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"Gay Girl in Damascus" comes out as Tom MacMaster, Istanbul

Tom MacMaster, of Istanbul, Turkey, has just come out as the author behind A Gay Girl in Damascus. MacMaster was flushed out by Ali Abunimah and Benjamin Doherty.  Here is his message in full:

Apology to readers

I never expected this level of attention. While the narrative voıce may have been fictional, the facts on thıs blog are true and not mısleading 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 thıs 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.

Tom MacMaster,
Istanbul, Turkey
July 12, 2011

The sole author of all posts on this blog

I think for me, the overwhelming sense is that of relief: That there isn’t an articulate young woman named Amina Arraf being tormented by the Assad regime. MacMaster wasted the time, sleep hours and emotions of many people who grew deeply attached to the character he so convincingly created; some also feel he damaged the credibility of Syrian activists, although I don’t think that anything MacMaster did will ever narrow the gap of credibility between the activists and the completely discredited, disbelieved Assad regime. The apology post is bizarre in many a way, not least for its jab at liberal Orientalism – made by a white Western man deceiving the world to think he was a gay Arab woman. But much as many readers may feel outraged by MacMaster’s hoax, I find still thinking that “Amina’s” disapperance reignited the fading interest in the Syrian regime’s butchery of its own people, which has become to many news consumers a routine. Here’s to hoping the end of this butchery is in sight.

And finally, here’s a big tip of the hat to Abunimah and Doherty. I was rarely more relieved to have my doubts about a story resolved as quickly.

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    1. Jeremy

      Umm… A Thousand Little Pieces – The Sequel.

      Reply to Comment
    2. sabelo

      there might not be an articulate amina, but there are 1000s if not 10s of 1000s of others, possibly more articulate (and definitely more real!) who are still being detained and tortured “tormented” by the assad regime. and his hoax is a mockery of all that real pain and struggle.

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    3. My reaction is outrage, not relief. There still could be young gay woman languishing in Syrian jails. A REAL One! What his story did is to distract from real victims of the Syrian regimes. And rather than reignite interest, the hoax will be used to discredit real people blogging about real issues. He has done much political damage and it amazes me that you don’t see that! He has done damage to activists, to Arab gays (who are often accused of in authenticity), to bloggers and alternative information sources, and to Palestine solidarity movement. He has done personal damage through identity theft and by posing as a gay woman and chatting and flirting with women who believed he was “Amina.” So please don’t go soft on this slime!!!

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    4. I’ve been following up on this story for weeks now. There’s a good and bad in this. Good side: First, I am glad that there is no Amina being tortured. Second,I’m pleased that this author is a man. At least he understands how gay people in Arab are going through. How hard it is for them to express who they are and this author was bold enough to blog about it. It would have been better if he showed his own photo not someone else’s because her life is some-what bothered by this. Bad side: what if Amal (the comment above this) is right? What if there really are gay people in Arab being tortured? Just because Amina doesn’t exist doesn’t mean its not happening to someone. Even though the events he mentioned in the blog happened, and because there’s no Amina, people are going to ignore the issues because this was a fraud author who pretended to be a woman. Confusion, confusion, confusion!

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    5. max

      I agree with Amal as this reinforces the view that the political discourse in the ME is ripe with fabrications and deceit, be it by dictators or simpler people.

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    6. Corona

      While there probably are many emotional reasons for the fake blog, Froelicher and MacMaster are driven ideologues who undoubtedly believed that they were advancing political beliefs that they by publishing their blog.

      One common theme throughout their blog is that being gay in the Arab world is not as bad as people in the West believe. It’s obvious why people who are so anti-Israel would want to make that claim. Once one realizes that the reality is otherwise, supporting a single bi-national state with the right of return would mean supporting a resolution to the conflict that results in taking away political freedoms currently enjoyed by gay Israelis. In left wing academic circles, both being pro-Israel and anti-gay rights are unfashionable views. Thus, they need to deny to themselves and others that Palestinian rights and gay rights are at odds with each other.

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    7. Louise

      Um… No.

