealed that Paula Brooks, editor of Lez Get Real, a site that Amina was supposedly a contributor at, was actually Bill Gaber, a retired military man who used his wife’s identity to run Lez Get Real. “I didn’t start this with my name because… I thought people wouldn’t take it seriously, me being a straight man,” he told the Washington Post. The absurdity of these two men under the pretenses of being lesbian women somehow connecting with each other, creating safe communities for other gay women, boggles the mind.
“We are on vacation in Turkey and really just want to have a nice time and not deal with all the craziness at the moment,”C said MacMaster’s wife, Britta Froelicher, in a statement that reflected the utter inanity and unrecognized privilege and entitlement factor of this situation. Yes, why should they have to deal with the consequences of identity fraud and causing a human rights scare on their vacation? Surely there is nothing greater than having the media be wet blankets on your down time for something you did wrong. I’m sure actual LGBT Syrians would understand where they were coming from.
The levels on which this is problematic are almost indescribable. But much like the Alexandra Wallace incident, MacMaster will most likely fall into the realm of the unknown as this incident is forgotten in a few months, leaving the people who actually have to deal with the fallout of his words, left to clean up the wreckage of someone else’s privilege, once again.