I’d barely followed “A Gay Girl In Damascus” until last week, when Daily Beast columnist Peter Beinart posted something to Twitter: “This is really important — this woman is a hero,” with a link to a story about Amina Abdallah Arraf, a Syrian American woman and the author of the blog “A Gay Girl In Damascus.” According to the story, Amina had been seized by Syrian security forces for her dissident writing.
Quickly, Amina’s arrest became a new Internet cause. Even the U.S. State Department joined the effort.
And soon thereafter, the whole thing fell apart. Amina never existed. The author of “A Gay Girl In Damascus” was in fact a 40-year-old straight dude from Georgia living in Scotland. Rather than the sexy young lesbian in the photos (stolen from the Facebook page of a Croatian expat living in London), the photo of him in the Washington Post shows a man who looks like the bearded comic-actor Zach Galifianakis — in a Che Guevara T-shirt, naturally.
Tom MacMaster was raised to be a peace activist. When he was a kid, the family trekked to the Pentagon to hand out origami doves to commemorate the bombing of Nagasaki. He’s the co-director of Atlanta Palestine Solidarity and claims to have visited Baghdad on a “student peace mission” to deter the Iraq war.
In an “Apology to Readers” posted on June 12 from his vacation in Istanbul, MacMaster writes, “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.”
He explains that as a white guy with an Anglo name, people wouldn’t take him seriously in online discussion groups. So he made up Amina and her countless fictional experiences in Syria and America.
At first it sounds a bit like the old jokes swirling around the publishing industry: Lincoln sells. Medicine sells. Dogs sell. So let’s put out a book about Lincoln’s doctor’s dog! It’ll be a bestseller!
Except McMaster’s ploy really worked. People desperately wanted to believe in this “hero”: a saucy, sage, left-wing member of the LGBT community who likes to wear the hijab, can’t stand Israel or George W. Bush and who parrots every cliche about the romantic authenticity of the Arab people and their poetic yearning for democracy, peace and love. Whereas no one cared about McMaster’s “Anglo” arguments, Amina’s assertions succeeded with little effort. For instance, “she” writes of the Palestinians’ need to return to their homes in Israel: “It’s simple but, maybe, you have to be a Levantine Arab to get this. It makes perfect sense to me.” Of course it does!
CNN interviewed “her” — by email — for a story about gay rights and the Arab Spring. “She” said things were going great for gays. The feedback, even from Muslims, for her blog was “almost entirely positive.”
But the CNN story troubled her. The outlet encouraged the sin of “pink washing” — a term used by some anti-Israel critics to decry any attempt to compare Israel’s treatment of gays with that of Arab states. Israel is tolerant, even celebratory, of gay rights (Israel recently launched a gay tourism campaign with the slogan “Tel Aviv Gay Vibe — Free; Fun; Fabulous”). Syria punishes homosexual activity with three years in prison (In Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Iran, the punishment is death).
Who cares, Amina angrily responds. In fact, how dare “advocates of war, occupation, dispossession and apartheid” use Arab and Muslim hostility to gays as “‘evidence that the primitive sand-people don’t deserve anything other than killing by the enlightened children of the West.”
Besides, “she” has never been harassed by Arabs for being gay. But in America, “she” has been “struck by strangers for being an Arab” and “had dung thrown at me” for wearing the hijab.
Except that is a lie.
Worse, it’s propaganda. McMaster’s fake-but-accurate lesbian was perfectly pitched to Western liberals desperate to alleviate the pain of cognitive dissonance. No longer must you think too hard or make tough choices if you’re, say, anti-Israel and pro-democracy or pro-gay rights and in favor of the self-determination of Muslim fanatics. Heck, you can even stop worrying and love a lesbian feminist who sees no big deal in wearing a religiously required sack over her head.
Of course she was a hero. Of course she didn’t exist.