      These are the sort of selfish people you are dealing with http://www.tweetdeck.com/twitter/acarvin/~YYIS5

      Now put yourself in the shoes of the poor woman who was strung along by the hoaxer over hundreds of messages to the point where she was suckered into thinking her partner had just been kidnapped by the Syrian secret police. Imagine what she went through. Now she sees the partner she was put through the cruelest sort of anguish for does not exist, and never has existed. and these ugly, nasty people don’t want this to spoil their jolly jaunt in Turkey!

      This is abuse pure and simple.

      Ethical journalists and bloggers who are struggling to get news out from dictatorships do not do this. There are real people who are actually in prison and desperately needing help whose cases are not being covered in the mainstream media while this has grabbed international attention. Let me give you one example: Hoder from Metafilter sentenced to 19.5 years in an Iranian prison http://metatalk.metafilter.com/20703/Hoders-appeal-denied

      Now tell me what happens the next time people working on behalf of a real blogger like Hoder who has been imprisoned try to get attention and coverage? How many people who might have helped will think twice after this?

      It’s part of the pathology of hoaxers like this that they try to justify their hoax in terms of doing people a favour. They’re not, and neither others, alas, by buying into that justification. This kind of activity is actually the very antithesis of what you and this site are trying to do in getting truthful news out to people under difficult conditions where the mainstream media isn’t keen to have different voices. People like this undercut sources like 972. So if I go and say to a colleague ‘You will get better coverage of XYZ from a blog source like 972’ they will be thinking ‘Yes and we see how people get burned by crediting so-called bloggers from the middle east’.

      It’s admirable that you’re still trying to be charitable, but in my opinion and in my experience of this, this really needs to be reconsidered in the full light of the damage that hoaxes like this do.

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    8. Omar

      You guys are so gullible..especially you amal…ur just so desperate to believe theres a lesbian being tortured to feed your rage…Im a syrian homosexual and although gay syrians still have to be closeted in syria (due to a conservative society) our community has found new freedoms in the last couple of years, thanks to syria’s secular character where we are free to dress how we like, hook up and congregate without fear from the government (cant say the same about society, especially the religious elements)…You want to know what will happen to homosexuals if the regime is overthrown…think iraq (in case you missed that horror story feel free to google or youtube about it – hope you have strong stomachs) not tel aviv.

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    9. David

      you may take this story and see how stories take on a life of their own, especially on the left.
      Willingly and unwillingly “blogs” and “tweets” “run off”….. ( Joseph Dana? ) MacMaster created a figure that suddenly stands for what must be going in Syrian jails as we write, and not just since two weeks ago but since this Mafia Clan began sodomizing Syria on a twice daily basis ever since they came to power.
      Like the female demonstrator murdered in Tehran two years ago, or the Syrian thirteen year old who had his genitals cut off and murdered to become a “face”.
      Like MacMaster fooled the scene. So did Syria fool the Palestinians. Be it Assad’s pseudo engagement for them or the PR stunt at the Golan fence last week.
      Makes you think…..

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    10. Johan

      I wonder how many more Turko/Scottish lies around.

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    11. Miki

      While I think MacMasters’ is incorrect to say he didn’t do any harm (I think he has done harm by undermine the possible crediability of any real dissident bloggers either in Syria or elswhere and their ability to be taken seriously), in all the coverage of his admission, no-one has bothered to discuss the MacMasters’ closing comments that “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”.

      In relation to this I think MacMasters makes a very good point. What the Gay Girl in Damascus blog did reveal, at least in my opinion, was a lot of liberal Orientalism on the part of not only the Western media but many individuals. When “Amina” first started to become popular and many on the left, as well as the right, were running around promoting her blog, I have to admit I was quite underwhelmed by it all and I had to ask myself why. I came to the conclusion that my cautiousness in relation to “Amina” came because it seemed to me there was a lot of Orientalism going on in the way she was being feted. Orientalism not only in the way she was being discussed but also in the black and white way the Middle East, Syria and Arabs were being painted. When “Amina” disappeared, this became even more blatant. Would the media story have been picked up if Amina had been straight and if she had been a man? Probably not. The focus was on the novelty that she was a gay woman in amongsts all those “mad”, “bad”, “fundamentalist” Arabs and Muslims (at least according to the Western media, as well as many people who signed up to the Free Amina facebook page and posted elsewhere about “her”). I think we do need to take stock and actually consider that MacMasters is correct in saying liberal Orientalism played a big role in why the Gay Girl in Damascus blog became so popular and why “Amina” got so much coverage when she supposed “disappeared”.

