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13 June 2011updated 17 Jan 2012 7:04am

The Damascus delusion

The "Gay Girl in Damascus" blog was a product of an American man's imagination. But does it matter?

By Steven Baxter

“I never expected this level of attention,” wrote A Gay Girl in Damascus in what will probably be her final ever blog entry. “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.”

These, then, were not the words of a gay girl in Damascus called Amina Arraf – they were the words of Tom MacMaster, an American student in Edinburgh. The “kidnapping” of the anonymous blogger, which caused widespread concern and pressure from Facebook groups and campaigners alike to get the author of the blog released, was just a story, too.

This was not the frontline blog from an oppressed lesbian in Syria; this was the fantasy of a married 40-year-old man. He says he wanted his views to be taken seriously, and that he didn’t write anything that wasn’t based on the experiences that were faced by citizens of Syria. But can you really be taken seriously when pretending to be someone you’re not, especially when frontline blogging relies so much on trust?

MacMaster’s blog may have been fictional, but he says it was rooted in fact. He wasn’t there in Syria, seeing and experiencing the things his blogging persona claimed to be seeing and experiencing. He didn’t have those feelings; he didn’t have those thoughts. It must have taken a brilliant imagination to get Amina’s story across. Does it matter that it was just that, a story, rather than a real first-hand account?

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To answer that question you have to look at the Facebook sites that sprung up when news of the invented kidnapping of “Amina” emerged. The admin of one such “free Amina” page, with more than 14,000″ ‘likes”, said: “Be assured administrators of this site – who were friends with “Amina” online – are just as angry as everyone else over the revelation made by Tom MacMaster. This foolish and cruel hoax has distracted from the real issue in Syria – that the Syrian people are sacrificing their lives for calling for an end to a regime that silences, disappears, tortures and murders its people, a regime that has repeatedly fired directly into peaceful demonstrations.”

That seems unequivocal. The MacMaster tales may have made it harder for the stories of genuine frontline bloggers to be taken seriously, those for whom anonymity is not a convenient way of exploring a literary style or “being taken seriously” on a subject in which one isn’t seen as an expert, but an absolute necessity. Amina’s life may well be similar to a real person’s life, and the blog may well have raised awareness of life for oppressed people in Syria, but that still isn’t good enough. The claim was that this was a real person’s blog. It wasn’t.

The news organisations which used the story may be more circumspect in future – but there is a place for the genuine first-hand accounts of people who are afraid to reveal their identities for fear of reprisals. The question arises of how these sources are to be verified when they claim to be in fear for their very lives – perhaps reporting with a degree of explanation that the blogger can’t be assured to be who they say they are is enough. That won’t sit well with a lot of journalists, but perhaps that’s the world we’re now in.

The sadness is that MacMaster is, to my mind at least, a talented writer. I think part of the reason why Amina’s story garnered so much interest was the brilliance of the realistic detail, the humanity of the story, the tenderness and empathy with which Amina’s life was depicted. Look back through Amina’s blogposts and you can find poetry, political posts and perfectly paced stories about emotional issues like coming out. See it for what it is – fiction – and you can admire the literary creation of MacMaster. If only he had presented it that way in the first place. If only he had.