Subterfuge in Syria
Why we wanted to believe the Gay Girl in Damascus
BY MICHAEL T. LUONGO
t was such a great story, it couldn’t have been made up.Now, of course, we know better.In 1993, in the early days of Internet chat, when people werealready pretending to be some-thing they weren’t, a New Yorker cartoon showed two dogs on a computer, captioned, “On theInternet, nobody knows you’rea dog.” The update might now say “When you’re pretending to be a Middle Eastern lipstick lesbianin peril, no one knows you’re a bearded, straight 40-year-oldman named Tom.” The Gay Girl in Damascus(http://damascusgaygirl.blog-spot.com) is a blog full of hero-ism and drama. And what a heroine Gay Girl –– imaginary name Amina Abdallah Arraf alOmari ––was.Not just an Arab woman, but an open lesbian in a repressivedictatorship.Part of what made Amina’sstory plausible was that her being Syrian-American seemedto give her a modicum of free-dom unavailable to a local. A recent Arab Spring panel at Columbia University’s SocialMedia Conference also pointedout that blogging in English isa form of protection. Bloggersusing Arabic are more likely to be jailed, tortured, or killed. I’vepersonally met a few who’ve suf-fered the first two indignities. Amina’s stories mixed the per-sonal and political, providing anemotional window into the revo-lution, explaining to an inter-national audience the nuancesof Syria. She talked about the beauty of Islam and the plight of Palestinians. Beyond her own words, reader comments onIslam and homosexuality show a level of sophisticated thinkingtoo many Westerners assumedoes not exist in the region.But forget all about that.Gay Girl in Damascus is real-ly Tom MacMaster, an AmericanMiddle East expert who lovesSyria and lives in Scotland. He was tracked down by the Wash-ington Post and blogger Ali Abunimah of the Electronic Inti-fada. (http://electronicintifada.net). The blog’s credibility cracked when Croatian Jelena Lecic,living in London, told the BBCthe photos were of her, telltalemole and all. Stolen identity aside, she was frightened for Amina. Soon we knew the blog’sIP address was in Scotland andthe ruse broke down.Network rerouting and pur-posely false identities andimpressions are not without precedent, especially regardingSyria. The best known subter-fuge artist is Malath Aumran,the online persona of hazel-eyedmedia darling Rami Nakhla,a Syrian blogger in Lebanon, whose work against the Syriangovernment has been featuredin CNN and on other news sites.But an openly gay blogger inrepressive Syria? The fact is that is not without precedent, either. A visit I madeto Syria last year –– where I didtravel writing, met with peopleabout the Arabic version of my book “Gay Travels in the Mus-lim World” during a multi-coun-try Middle East book tour, andinterviewed gay Iraqi refugeesliving there –– was facilitated by a Damascus blogger runninga gay website. The site was inEnglish with his picture; havingmet him I can attest it is really him.I was surprised at his open-ness, but he explained to methat the Syrian government didnot care about homosexuality.It was only when social orga-nizing veered into politics that gays got crushed. Plausible, yet I still wondered if my friend hadfriends in high places protectinghim, or if he himself was a spy.Skepticism and suspicion arehealthy in the Middle East.My friend said he didn’t know Amina, though he’d heard of her blog when I asked him as newsof it hit the US. His own skep-ticism should have convincedme, much as we all wantedto believe. But in the back of my mind, I was swayed by theactivists’ success in staying well below the radar, something I witnessed on my trip to Damas-cus. Though some of her blogentries gave me doubts, Amina was not, to me, unthinkable.My Syrian friend, for example,told me not to buy a cell phoneSIM chip, that he would give meone. At first, I was suspicious of this suggestion until I realizedhe would probably provide onethe government could not track.Facebook was illegal thenin Syria, but most got aroundthis by using, of all things,Saudi Arabian proxies, Inter-net addresses enabling them to bypass the official Syrian gov-ernment website blocks. Thesocial networking site has beenlegalized since the revolution began in Syria, but probably soauthorities can monitor dissi-dents. We delight in narrativesabout the Facebook and Twitter revolutions sweeping the MiddleEast, forgetting that technology also leaves a trail of evidence to be used against activists. TheOnion jokes about that sort of surveillance happening here, but it already is used in theMiddle East. Technically, I was in Syria illegally, a journalist on a tour-ist visa, investigating without a government monitor. It wasthe only way to get work done.It was, of course, also a form of subterfuge, dangerous at times.I got my best lesson in thenature of surreptitious activ-ity –– one that, for me, lent themost credibility to Amina’s blog –– from the difficulty I had locat-ing a gay rights group, the Syr-ian Same Sex Society, or SSSS, whose website, www.ssss-net.com, exists to this day. Duringmy trip, the site was blocked within Syria and clearly theactivists were monitored. (Ironi-cally, gay porn sites were not blocked.)Despite my efforts, I wasnever able to meet group mem- bers. There was a bar popular with gay men, including foreign-ers, in the center of Damascus. Almost every day, someone toldme the group’s leader would bethere. I always just missed him,I was told. This man was alter-natively described as Syrian,Syrian-American, Danish-Syr-ian, Danish, Irish, blond, red-headed, and brown-haired, with various names. No one really knew who he was, and maybehe was more than one person. The bottom line is that inSyria, evading notice meanssafety, and I figured that wasthe case with Amina.I finally tracked down the guy behind the SSSS site, ironically,in the course of investigatingthe Amina story for this article.He now lives outside Syria, anddespite the high visibility of the group’s website, he said noother journalists had contactedhim during the Gay Girl saga.In fact, the man, who still wants his identity obscured,said that he had not even beencontacted in connection with Western articles several yearsago that claimed to have inter- viewed him.Beyond alerting me to thepervasiveness of subterfuge,my visit also made clear how fragile Syria is and how spiesare everywhere. In Aleppo, I wastouring a church ruin with a local gay man when seemingly out of nowhere, his neighbor appeared. My friend panicked,explaining later the man wasfrom the secret police.In another gay Aleppo outing, we were spooked by a secret policeman who sat next to usand glared as we spoke.In fact, I found Syria just plain creepy. This is not some-
Jelena Lecic, a Crotian now living in London, whose picture was used by Tom MacMaster in hisphony blog http://damascusgaygirl.blogspot.com.
The Syrian government did not care about homosexuality. It was only when social organizing veered into politics that gays got crushed.