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or, What not to do when crossing the fourth wall.

Amina Abdallah Araf al Omari, the author of the popular activism blog "A Gay Girl in Damascus", has just admitted that she is really Tom MacMaster, a 40-year-old student in Edinburgh.

The blog recently got major media attention when a family member of Amina reported that her cousin had disappeared near the Abbasid bus station, seized by three young men who were probably members of the Baath Party militia. Gay activists in Syria have been investigating her arrest and attempting to contact her at personal risk to themselves.

"Ever since I was a child, I’ve wanted to write fiction but, when my first attempts met with universal rejection, I took a more serious look at my own work and I realized that I could not write conversation in a natural way nor could I convincingly write characters who weren’t me." Tom wrote in his apology today. "I was involved with numerous online science-fiction/alternate-history discussion lists and, as a part of that process, I saw lots of incredibly ignorant and stupid positions repeated on the Middle East. I noticed that when I, a person with a distinctly Anglo name, made comments on the Middle East, the facts I might present were ignored and I found myself accused of hating America, Jews, etc."

When he was unable to improve his writing using conventional exercises, he invented the Amina persona, who began commenting on the same blogs and mailing lists that Tom was already a part of. Almost immediately, he discovered that Amina's posts provoked friendly reactions, where his own had only provoked hostility. The momentum grew - he created a Facebook page for her, found photos online of a woman who looked like her, created her blog. Amina started getting requests to write articles, which she delivered. She exchanged hundreds of emails with a Canadian woman, developing a romantic relationship. She posted a story about her father's love and protection and it went viral. (A timeline of the events)

Now, Tom MacMaster is frantically and humbly backpedaling, while the pageviews of his blog approach 900,000. Sami Hamwi, the editor of GayMiddleEast.com, wrote, "To Mr. MacMaster, I say shame on you!!! We have to deal with too many difficulties than you can imagine. What you have done has harmed many, put us all in danger, and made us worry about our LGBT activism. Add to that, that it might have caused doubts about the authenticity of our blogs, stories, and us. Your apology is not accepted, since I have myself started to investigate Amina’s arrest. I could have put myself in a grave danger inquiring about a fictitious figure."

I am struck by how similar his story might be to the experience of a member of a multiple system who fought for equal treatment and didn't compromise on their own personality, opinions, and background.

What would the media response have been if, instead of saying "I made it all up," Tom had said, "Yes, I am multiple; Amina is a member of my system"?

It also hilights just now pervasive is the new disenfrancisement that white males believe they face in a world where minority groups are rapidly gaining control of social discourse. "I didn’t mean to hurt the causes which I myself believe in," Tom said. "I only wanted to set forth real information through the use of artfully crafted fiction."

Comments

( 55 comments — Leave a comment )
yonjuunana
Jun. 13th, 2011 07:05 pm (UTC)
Wow, that is... Fascinating and tangled and messed-up in all sorts of ways. Going and reading some of the apology letter:

Amina came alive. I could hear her ‘voice’ and that voice and personality were clear and strong. Amina was funny and smart and equal parts infuriating and flirtatious. She struggled with her religious beliefs and sexuality, wondered about living in America as an Arab; she wanted to find a way to balance her religion and her sexuality, her desire to be both a patriotic American and a patriotic Arab. Amina was clever and fun and had a story and a voice and I started writing it, almost as though she were dictating to me. Some of her details were mine, some were those of a dozen other friends borrowed liberally, others were purely ‘her’ from the get go.

Wow, that does sound multiple-spectrum-y, also the later parts where he tried to stop writing her but couldn't. Bizarre situation. Handled extremely terribly if he/they/? were doing things in such a way that put people in danger or mislead people. But it is interesting, I will have to read more about this when I have the time, see what more people are saying.

I have still been wondering about the issues of cultural appropriation and multiplicity that were brought up earlier. It does seem like a tangle there, too. I don't feel like I have answers there yet, except to try to be aware that whatever privileges the front body has do have an influence on things, still watching and trying to learn.
dejablue7
Jun. 13th, 2011 07:09 pm (UTC)
*Reads the entirety of Tom's apology*
O.O
Thank you for linking that. It really wasn't what I expected to see when I clicked on the link. This is such a complicated issue--particularly when I went back and read one of Amina's posts and was shocked by how powerful her voice is. There is some very beautiful, insightful writing here... and it is really, utterly different in tone, style, and even in its sense of maturity in how she presents herself, versus how MacMaster presents himself, when he speaks in "his own" voice.

