welcome to syria (again)

The Gay Girl in Damascus blog has been outed.  Supposedly written by a Syrian-American lesbian named Amina Abdallah Araf al Omari, the online personality came crashing down after her ‘cousin’ posted a dramatic story of her kidnapping by Syrian agents.  The alarm raised international attention and created a Facebook page where over 15,000 people demanded her freedom.  It also raised an Internet posse of hundreds, including Ali Abunimah at Electronic Intifada, who tracked down details of the story and found them suspicious.  After several days Tom MacMaster, on vacation in Istanbul, took responsibility.

When readers first identified a hoax, considerable angst came from Linda Carbonell at LezGetReal, the lesbian media site that initially sponsored Amina Abdallah and helped organize the Gay Girl in Damascus blog.  She wrote:

“Were we used by this person? Yes. Did we believe her? Yes. Did we care what happened to her? Damn yes. And that’s what hurts so much. Did we lose sleep over Amina? Yes. Did we call in every person we ever knew that we thought could help? Yes. Were we scared out of our collective minds? Yes.”

At Electronic Intifada, Abunimah and Benjamin Doherty wrote:

“We believe that the person or persons responsible should end this deception which has been harmful to individuals who trusted and believed in “Amina” and more broadly has sown confusion, distraction and absorbed energy and attention at a time when real people are in danger in Syria and in other countries in the region.”

And at Facebook’s ‘Free Amina Arraf’ page, Syrian Blogger adopted a similar approach:

“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.”

The terms ‘deception,’ ‘hoax’ and ‘distraction’ appear repeatedly in online coverage and commentary.  In such understandings, MacMaster’s offences lay in his representation of himself as a person other than the one who appears on his driver license, as a Syrian woman rather than an American man, and an eyewitness when far from the scene.  Yet each of these transfigurations of persona, ethnicity, gender and locale are among the commonest features of Internet narrative and self-presentation.  If they signify deception and hoax – and in the most literal senses they do – these narrative behaviors are indigenous to their environs. Complaints are misplaced.

Those who complain that they were deceived register an innocence unbecoming aware adults. In the first chapter of Herman Melville’s The Confidence-Man, when one man circulates with a sign “Charity believeth all things” while another hangs up a sign saying “NO TRUST,” we know to which school Melville subscribes.  Those who believed a story that a proud, gay-positive Syrian father verbally browbeat two security agents come to arrest his openly lesbian daughter and also lived to tell the tale exhibit a social credulity that “believeth all things.”  On the Internet, Melville’s ‘no trust’ is the rule.

Using another example from American literature, in The Maltese Falcon Sam Spade growls at Miss Wonderly/Brigid O’Shaughnessy, “You aren’t exactly the sort of person you pretend to be, are you?” Spade forgives her only if she is not innocent, just as readers should reject pretensions of innocence about fictional identity choices. Such fictions thematize the penetration of modernist suspicion into a thicket of identities, overlaid personae and intricate character involutions. MacMaster’s impersonation, which included extended romantic correspondence with a Canadian woman and theft of a Croatian woman’s photo, is far from the innocence of his claims.

For his part, MacMaster responded to widespread criticism by advancing a brief theory of engaged, committed social fiction-writing.  As part of a limp apology, he wrote “I only hope that people pay as much attention to the people of the Middle East and their struggles in this year of revolutions. The events there are being shaped by the people living them on a daily basis. I have only tried to illuminate them for a western audience.” MacMaster here advances a claim that his narrative of Amina Abdullah provides the revolutionary facts and re-frames them for a Western audience that can better understand such realities by means of his fiction.

What MacMaster deems ‘illumination’ is an act of colonial appropriation, differing only in medium of self-presentation from when Archie Belaney, an Englishman, impersonated an Indian named ‘Grey Owl’ in Canada during the 1920s-1930s in order to write and give lecture tours on nature conservation.  MacMaster acted a native role in order to gain cultural credibility, a claim to native status betrayed in the end by his Edinburgh University IP address.  As LezGetReal makes clear, they gave her publishing support because ‘Amina’ represented the ‘native’ voice they hoped to hear from Syria.

Condemning MacMaster for imitating rather than actually being a native voice is too simple. There is a paradox here.  In the same apology where MacMaster writes, “While the narrative voice may have been fictional, the facts on this blog are true and not misleading as to the situation on the ground,” he echoes the claims of US antislavery novelists who argued that their fictions squared with facts.  Even though Harriet Beecher Stowe had only a brief glimpse of slavery and gathered nearly all her information from print sources and second-hand reports, she wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin with a factual architecture documented in A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  A long tradition of protest writers has employed fiction as a means for examining unacceptable social facts.

The problem arises because MacMaster claims the protections of fiction without having claimed its authorship.  In an essay published by ‘Amina,’ MacMaster uses her voice for this claim: “I have never once been attacked or beaten or even screamed at for being a lesbian in an Arab land. On the other hand, I have had dung thrown at me in America for wearing a hijab, been attacked and struck by strangers for being an Arab …” Of course, none of these events ever happened, either to MacMaster or Amina.  MacMaster employs claims of individual abuse to acquire the authority of minority experience.  He claims an Arab woman’s voice – and the terrifying experience of being kidnapped from a Damascus street – while enjoying the social power of a white American male.  After revelation of his identity, MacMaster suggested amusingly to unamused media interviewers that he might turn his writing into a novel, apparently unconscious of the fact that he had written one already.

