‘A Gay Girl in Damascus’ comes clean
By Melissa Bell and Elizabeth Flock,
For nearly a week, the world followed the saga of Amina Arraf, the blogger who was celebrated for her passionate, often intimate writings about the Syrian government’s crackdown on Arab Spring protesters. Those writings stopped abruptly last Monday, and in a posting on her blog, “A Gay Girl in Damascus,” a cousin said Amina had been hauled away by government security agents.
News of her disappearance became an Internet and media sensation. The U.S. State Department started an investigation. But almost immediately skeptics began asking: Had anyone ever actually met Amina? On Wednesday, pictures of her on the blog were revealed to have been taken from a London woman’s Facebook page.
And Sunday, the truth spilled out: The gay girl in Damascus confessed to being a 40-year-old American man from Georgia.
The persona Tom MacMaster built and cultivated for years — a lesbian who was half Syrian and half American — was a tantalizing Internet-era fiction, one that he used to bring attention to the human rights record of a country where media restrictions make traditional reporting almost impossible.
On Sunday, MacMaster apologized on the blog. “While the narrative voice may have been fictional, the facts on thıs blog are true and not mısleading as to the situation on the ground,” he wrote. “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.”
MacMaster, a Middle East peace activist who is working on his master’s degree at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, wrote that he fictionalized the account of a gay woman in Syria to illuminate the situation for a Western audience.
The hoax raises difficult questions about the reliance on blogs, tweets, Facebook postings and other Internet communications as they increasingly become a standard way to report on global events. Information from online sources has become particularly important in coverage of the Middle East uprisings, especially in countries that severely restrict foreign media — or that use social media against protesters.
MacMaster had used Amina as an identity online for at least five years. He started the blog in February, shortly after Amina told people she moved back to Syria from the United States. Amina’s story might have remained believable, but when he wrote of her arrest, her fans — in a desire to help the woman they had grown to care about — found a trail of evidence that led back to MacMaster.
The author unmasked
In telephone interviews and e-mail exchanges with The Post over the past three days, MacMaster initially denied any connection to Amina. He insisted he had never heard of her or the blog before the news of the arrest broke.
“Look, if I was the genius who had pulled this off, I would say, ‘Yeah,’ and write a book,” he said Friday, reached in Istanbul, where he is vacationing with his wife, a graduate student working on a PhD in international relations.
News organizations around the world, including The Washington Post, reported on the blogger’s disappearance Tuesday. As the story spread, three Syrian sources contacted Andy Carvin of NPR with their doubts; he, in turn, asked the more than 48,000 people who follow him on Twitter whether anyone had met Amina or spoken to her on the phone. None said they had.
The Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday that Amina had been using another woman’s photographs. The Post on Thursday contacted Scott Palter, a board game creator from Minnesota who corresponded regularly with Amina on a Yahoo message group called “The Crescentland.’’
In a telephone interview, Palter said that he asked her several years ago for a mailing address to send her Christmas cards and that she gave him an address in Stone Mountain, Ga. Local real estate records show that MacMaster has owned the house since 2000 and that he and his wife lived there until they left for Scotland in September 2010.
Other links between Amina and MacMaster quickly surfaced. In 2006, both were active participants in a Yahoo message group for people interested in the esoteric subject of “alternate history,” debating what might have been if major historical events had different outcomes.
Over the course of many months, Amina engaged MacMaster in detailed online discussions about the Middle East and other subjects. It also became clear that biographical information Amina provided about herself online was similar to MacMaster’s actual biography.
Amina wrote of her childhood in Virginia, at the bend of a river in the Shenandoah Valley. She wrote that she lived in a home overlooking the buggies in the yards of the Old Order Mennonites. “The first time I saw these plainly dressed people, I mistook them for our own,” she wrote in 2007. “I proudly announced to my parents that I had seen Muslims going into the bank.”
MacMaster grew up in Harrisonburg, Va., in the Shenandoah Valley, as a Mennonite. His mother, Eve MacMaster, a Mennonite pastor, had taught English in Turkey before she married. “He was raised in a family that has a warm feeling for the Middle East,” his mother said in a telephone interview.
On Friday, the editor of Lez Get Real, a lesbian news Web site based in Washington, told readers she and Amina had corresponded after Amina posted a thoughtful comment on her site. The editor said she had determined that Amina’s e-mails had been sent from a computer in Edinburgh.
In several interviews, the editor — who spoke on condition that she be identified only by her pseudonym, Paula Brooks — said she encouraged Amina to write more, first on Lez Get Real and later on a new blog, titled “A Gay Girl in Damascus.”
In February, just as the Arab Spring protests were gathering steam across the Middle East, Brooks said Amina told her she had moved back to Syria. She seemed to have extensive knowledge about Damascus, describing intricate details of museums that Brooks, who had been to Syria, knew to be true. Brooks, cautious about allowing someone she had never met to write for her site, said she questioned Amina about one thing that bothered her: Amina’s IP address. An IP address is a geographical locator — a sort of digital Zip code — for Web connections.
Amina told her that for security reasons, she used a proxy Web server that made it appear she was writing from Scotland. It is a common tactic used by Syrian bloggers, many of whom write online anonymously. Brooks said that at the time she accepted the explanation.
MacMaster became interested in Palestinian issues during college, his brother, Sam MacMaster, said in a telephone interview.
Sam MacMaster said his brother was offered a full scholarship from Emory University, which he chose for the school’s expertise on the Austro-Goths. Once there, however, MacMaster quickly switched his specialization to Arabic studies. Later, he traveled to Syria and Jordan to perfect his language skills.
Tom MacMaster became the co-director of a peace activist group called Atlanta Palestine Solidarity and traveled to the region. MacMaster said a close friend of his was killed in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. He also said he went to Baghdad during the Persian Gulf War as part of a “student peace mission” trying to deter military action against Iraq.
Sam MacMaster, a professor at the University of Tennessee, recalled a childhood of social activism, including coming to Washington with his brother to hand out origami doves on the steps of the Pentagon to commemorate the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, Japan.
“He enjoys pushing issues at some level,” Sam MacMaster said. “ . . . There’s a Quaker saying, ‘speaking truth to power.’ He takes that very literally.”
Tom MacMaster’s interest in Syria also seems to have been deepened by his 2007 marriage to Britta Froelicher, a woman he met in Georgia through an online dating site. MacMaster said in the interview from Turkey that he and Froelicher traveled to Syria in 2008. In the same interview, Froelicher said she is working on a PhD at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, focusing on Syrian economic development.
While in Syria in 2008, Froelicher and MacMaster posted a photo on Picasa, a photo Web site, showing a billboard of a smiling Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, with the slogan “Syria believes in you.” The newly married couple captioned the photograph, “My favorite little piece of propaganda of all time.”
This year, on May 11, that image — showing the same motorcyclist and pedestrians passing by the billboard — appeared on Amina’s blog. The post was titled, “Irony.”
The controversy over “A Gay Girl in Damascus” has created anguish among her fans. As suspicions of a hoax grew, many expressed outrage that attention had turned away from the increasingly violent government crackdown in Syria.
The controversy has also angered many in the lesbian and gay community, which rallied around Amina. And it has raised concerns among bloggers who complain that MacMaster exploited their trust and may have jeopardized their ability to use pseudonyms.
The names of MacMaster and Froelicher first appeared in connection with the Damascus blog early Sunday morning on a site called Electronic Intifada. That post went up at 4:24 a.m. Washington time. At 3:08 p.m. MacMaster posted his admission, signing off as Tom MacMaster, “the sole author of all posts on this blog.”
Staff researcher Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.