I suppose there are notes also of the value that can be gained from work that turns out to be a "hoax." This personally reminds me in a way of a Holocaust memoir that was lauded by other Holocaust survivors and writers and the wider community as being a profound piece of work, so true to the experiences of the camps...except it was later revealed to be a "hoax"...but at the same time, the situation was complicated because the writer really did seem to believe, sincerely believe, that his accounts were true? Complicated stuff all around.

And with the Amina situation, there's also the perspective of the multiple community, the way that experience may resonate with experiences of multiplicity, but at the same time how hard that can be to argue for should you attempt to do so.

And then there's that business with MacMaster, how he handled the situation.

All this stuff just layered on top of each other.
tigerweave
Jun. 15th, 2011 12:24 am (UTC)
I know someone who claims to be a Vietnam Vet, and can recount quite seemingly real stories of his time as one (though I am certainly no expert) and obviously believes himself.

But ... he isn't in any records for having been over there. Something quite strange - either he is making it all up, or changed his name or something. Possibly multiple with a personality that believes he was there but wasn't physically. (At which point questions of his authenticity still apply). Or is appropriating someone else's stories, which I have heard of people doing before, because of the attention and sympathy it gives them.

Thinking of people like that, perhaps this dude isn't so strange after all? Just somehow a bit repulsive in its duplicity.

Interesting comment about the different "voices"
chocolatesludge
Jun. 13th, 2011 08:50 pm (UTC)
Wow. I've never been good with words, so I won't try to comment as well as the folks before me did, but wow.

We've run across this sort of problem before... like when one of our members joined a support group, and people wouldn't talk to him because he was using our shared username, and the profile talked about multiplicity. It does tend to make us get new usernames for this stuff and just be us, with our own backgrounds.

-Haru
pyraxis
Jun. 14th, 2011 05:47 pm (UTC)
Awa, Haru :)
(Where I come from, that is a greeting hello.)

Alice Walker (an activist and the author of Anything We Love Can Be Saved, which I've been reading) talks about standing vigil outside a police station for some of her friends who were wrongly arrested in the sixties... She describes how angry and hostile she was when a white boy who had been trying to ally with their cause came along, whistling a revolutionary gospel hymn. But then without saying anything he took up a place standing alongside her, and she realized she was grateful. Merely his white male presence was enough to offer her physical protection from any kind of brutality the cops might have thought of inflicting on her black teenage self.

I suppose that is to say that there is a place for everybody in these causes. If the people in the support group could not see past your kin being a member of a multiple system, in order to treat them with empathy for the real reason they had sought out a support group, then they are indeed acting with prejudice.
shashigai
Jun. 13th, 2011 09:26 pm (UTC)
Your title and post are compelling.

You state well the dilemma faced by white people in this world. Not everyone is a "good ol' boy" but a lot of people take advantage of their "relative" power, some without realizing it.

That makes the battle complex and produces people who feel they have to be compelling to get their legitimate pain paid attention to.

But it's possible.

If you've ever read Tony Hillerman, you know that to dismiss fiction written about a group of people by someone who is not of that group is a grave error. But Tony Hillerman has never claimed to be Navajo. He earned their respect.

tigerweave
Jun. 14th, 2011 10:08 am (UTC)
Tony Hillerman is a great author. And he reads as if he respects the Navajo in return.

I faced a similar situation today regarding my need for home care (like cleaning services etc) because of my poor health. I quite literally said I believed they had discriminated against me previously because of my race and class. Middle-class white woman aren't supposed to be disabled, you know.
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angiedub
Jun. 14th, 2011 01:08 am (UTC)
All I can is WOW! This is one of the reasons I love LJ so much. Through my LJ flist, I encounter situations that I wouldn't have, and get access to insights that I can't have in any other way.
As a 55 y.o. white woman, there are so many things that I just don't 'get' because it's not my experience. The older I get, the more I learn to keep my mouth shut and my heart-ears open.
Thank you for this post. And right, Hillerman never claimed to be Navajo.
shashigai
Jun. 14th, 2011 10:59 am (UTC)
Credibility Issues, Anyone?
I find this discussion fascinating because of my own odd credibility issues. Unlike Tom MacMaster, I won't be able to walk away from mine.

