Monday, June 13, 2011

When being gay is wrong

It has been revealed that Amina Abdallah Aral al-Omari, aka "A gay girl in Damascus", supposedly kidnapped last week by Syrian government forces, was in fact a fiction created by a white heterosexual American graduate student living in Scotland.

I had not heard of "Amina" until this morning but the framing of this story intrigues me. We are treated to an interview with Tom MacMaster, the perpetrator of this fraud, wherein he expresses contrition for his idiotic act. Elsewhere, the response from Arab bloggers more familiar with the event has understandably been scathing and it is clear on the point that MacMaster must take any criticism that comes his way for throwing in doubt, even delegitimizing, the voices of gay Arabs.

A Western commentator, Daniel Villareal, writes here:

...the next queer Middle-Easterner to cry for help on her blog will most likely receive a lethal amount of skepticism while people figure out whether or not to believe her. Now anti-gay foes can say that liberals have to fabricate stories just to bolster queer rights worldwide which dilutes the power of real abuse accounts happening in Syria this very moment. The Syrian government can now claim that any reports of real human rights abuses in the region could just be a potential American fraud or over-reactive reporting of a hoax rather than the real deal.

That observation is valid; frankly, given the circumstances, MacMaster's continuation of the blog as a dramatic story of disappearance was irresponsible to say the least.

As a spectator living several thousand miles away from the chaos, with no personal stake in it, I am tempted to ask if any barriers ought to be put in place at all, against appropriating voices. Most people would answer yes. My own instinctive response is that people must be responsible and apply self-censorship -- not the pressure of clamps. Beyond that, nothing and nobody is above criticism.

In an ideal world so long as resistance made moral and logical sense, it would gain traction. But of course reality, or at least our sense of it, is shaped by power. I remember being offended a few years ago by Slumdog Millionaire's commercial and critical success, built on its exotic and patently inaccurate portrayal of Indian voices. I wish Danny Boyle & co. had never made the movie but of course, the feel-good aspect of it appealed to millions of other Indians (to say nothing of foreigners) who didn't share my objections.

Still the Orientalist appropriation that was Slumdog is very different from this case. In MacMaster's defense his portrayal of Amina is, by all accounts, sympathetic. But this cannot hide the fact that lives are at stake. Until his confession, the Western media had taken his blog seriously. Arab gay activists even broke cover to inquire about the incarcerated Amina. MacMaster didn't think through any of this.

The Guardian notes:

(MacMaster)... started the blog... because he believed online posts about the Syrian and Israel-Palestinian situations would earn "some deference from obnoxious men" if written under an Arab woman's name rather than under his own, where "someone would immediately ask: why do you hate America? why do you hate freedom? This sort of thing."

And in an earlier confessional post on "Amina's" blog, MacMaster wrote that he was seeking, in part, to expose "the often superficial coverage of the Middle East and the pervasiveness of new forms of liberal orientalism". Now I can sympathize with that aspiration. While we're on this subject I must also say I am vehemently opposed to underprivileged groups aggregating along a single axis of identity, whether along the lines of race or sexuality or economic status; it is a politics so self-absorbed as to completely miss the big picture. But in the end, there are infinitely better ways of going about expressing a viewpoint.

In hindsight, for all its stupidity MacMaster's deception works if only as a satire challenging self-righteous and self-serving Western readings of the situation. That is the only message worth extricating from the messy, on-going propaganda war between bloggers and the Syrian government that "Amina" has set off.

Whatever his true intentions -- satirical or otherwise -- in the fog of rapidly changing political events in Syria, MacMaster's actions have suddenly taken on greater significance than they should. American and British media outlets, which originally set the consensus agenda on the criminally exuberant coverage of the protests that swept across West Asia, are now looking for a fall guy; MacMaster is an easy target for a media bent on covering its arse.

Let us remind ourselves, MacMaster is not the story.


  1. The problem is not McMaster's "appropriation", whatever the hell that is with its shoes on; it's plain old-fashioned lying. The guy ran a con, and like all cons it was a sustained act of betrayal.

    It harmed some people more than others, but everyone to some extent, because it diminished the overall store of trust and encourages paranoia and suspicion. People were burned; they will be more reluctant to trust, to invest belief, in others from now on.

    This is an act which is best defined as "social treason", because it undermines the basis of civilized society and pushes us toward a state more like that of a bunch of crabs in a bucket.

    This... person... apparently can't grasp the distinction between fiction and lying; fiction does not attempt to deceive. It depends on the conditional hypothetical, on the informed and willing -suspension- of disbelief while the reader is reading. As someone who writes fiction for a living, I find this acutely apparent, and especially offensive.

    If he'd written a book with "fiction" on the cover using "Amina" as a character, that would have been perfectly OK, of course. Then he'd have to do the hard work of being good enough to get the reader to suspend disbelief.

    As it is, the lying little creep has thrown his own life into a hole that goes all the way down, which is less than he deserves but will still be very, very bad.

  2. Thanks for your comment.

    I agree with much of what you've said, and I can understand your fury. But my agenda is not limited to the personal and as far as I'm concerned, MacMaster isn't really the story anyway.

    I'm more bothered that various sovereign governments and the Western media are being allowed to get away with inventing false, Orientalist narratives that wholly misrepresent the context of events as they unfold around the world.