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    12. Louise

      You can’t get any more ‘Liberal Orientalist’ than unilaterally deciding that what those poor oppressed folks really need is an overprivileged white bloke to speak not only for them, but instead of them through his own fantasy! He was angling for a book deal from this – passing off what he wrote as an authentic autobiography. You can see his own Orientalism dissected here by Minal Hajratwala


      To quote her

      “Amina was an idealized projection, the white man’s fantasy of an oppressed yet courageous Arab women. Bright, reckless, courageous, American, fighting patriarchy and Islamic repression at once: She was the perfect superhero, the perfect wet dream.
      It is ironic that the hoaxster, in his mea culpa, says he wanted to contest “the pervasiveness of new forms of liberal Orientalism.”
      For that is the very genre in which he chose to express his literary pretensions. By inventing this persona, creating an elaborate blog, and — apparently — intending to pursue book publication, Tom MacMaster was well on his way to pioneering “new forms of liberal Orientalism.”

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    13. David

      How about Israeli left winger Ilan Grapel getting arrested in Cairo for being a Mossad-man?
      Another man out on his luck? Like Amina and the three hiker dudes in Tehran ?
      Maybe Jonathan Pollack should start a blog at 972 and write from jail, when he goes next time? Maybe that’s what the situation needs? The far left needs a hero, they can market. Pollack has a good face, great tattoos, is tall, does not mind the tear gas. Like MacMaster we should sexualize the whole thing. So when the angel like ISM activist goes to bed at night in Olympia, WA , she can fantasize about the sweaty broad shouldered Israeli man with dirt on his hands fighting the fight. Maybe even the Palestinian girl activists will secretly fancy Jonny? They could of course never admit it, but they’d watch his muscles as he holds coughing children with 972’s Dana taking some photos on his Blackberry.
      Maybe Pollack can develop some Super Hero qualities? Like breathing in CS gas and blowing it straight back at the soldiers, and smiling.
      Al Jazzy’s Jackie Rowland, will, after an interview invite him to her hotel room for love. But he will never go……..

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    14. Miki

      Hi Louise, I completely agree with you that MacMasters behaviour is utterly Orientalist. I also agree that it is also ironic that his mea culpa seeks to raise the issue of “liberal Orientalism”, when he engaged so blatantly in it. However, this does not negate the fact that was also a lot of liberal Orientalism in the way that many individuals, as well as the Western media, fêted “Amina” and the Gay Girl in Damascus blog. They did so for exactly the reasons outlined by Minal Hajratwala – because, as you quoted, “Amina was the idealised projection, the white man’s fantasy of an oppressed yet courageous Arab women. Bright, reckless, courageous, American, fighting patriarchy and Islamic oppression all at once”. “Amina” was not just the perfect white male wet dream but the Western imperialist wet dream, which both Western men and women could support, as well as the Western media and Western governments. I think that this is something many on “the left”, who were running around promoting “Amina”, need to take stock off and acknowledge.

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    15. Louise

      Yes, and the way he stole Jelena Lecic’s face also taps into the kind of sexist news values which love to cover stories featuring a highly-photogenic ‘damsel in distress’. However for him to cite ‘liberal Orientalism’ in his apologia is a bit like a chap who’s murdered his parents asking the court to have mercy on him as an orphan. But it’s also important to look at what was going on with him, not simply at the dynamics which we already know are there in news coverage.