I first discovered that there were issues of credibility when I started working as a social worker in Brooklyn, New York. I already knew about appearing much younger and thought I had solved the issue by wearing glasses.
Not so, and I discovered a new problem. In addition to having people ask if I was old enough to be doing this work (I was approaching 30), I kept seeing them do a double-take when meeting me in person after speaking with me on the phone.
Finally one woman voiced what they all had been thinking. She stopped at the door of my office, turned to me, and said, "I thought you were a white person!"

Credibility issues anyone?

Black people deny me credibility because I sound like a white person.
White people deny me credibility because I don't sound like a Black person.

Shall we add some hidden issues? Go to the gym and you won't believe that I have 9 broken (now healed, one repaired through surgery) bones in my back. Listen to me doing public speaking and you won't believe that I am autistic. Look at the color of my skin and you won't believe that I have a PhD. Know that I have a PhD and you won't believe that I am a train wreck of executive functioning (ADHD).

I don't look or sound like anything I am.

But at least I won't be pretending that I am a Syrian lesbian.
tigerweave
Jun. 14th, 2011 11:21 am (UTC)
Re: Credibility Issues, Anyone?
Ah... this is a good term for what I experienced today with being a white middle-class (well appear so) well-educated woman who has a fairly crippling disability I presumably shouldn't have.
tigerweave
Jun. 14th, 2011 11:22 am (UTC)
The response of this man to - as Shashigai described it, his credibility issues, of taking on a completely different persona to what he actually is, is ... kinda an odd choice. I do wonder not so much at multiplicity overtones but of very very very poor social skills. And a lack of understanding the potential and very real consequences of his behaviour.

It is almost like he was so busy playing at what he was doing he didn't notice everyone else involved was involved in the very real physical world where a claim someone disappeared is a very serious one that people would try to help him/her with.

I think he has a few kangaroos loose in the top paddock.
pyraxis
Jun. 14th, 2011 05:21 pm (UTC)
Having observed Pyraxis and her cohort among autistics, it doesn't strike me as odd at all. At the point where he posted the disappearance notice, he was panicking at an IRL interview request from a major news service (The Guardian) and the publication of an email interview by CNN. If he really did have credibility issues, it might never have occurred to him that anybody would want to help him personally, and he wasn't immersed enough in Amina to grok the genuine feelings of caring that people had for her. He might not have been able to dream up any other excuse to get Amina out of the spotlight.

What strikes me about him is his lack of courage. His reasons for creating Amina have everything to do with being unable to face openly the discrimination of "American-hater! Jew-hater!" He calls himself an argumentative sort but does not seem to know how to actually win an argument, and while lack of social skills are probably an issue, I suspect it also has to do with being unable to center himself and say, "Yes, this is who I am and what I believe, like it or not."
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tigerweave
Jun. 15th, 2011 12:25 am (UTC)
From what I have heard, things going viral on an ordinary person can be really really stressful and disturbing. Not, shall we say, a situation we really evolved to deal with. If his/her work had never gone viral the outcome of the story might have been very different?
myorp
Jun. 15th, 2011 07:17 am (UTC)
i think that's probably really true. we feel pretty sorry for him. while it doesn't really excuse his mistakes, we definitely can put ourselves in his place and understand why he made the mistakes he did. his apology seemed mostly sincere, if still probably pretty overwhelmed by the whole situation, and a bit in denial about some of it turning out the way it did. we also get that he doesn't want to feel like everything he did was worthless and wrong, and on some level i have to hope that it doesn't all go to waste. he wrote some very powerful stuff when we read some of that blog a month or two back.

