Last week, a post appeared on the prominent blog "A Gay Girl in Damascus" claiming that the blogger, an out Syrian lesbian who wrote under the name Amina Arraf, had been kidnapped by Syrian security forces. As it turned out, there was no Amina—just a guy in Scotland named Tom.
At the time of the post describing Amina's arrest, "A Gay Girl in Damascus" was generally accepted at face value. But the young woman's story began to fall apart under the scrutiny of the bloggers and journalists attempting to fact-check it and follow up. She frequently canceled interviews at the last minute. A photo that Amina sent to The Guardian turned out to be stolen from the Facebook account of a British-Croatian woman named Jelena Lecic. NPR's Andy Carvin discovered that no one—not even her Canadian girlfriend—had met Amina in person.
And so the internet detective agency got to work. Extensive work by Carvin, the EFF's Jillian York, Ali Abunimah and Benjamin Doherty of The Electronic Intifada, and author Liz Henry (not to mention dozens of others on Twitter and elsewhere), seemed to point toward a student and peace activist named Tom MacMaster, originally from Georgia but currently studying in Scotland. An address "Amina" had used in a Yahoo! discussion group was, according to property records, owned by MacMaster; a photo that appeared on Amina's blog appears also in a Picasa album created by MacMaster's wife Britta Froelicher, (herself a grad student studying Syrian economic development); IP addresses linked to the blog were allegedly sourced to the University of Edinburgh, where MacMaster was writing a thesis about "the 7th century siege of Constantinople."
MacMaster, on vacation in Istanbul with his wife, rebuffed Abunimah and Doherty when they first contacted him, denying that he had ever met Amina. Meanwhile, Washington Post reporters Melissa Bell and Elizabeth Flock had also concluded that MacMaster was behind "A Gay Girl in Damascus"; they too, confronted MacMaster with the allegations for an article they were writing on the controversy.
The pressure must have gotten to him. This afternoon, MacMaster confessed on the blog:
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.
July 12, 2011
The sole author of all posts on this blog
MacMaster, fighting the good fight against liberal Orientalism, hasn't harmed anyone, huh? We wonder if "Amina"'s girlfriend feels the same way.
[image, of Syrian protesters praying in Homs, via AP; photo of MacMaster via WaPo/Facebook]