MacMaster’s game has a lengthy literary history.  About thirty years ago Werner Sollors invented the term ‘ethnic transvestite,’ an ungendered use of transvestism’s transgressive privileges, to describe a small group of writers who assumed new ethnic identities in order to claim narrative authority.  Ethnic transvestites exhibit a wide range of human motivations for their impostures, from the beatific to plain ugly and expropriative.  MacMaster simultaneously rehearses another form of literary transvestism – gender-switching.   Men writing as women and women writing as men are possibly as old as literature itself.  Eighteenth and nineteenth-century English and French literatures provide a long list of gender-concealing pseudonymous authors, including many of the most illustrious literary names of the period.

Narrative transvestism emphasizes that selves are produced through cultural practices and auto-description. Since practices and descriptions are open to emancipation, in this logic so is the self.  While critics theorize on topics of ‘otherness’ and ‘alterity,’ narrative transvestites actually perform these identities, with – as MacMaster is discovering – the consequence of public notoriety and embarrassment if discovered.

While there is a wide set of examples of literary transvestism from around the globe, MacMaster’s blog is a product of American culture, not Arab. Its precedents lie in US racial passing, or secretive transits from one racial or ethnic group to another.  A culture of passing is endemic to an American culture of dominance, one where physiognomies are available for a continual reinvention that transforms dross into gloss.  Ethnic identities submerge beneath the signifiers, attributes and means of adaptability.  ‘High yellow,’ skin lighteners, hair straighteners, hair colorings, and nose jobs join with the cinematic rugged chin of Issur Danielovitch Demsky/Kirk Douglas, olive polytribalism of Anthony Quinn, white-black ambiguities of Michael Jackson, and join further with the early modern transchromatic novels of Nella Larsen and James Weldon Johnson.  Adaptability and a capacity for integrative social self-insertion, as exemplified in Woody Allen’s Zelig, enhance market values.

Using identities as a social palimpsest available for incessant restatements is a US cultural practice that gained momentum throughout the twentieth century and has accelerated in the Internet-driven twenty-first century.  Yet under historical regimes where entire other-than-white cultures have resisted being forcibly passed into cultural whiteness, passing connotes social regression as much as modernity.  MacMaster’s narratorial device of passing online as Arab provides no avenue to political engagement and no escape from his originating identity.  Transvestite escapism, with its false promise of alterity gained, offers no salvation.

With the twentieth-century rise of disembodied narrative via electronic media, we encounter such intuited narratives based on narrated identities that have no foundation beyond the wishful.  Instead, in an attempted leap to escape cultural gravity, narrative imagination either discards experiential pretense, or convinces itself that a parthenogenic pseudo-autobiography can substitute for experience. A desire to reformulate and reintegrate, to meld into an unknown but longed-for solidity of another ethnicity, distinguishes political imaginations lost in their own alienation.

In the figure of Amina Abdallah Araf al Omari, the American tradition of Franklinian self-invention has found its latest outlet. We are left to enjoy the delicious irony of a straight white man closeting himself in order to pretend he is a queer of color.  This phenomenon points toward the disintegration of both essentialized whiteness and straightness.  Blog entries from March 2011 on lesbian sex with her friend Lori reek with painfully descriptive preoccupation over the taste of a high school girl’s kisses.  MacMaster seems barely able to restrain himself as imaginative voyeur.  His prejudiced animosities define as much as his frustrated attractions, as where – seemingly channeling Helen Demidenko/Darville and her infamous anti-Semitism – he refers to Jews as “the elite shining light to the goyim, showering their morality down on some depraved sons of Amalek.”

MacMaster illustrates how literary transvestism attracts the bottom-feeders of imaginative life, those who invent histories because they no longer perceive that they too possess a history of their own.  While their self-construction as writers is fascinating, most are shallow writers who fade rapidly once their stories are no longer fresh news.  The creation of an authorial persona becomes their single convincing accomplishment and good fiction-writing demands far more.

Historiographic moralists who demand a straightforward biographical congruence between a narrator’s civic identity and their narrative identification miss the point.  Throughout the discourses of white ethnic transvestism inventing false identities, usually we are witnessing some profoundly inexpressible discomfort with either whiteness or dominance.  While some of these author pretenses are commendable (e.g. the likeable Danny Santiago/Daniel James, an elderly once-blacklisted Los Angeles screenwriter who ‘became’ a young Hispanic writer during the 1970s-80s) or simply benign, many others exhibit unpleasant features of white victim role-playing (e.g. the smarmy Rahila Khan/Toby Forward, an Anglican clergyman who posed in 1987 as an Anglo-Pakistani woman writer).  The generation since these cases has shifted matters only barely. MacMaster’s inability to recognize his victim role-playing is visible in his claim that a hostile reception evidences “the pervasiveness of new forms of liberal Orientalism.”

Dissatisfied with whom his culture has made him and rejecting his own name, MacMaster subscribes to new essentialisms.  Amina Abdallah Araf al Omari is a manifestation of romanticized nationalism – the Syrian nation in revolt – synthesized with romanticized sexuality. Amina is sign, symbol and proclamation of a Western desire, one that colonizes social meaning rather than witness events as it pretends.  The enabling ideology for A Gay Girl in Damascus lies in straight whiteness, the dominant paradigm that has given rise to so much of American narrative transvestism.

Photograph courtesy of Paul Keller. Published under a Creative Commons license, in collaboration with Babylon Times.