Who’s really wearing the mask?

Review of Sour Lips, a new play.

New Statesman
Sour Lips Amina Arraf, the blogger known as 'A Gay Girl In Damascus', and the events fomented by the media's coverage of her kidnapping.

The girl stands awkwardly in the glow of the spotlight, her eyes vacantly staring at the man before her; the man who has created her and even now is about to bring her to life.

This is Amina Abdalllah Arraf Al Omari, better known as the author of the blog “A Gay Girl in Damascus”, a Syrian-American lesbian activist who moved back to Damascus in order to part of the change happening there. She also goes by the name of Tom MacMaster, a 40-something postgraduate student at Edinburgh University: the man behind the mask.

“There’s nothing like war for the reinvention of lives.”

Two years ago, as the eyes of the world were captured by the social upheaval sweeping across the Middle East, and especially by the escalating violence in Syria, another story was being played out in the shadowy networks of the virtual world. On 6 June 2011, a message was posted on her blog saying that Amina had been abducted by Syrian security services and that her whereabouts were unknown. A huge international online campaign soon revealed Amina to be the fictional alias of aspiring writer and Middle East enthusiast Tom MacMaster.

So far, so familiar. The story of the “Gay Girl in Damascus” has been told and retold countless times as a cautionary tale to warn against the unreliability of the Internet. But beyond the misunderstandings and mistaken identities, there is a more powerful and more revealing narrative lurking beneath the shifting visage of Amina Arraf: that of the Western gaze on the East.

This is the narrative that Omar El-Khairy attempts to draw out in Sour Lips, his dramatic adaptation of the story of Amina and Tom which premiered at the Ovalhouse theatre earlier this week. Through the medium of the actors’ bodies, a sparse and almost clinical set, and an overwhelming and at times chaotic soundscape of tweets, beeps and buzzes, El-Khairy presents the audience with a fragmented account of events; interspersing excerpts from MacMaster’s blog with fictional amendments to Amina’s life and, once, a Newsnight report with the woman whose photo Macmaster reappropriated in order to be the face of Amina. The result is a compelling and highly current piece of theatre, at times unsettling in the questions it asks. Amina emerges as a larger-than-life blow-up doll of Macmaster’s creation, whose very existence fulfils the Western imaginary of the beautiful, strong-willed Oriental woman, mysterious in her complexity and yet somehow easily attainable:

“MacMaster’s fake-but-accurate lesbian was perfectly pitched to Western liberals desperate to alleviate the pain of cognitive dissonance… With Amina, all contradictions are resolved”

But the creation soon begins to take on a life of her own. The play follows Amina as she rebels against MacMaster’s irresponsible yet well-intentioned reproduction of cultural and racial stereotypes, forcing him to open his eyes and see the monster he has created:

“I warned you Tom. I told you about their insatiable appetite for the moor. What did I say? That they would try and divide us. Conqueror us.”

Interestingly, what emerges from Sour Lips is that Amina was never a particularly plausible character. The lesbian scenes seem to come straight from the midnight fantasies of a teenage boy’s imagination, and the subtle sexuality of the Muslim lesbian who choses to cover of her own volition in order to satisfy her own sexual desires is absurd in the extreme. And yet the world was taken in by Amina, and by the story she purported to tell. This fact alone bares us to scrutiny more than MacMaster’s “unveiling” ever could. Ultimately, “we wanted Amina to be real,” says El-Khairy; we wanted this modern-day Scheherazade to transport us with her words to a world in which all complexities are resolved into the one-dimensional uniformity of Freedom Liberty and Democracy. It is we, not Amina, who are hollow and empty; it is we, not MacMaster who are engaged in elaborate deceit.

Yet Amina did succeed where others had long failed. She succeeded in drawing the world’s attention to Syria and the wider Middle East in a way that went beyond the politicised rhetoric of false gods and fabricated demons (if only just) and presented the individuals of the Arab world as just that: individuals. Amina’s message was that humanity is the one unifying principle in a world of confusion and contradictions. As the fighting continues to rage in Syria, and the West charges gung-ho into another “liberalising” war in the Islamic world, it is a message we would be ill advised to forget.

Sour Lips will be playing at the Ovalhouse theatre until 16 February.

Emanuelle Degli Esposti is the editor and founder of The Arab Review. A writer and journalist, she is currently completing an MSc in Middle East Politics at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. She has written about the Middle East and Arab world for numerous publications, including the Economist, Oasis Magazine and the Telegraph.