In the end it came down to an apology from a 40-year-old male student in Scotland who unmasked himself as Amina Arraf, the gay Syrian blogger behind “Gay Girl in Damascus.”
In the course of the last week, news of the popular blogger’s disappearance prompted worldwide petitions seeking her release as well as the social media to kick into high gear. A Facebook page set up in her name had 15,000 supporters.
Had it not been for the valiant efforts of a few journalists like Andy Carvin of National Public Radio and the London paper Guardian, we’d all be forwarding chain emails pleading that she be released.
Instead, on Sunday, Tom MacMaster posted an apology to Amina’s readers, saying he never expected this much attention, was touched by readers concerns and defended his writing by saying that while it was fictional narrative, the events represented reality in Syria.
And Mr. MacMaster would know this sitting in the comfortable environs of Scotland where he’s a “Middle East activist,” while his wife is pursuing a doctorate in Syrian economic development.
There is outrage everywhere and everyone is feeling it—Amina’s loyal readers, the human rights activists (real and virtual) who campaigned for her release and the gay community in Syria, which is upset that the hoax takes away from their plight.
No matter what the creators (his wife is said to be involved in the scam) say—about having knowledge of life in Syria—they have lost face and credibility, and thereby played into the hands of the regime. Journalists too expressed outrage that the time spent investigating the veracity of the blog took away time and focus from events in Syria.
These are not the only tragedies.
I believe that Mr. MacMaster will soon have a book deal—a complete compilation of the blog as well as how he managed to dupe the world. It will become a bestseller and a movie will be made of it. I believe that movie too will do well.
Why do people continue to be drawn by the people behind the hoax after the hoax has been exposed?
In no particular order, look at James Frey, author of A Million Little Pieces whose memoir was chosen by Oprah Winfrey for her book club and after it was proven that portions of it were false; he was chastised by Oprah on her show--and then returned to talk to the talk show legend for her finale series. He’d apologized, written another book and went on his with life somehow richer.
Remember Jayson Blair, the New York Times reporter who in 2003 was fired for plagiarism and fabricating stories? He wrote a memoir a year later, Bringing Down My Master’s House, which went on to become a bestseller and he’s now a life coach.
Closer to home, there’s Noura Khouri, author of Forbidden Love who wrote about a supposed Jordanian woman killed in an honor killing for her affair with a Christian soldier. A documentary in 2007 attempts to verify Ms. Khouri’s story as it searches for the woman alleged to have been killed but makes no headway, with Ms. Khouri’s “facts” falling apart along the way while all the while she sticks to her guns. The award-winning documentary closes with a statement that FBI is still investigating Ms. Khouri’s claims and that she plans to pursue a career as a human rights lawyer.
Am I suggesting that these three are somehow beyond reproach, undeserved of repent or a second chance?
Absolutely not. They are after all human whose intentions, as mala fide as they may be, do not mean a lifetime of banishment.
I’m just curious as to why we remain fascinated with them. We fell in love with Amina Arraf and needed her to be real and safe. When she wasn’t, we fell out of love and focused our anger on her creators but soon, all of it will be wiped from our collective memory until we will be sold a book chronicling how we were duped.
In the meantime, what becomes of the thousands detained in Syria? Those who have as much courage as the hoax Amina but no avenue to get their voices heard. Will journalists who didn’t have the time to verify facts before giving Amina the international fame she received suddenly back off or labor over each detail before printing—by which it could be too late for the real Aminas out there?
There are many lessons to learn from this hoax—for journalists, activists, tweeple who forward information without thinking about truth and consequences—but let us not forget those out there who have no channels to get their voices heard. Let us focus on their voices, and not enrich those who claim to be their champions.
(Muna Khan, Editor of Al Arabiya, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)