      Since I last posted there’s been a good summary of the interview with him by the Turkish journalist Irem Koker, posted on the comments at Liz Henry’s blog


      Some key points to note: “He admitted he created many sock puppets, including Rania. He said: “Even my cat has an email address.”

      He admitted to the attention-seeking dynamic which produces the escalation in these cases

      “If you tell him his writing is great, he is flattered. So he admitted the media attention boosted his ego, and as his ego boosted he couldn’t stop.”

      So one part of the dance is the way this was so media-friendly, but the other part of the dance is the way he fits the profile of a classic type of egocentric internet hoaxer known in online communities all over the internet. It’s important not to lose sight of that, because in understanding this behaviour and using the academic research about it which has already been done, journalists can reduce (though not eliminate) the chances of being taken for a ride in this way.

      If we take up his talking points, or buy into his justifications then we run the risk of missing the key to this – vanity and a feeling of entitlement to attention so strong it overrode not only all normal netiquette but basic ethical values like not hoaxing someone into a relationship and then hoaxing them that a loved one has been kidnapped by people capable of murder torture and rape.

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    16. Louise

      Blimey – look at the latest twist on this! The editor of that news site which promoted ‘Amina’ turns out to be a bloke as well!


      “He said his connection to Amina was purely coincidental and started when Amina commented on a post on the Lez Get Real site in February. It “was a major sock-puppet hoax crash into a major sock-puppet hoax.”

      In the guise of Paula Brooks, Graber corresponded online with Tom MacMaster, thinking he was writing to Amina Arraf. Amina often flirted with Brooks, neither of the men realizing the other was pretending to be a lesbian.”

      OK this is too surreal for words! I think I have to give up all attempt at analysis and go and have a large gin.

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    17. Valerie Woodruffe WA

      As a bisexual myself with a lesbian preference I’d like to say, Tom has the right to identify as a lesbian. Do’nt judge please. Tom also seems well adjusted as a lesbian, Tom has stopped shaving and does’nt wax, has a hairy chin and moustache, has a short hair cut in a manly style, favours wearing men’s shirts, walks with a swagger like a man and likes other women, besides if Tom put on a burqa you’d never know Tom was a lesbian trapped in a man’s body.

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    18. Louise

      This is maybe straying a bit off topic for you, but I just had a look at Bill Graber aka Paula Brooks of ‘Lezgetreal’ and if the accounts I can see of him are true, there’s also a strong munchausens-by-internet pathology to his case too, beyond the genderbending.

      To get sympathy/attention he pretended to have a partner Debbie die of breast cancer leaving him as a ‘ widowed deaf lesbian taking care of twins all by herself’, so he was engaging unfortunate and unwitting activists in online conversations about where to scatter the ashes of his imaginary partner, while sending them pictures to tug the heart-strings of the imaginary orphaned toddlers (no doubt stolen as Jelena Lecic’s pics were) or emails about his fictional ailing mother. There’s also a car-crash trail of abuse of people he interacted with online under the guise of Paula who he threatened and harassed, destroying online communities as he went along with his drama.

      Some people are theorising that this was government sponsored dirty tricks to wreck activist communities, but the same pattern is repeated so often in non-political situations, and there’s such obvious emotional-vampirism going on, that I think both Macmaster and Graber are ‘cybermunches’ of the sort who used to prey mostly on medical support groups. Because online communities can be such fantastic sources of support and validation, there are people who want to come and suck up as much of that for themselves as they can and who lie to do it. They’ve now discovered that playing for a diversity full house: ‘gay girl damascus’ ‘deaf lesbian widowed mother of twins’ is as good as or even sexier than pretending to have cancer or leukaemia for their little games of attention-seeking and controlling behaviour.

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    19. excuse me Laurie..you think its OK to lie and lie and fake nmbeurs and incidents and flame 15000 people’s minds over nothing???..do you have any ethics?..do you know that Syria is heaven for LGBT in the middle east and that despite laws against gay people but no one EVER has been charged or persecuted or assaulted over their sexuality there?do you remember WMD?..maybe you think it was OK to fake thoses also

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