~kat
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myorp
Jun. 15th, 2011 07:14 am (UTC)
ethnicity, sexuality, religion, and communication
i do think it's sorta sad that it's so hard for people to talk about racial issues without having their ideas dismissed. doesn't matter what your ethnic background someone will dismiss what you have to say because of some stereotype.

and while it's not ok to pretend to be someone more "acceptable" with whoever you happen to be talking to about those issues, it is tempting. we've even been tempted to say we're native american because of a friend who has tribal affiliation insisting that she thinks we must have some kind of native heritage because of how we look(but also partly because much of the culture and history is so interesting and valuable to us, which is apparently rare among the natives she actually does know).

it's also very easy, as a white male(which i physically am), to feel like you are a boring person, and like your opinions and ideas are undervalued because you are in the majority. this does happen but there's nothing really to be done about it(other than move somewhere where you're the minority!). it's an odd thing, cause people of color often have their opinions excluded or ignored by the majority, but people in the majority have a different sort of issue with not really being able to stand out, and in modern discussions of race, there is a natural reversal. if you are a white male and have a good idea or really want to contribute to the dialogue you often can't because your motives are questioned. in addition you get the situation where white males have often marginalized anyone else's ideas so now theirs are. "a taste of their own medicine" whether it be deserved or not(both occur frequently).

i think the whole thing is a bit tragic. growing up we were always the odd person who broke the mold - only white person willing to play on the "black" little-league team(in a louisianan town where we got subjected to racism along with the team), only non-druggie who enjoyed associating with stoners or other outcasts. a member of all the "geeky" school clubs who was friends with people from the popular cliques, a christian(at the time) who was willing to be friends with pagans and atheists...

we see all of the wonderful persepectives that people have, and they overwhelm the flaws(which are also universal). we've even liked a few of the painfully racist people we've met in rural arkansas and hopefully with our words maybe tweaked their perspectives slightly. we certainly understand their fears better for having actually listened to them.

i just wish everyone was willing to put aside their differences and really. just. listen. sometimes it happens naturally for little bits of time, but often it takes big ridiculous things. like some guy causing an international uproar for pretending to be a gay syrian girl, to get people sitting down and thinking about how they think and feel, and talking about the personal why's behind all of their ideas.

overall we hope that maybe this situation will result in greater awareness of issues around the interaction of homosexuality, ethnicity, and religion.

it's discussions like this one on your journal-posting that make me think that those hopes we hold onto are actually justified!

on some level tho i see what you are saying and it does scare me because here i am: a bisexual girl who isn't willing to conform to the semi-acceptable "transgender" category that has been created in my society. i have actually had a transgender friend tell me that all this "plural identity" thing is just me trying to avoid coming to terms with my transgendered nature, and i wonder: where do i fit? must i either be a guy who has some issue that makes him act femme and has more than one person in his head(which is what some people think) or must i fit into the category of transgender in denial that my friend assigned me(because of her own past issues)?

i wish people would be less insistent that their preconceived notions applied to everyone else. maybe if we could do more of that then we would do a better job of helping each other deal with the problems each of us face, whether it be emotional, religious, psychological, political, or whatever. the key is to listen, and to care, no matter how hard to understand or unlike you the other person may be.

~kat
pyraxis
Jun. 15th, 2011 05:29 pm (UTC)
Re: ethnicity, sexuality, religion, and communication
it's discussions like this one on your journal-posting that make me think that those hopes we hold onto are actually justified!

You are very kind. That's the most inspiring thing anyone's said to me in a while.

I like your comparison between the issues faced by those in the majority and those in the minority.

PS It will be interesting to see if the discussion goes anywhere on your blog. Already I saw one response that I doubt anyone would have dared present here.
liedownlovely
Jun. 16th, 2011 01:08 am (UTC)
This situation is familiar to us. We discovered we were plural because James created his own online life, and he too got involved with people who believed him "real".

Perhaps Tom would have been more readily accepted if he hadn't put others in danger by saying 'Amina' was kidnapped. He put the lives of others in danger for no reason. That's unacceptable. His blog project was okay with us up until we read that.
tigerweave
Jun. 16th, 2011 02:08 am (UTC)
Huh, that is interesting!

I too agree about the putting people in danger bit. Up till then it was ... intriguing and understandable from a mulitple perspective, but that went over the line.
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aubergine_pilot
Jun. 17th, 2011 07:19 am (UTC)
this is Lee.
Not good with words right now (it comes and goes, this is one of those times where communication is hellishly difficult), but -

There is a song I think fits this.

And here is a link to it.
pyraxis
Jun. 17th, 2011 06:41 pm (UTC)
Re: this is Lee.
Hey Lee.

I can see why.

Despite what Tom may have told the world, I doubt he will be rid of Amina so easily.
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