My Word: Living lies

I’m not sorry that someone pulled the plug on Amina Arraf. But that’s not the end of her. She has turned from being just a name into being a legend.

She was brave as only her generation could be, only in these particular times, and in the particular place she called home. Arraf, after all, called Damascus home, in the Arab Spring, in the best traditions of the Facebook age. Oh, and she was a liberated and liberating lesbian to boot.
That is, she was all those things until – in a manner that millions found surprising and many found amusing – she underwent possibly the biggest makeover imaginable. She changed from being the star of a website called “Gay girl in Damascus” into being a shamed straight, married guy in Scotland.
It was easy to smirk at the headlines telling of her downfall, but the American-Syrian lesbian who wasn’t is a lesson to us all: An example of what we should be wary of.
I first encountered the phenomenon during the so-called Twitter Revolution, following the Iranian elections in June 2009. Like many journalists, I was contacted by people offering me a first-hand personal account of events in Teheran, no questions asked. A combination of a naturally suspicious mind and strong journalistic instincts led me to reject them all.
I still have no way of checking whether the people who reached out really were courageous fighters in the Iranian capital, or perhaps enterprising sympathizers in places like Los Angeles.
Arraf became a media star through chutzpa rather than courage.
She was not what she appeared to be, but it took a world that so wanted to believe in her a very long time to find out.
The facts were stranger than the fiction. As the Jerusalem Post’s Ben Hartman, among others, reported last week, the face that went with the blog was taken from the Facebook account of Jelena Lecic, a Croatianborn woman living in London, while the person who really gave her life (and a vivacious personality) is a 40-year-old American man called Tom MacMaster, studying at Edinburgh University in Scotland.
It wasn’t until Arraf was “arrested,” as followers were informed on the blog by her purported cousin, that the web of lies began to rapidly unravel. No friends or supporters could determine her fate. No one had, of course, ever met her.
Readers and reporters began to ask questions, and MacMaster’s hoax was finally revealed, as Hartman reported, by the website “Electronic Intifada,” which had found numerous holes in the story, including the fact that MacMaster’s address is the same as one used by Arraf on an online message board, and that a picture from Damascus posted on Arraf’s blog is the same as one posted on MacMaster’s wife Britta Froelicher’s Picasa account.
The day before she was purportedly detained, Arraf wrote: “I am complex, I am many things; I am an Arab, I am Syrian, I am a woman, I am queer, I am Muslim, I am binational, I am tall, I am too thin; my sect is Sunni, my clan is Omari, my tribe is Quraysh, my city is Damascus,... I am also a Virginian. I was born on an afternoon in a hospital in sight of where Woodrow Wilson entered the world, where streets are named for country stars.”
She is, of course, none of those things. She doesn’t exist outside of MacMaster’s head and cyberspace.
In a statement of apology MacMaster wrote, “I was involved with numerous online sciencefiction/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.”
A strange way indeed for the former co-chair of “Atlanta Palestine Solidarity” to try to prove that he’s not the one who is stupid and ignorant.
That MacMaster has difficulty separating fact from fiction can perhaps also be seen in his radical statements. He wrote, for example, in an undated piece as a guest columnist on “Until the Israelis advance to a receptive state on a par with what the white South had achieved by the 1950s and 1960s, I think advising Palestinians to lead non-violent marches is simply an invitation for more repression.”
When it comes to Palestinian violence, Arraf reminded me of the case in January 2001 of Ofir Rahum, a 16-year-old tempted to meet in person a woman he had chatted with on the Net. “Sally” the tourist turned out to be Mona Jaud Awana, a 24- year-old Palestinian woman, who lured him to a spot near Ramallah where he was shot at point blank range by three of her friends – an extremely high price to pay for innocence.
The damage caused by MacMaster is tremendous.
Arraf’s demise is a gift to Syrian President Bashar Assad, who is now claiming that other casualties are also fabrications and lies – either figments of the imaginations of bloggers abroad or the conspirational work of foreign agencies bent on fostering revolt and the overthrow of his regime.
MacMaster has also caused harm to genuine bloggers and those who are trying to responsibly use social media to responsibly disseminate facts and thoughts.
Why did so many people befriend Arraf? Obviously she represented everything they wanted her to be, a virtual vision of what Syria could be – liberated, fun, democratic and multicultural.
Arraf was conceived by wishful thinking. In addition, since the Western world tends to have a strange idea of life in the Middle East, not enough discrepancies were evident.
In her blog, for example, she boasted of her sexual orientation and experiences – more foolish than brave had she truly been leading that kind of life in a country where the “Muhabarat” (security police) are ominously omnipresent.
Prestigious news outlets including the Guardian adopted her. She gave an e-mail interview to CNN.
Facebook groups called for her release.
After Arraf/MacMaster was/were exposed, the author posted an apology to readers, stating: “... I am really truly sorry and I feel awful about 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...”
The statement, incidentally, was posted from Istanbul – which plays a role in Arraf’s downfall. It was apparently MacMaster’s vacation plans in Turkey that necessitated his fictional alter ego being abducted, although go figure where MacMaster really is or what he was really thinking.
Arraf might have been an imaginary character that got out of control, but she also symbolizes a brutally real world.
It’s great to dream, but when you’re reading the Web it’s best to keep your eyes open. And particularly when you’re reading about this region, a little less wilful selfdelusion wouldn’t be a bad idea.
The writer is editor of The International Jerusalem Post.