Tom MacMaster, 40, is a married U.S. student at the University of Edinburg who started a blog describing life in Damascus amid the unfolding political unrest.Starting in February, his posts caught the attention of the world amassing thousands of followers and news organisations. Until last week everyone of them thought he was a 35-year-old gay woman.
A Gay Girl in Damascus chronicled MacMaster’s character Amina Abdallah Arraf al-Omari, a half-Syrian, half-American lesbian living in Damascus and started
innocuously enough.“A Novel? An autobiography? Well, yes!”
So I’ve posted the first two chapters of a book I’ve been working on, on and off for several years. I’m going to go ahead and post a couple more … and would love to see comments or reactions as this whole project has been quite difficult for me. …
MacMaster built Amina’s identity through a first-person story starting at the hospital where she was born in Virginia. By peeling back extremely detailed portions of the girl’s life readers felt they knew her, and then on February 21, he switched to his agenda.
“Why I am Doing This”
I live in Damascus, Syria. It’s a repressive police state. Most LGBT people are still deep in the closet or staying as invisible as possible.
But I have set up a blog announcing my sexuality, with my name and my photo.
Am I crazy?
With detailed accounts of Amina’s sexual awakening and repression by the Syrian government, the blog’s following grew and readers formed relationships with the character. On June 9, as details of MacMaster’s fiction began to unravel, NPR published a story about Sandra Bagaria who exchanged 500 emails with Amina. “I’m just as confused as everyone else,” she said.
The two had met through Facebook six-months before and developed a relationship, though they’d never spoken on the phone. “But seriously, who’s writing me?” Bagaria asked NPR. “There’s so many Syrian details that I only see someone living there writing it.”
She was far from alone. In late May CNN interviewed Amina via email, where she told the news network she “believed that political change could improve gay rights.”
When Al Jazeera picked up Amina’s story on June 7, MacMaster must have been feeling the fiction wouldn’t hold, but the choice he made for his character’s exit proved the tales undoing.
Dear friends of Amina,
I am Amina Abdallah Araf al Omari’s cousin and have the following information to share. Earlier today, at approximately 6:00 pm Damascus time, Amina was walking in the area of the Abbasid bus station … was seized by three men in their early 20’s. According to the witness (who does not want her identity known), the men were armed. Amina hit one of them and told the friend to go find her father. One of the men then put his hand over Amina’s mouth and they hustled her into a red Dacia Logan with a window sticker of Basel Assad. The witness did not get the tag number.
The abduction was reported on June 6 by The New York Times, but was online for less than 24-hours before NPR journalist Andy Carvin, tweeted a wake-up call to his almost 50,000 followers: “Has anyone met Amina (Gay Girl in Damascus) in person? It’s just odd that I can’t find anyone who has actually met her in person.”
The call came too late for the Huffington Post to hold their story, filed from Beirut, validating the girl and the detention with this quote. “”The day before she was detained, Arraf [Amani] 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,” she wrote in a day before being detained.””
In fact, no one had met her, but someone recognised the pictures of her that had become ubiquitous since “the disappearance”. The Wall Street Journal reported on June 8 that the photos of Amina were actually of Croatia-born Londoner Jelena Lecic.
Lecic saw her photos on the Guardian’s website, raising questions of Amina’s authenticity and the U.S. State Department’s Investigation confirmed them all: Amina Abdallah Arraf al-Omari did not exist.
Further details showed Tom MacMaster had been cultivating the lesbian persona for years and forced him to come clean Sunday when he apologized from his forum.
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 have been deeply touched by the reactions of readers.” Signed — “The sole author of all posts on this blog.”
MacMaster, currently on vacation in Istanbul, told BBC Scotland he became frustrated when trying to speak on Middle East issues as a white American male. “So, I invented a name to talk under that would keep the focus on the actual issue.”
He told BBC that he never expected the blog to be read by more than 10 people and while he acknowledged his ruse may have made it more difficult for bloggers within Syria, he stressed the public should focus on the issues “not the hoaxer”.
Finally he apologized to Jelena Lecic, whose pictures he stole. “I had an idea of what my character should look like and one day I was flipping through something and I saw a picture of her and said ‘that is the face’. I didn’t think anyone would notice.”
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