e blog A Gay Girl in Damascus began appearing in early 2011, with posts by Amina Arraf, a self-described Syrian-American lesbian. The title said it all. The Web site quickly grew in popularity, and Arraf began several online relationships with lesbian political activists, one of whom considered Arraf her long-distance girlfriend. When Arraf disappeared, a few months later, in the midst of the uprising that became known as the Arab Spring, the Internet flooded with a campaign to learn her whereabouts. “I have been on the telephone with both her parents and all that we can say right now is that she is missing,” Arraf’s cousin posted. “Free Amina Arraf” posters began appearing online, bearing a motto presumably taken from one of her many vaguely profound quotes—“borders mean nothing when you have wings”—and suggesting just how swiftly her story had spread. The unrest and uprisings in the Middle East meant that concerned readers and activists well aware of the region’s troubles wanted to hear from Arraf.
But the inspiring Arab-American lesbian turned out to be a white man from Georgia named Tom MacMaster. As the Washington Post revealed, MacMaster for several years had used Amina Arraf as a fake profile, primarily in online forums—he did so, he said, in order to “have a discussion about the real questions” in the Middle East. Later, in what passes for an apology, MacMaster said that the blog started “innocently enough” and just “got out of hand.” When faced with how to end the hoax, MacMaster decided to have Arraf kidnapped, claiming, bizarrely, that he thought that might end interest in her case. His wife, who apparently hadn’t known of his other life, was as shocked as the rest of us.
MacMaster’s backstory follows a pattern similar to those of other hoaxers, especially recent ones: he was a publishing failure who had written pieces in his own voice, as well as a novel, but these efforts met with little success. NPRreported:
MacMaster posted on different websites and listservs as Amina and suddenly he found himself with an “extremely full and vivid character.” He wrote a back story for her and started writing a novel based on her. As a way to flesh the character out, he created profiles of Amina on different social networking sites to create a “depth of character. He used Amina’s profile, he said, so that he could snoop around sites that MacMaster couldn’t. And he was living the character so much, he would walk into restaurants and know immediately, what Amina would like on a menu and what she wouldn’t like.
To keep up his hoax, MacMaster had to invent a whole cast of characters, from a loving Arab father (“My father, the hero”) to cousins and friends. “Amina kept growing. And I kept trying to ‘kill’ her,” he would say. Failure is one of the hoax’s main muses.
The mock kidnapping that he settled on instead provided a kind of Orientalist fantasy—a fetishistic cliché borrowed from white-slavery panics of a century before. It reveals the hoaxer as not only a deskbound exoticist but also a cultural and sexual tourist, the bad-girl wonder turned into an Internet star: an American story if ever there was one. The modern hoax often happens somewhere just over the horizon, the next valley over, and the Middle East has become a popular site of American displacement: an exotic locale that Americans can visit safely, and sexually, via their computer, as with MacMaster’s blog; somewhere they can save, as in the self-serving fabrications of Greg Mortensen’s “Three Cups of Tea”; or a ground target to be conquered by one man with a rifle, as in the quickly withdrawn propagandist fantasy about the Benghazi terrorist attacks, “The Embassy House.”
The hoaxer’s typical mix of desire and danger is borne out by the fake memoir MacMaster had half-shopped around, claiming to be merely the emissary on behalf of Arraf, who’d supposedly written it. A woman he had been in contact with posted the thing online; having read what I could, I can report it’s a hot mess—predictably Orientalist and exoticist, depicting the Middle East as a place of secret sexuality. “You’ll know that it’s axiomatic that Arabs are unreliable and prone to lie (if not to lie prone), so, if you buy that whole reasoning—and why not? It is the dominant paradigm—you’ll expect me to lie at every turn,” MacMaster writes, in character as Arraf. “I won’t but what’ll it matter?” MacMaster uses Arraf’s Arab stereotypes—ones he’s perpetuated—against her, saying that she won’t lie, except a little, though you’ll think it’ll be a lot. She won’t lie prone, either—she’ll only pun in order to protect the guilty, which is, we soon realize, MacMaster himself. As if we didn’t get the point, the manuscript is titled “A Thousand Sighs, and a Sigh: An Arab American Education,” though it could be titled “A Million Little Yawns.”
Like a yawn, the hoax is contagious. MacMaster’s unveiling also revealedanother pretend lesbian, this one with the real name of Bill Graber, “a retired Ohio military man and construction worker.” Under the handle “Paula Brooks”—the name of his wife, who was unaware of his deception—Graber had helped found a news Web site called Lez Get Real, a popular forum for progressives and lesbians, which had published stories by Arraf. After he was exposed, just days after MacMaster, Graber, too, pled advocacy—not realizing, apparently, that supporting a cause does not necessarily mean pretending to be its very center, or that centering yourself in this way is a form of the privilege that people who are genuinely part of the cause may be speaking out against. The idea of fake lesbians, too, has always been conflated with the “Oriental”—there is a long history of male writers fantasizing sexy harems and poetesses, as in “Songs of Bilitis” (1894), by Pierre Louys, who at least wrote with a wink in pretending to be a lost lesbian Greek poet. “What the hell is it with straight men and lesbian fantasies?” the female managing editor of Lez Get Real wrote in an editorial note. Comments on the note ran to dozens of pages; the site crashed from all the activity. “Personally, the idea that Tom and Bill were flirting with each other in their personas as lesbians is too funny,” the managing editor added.
While claiming advocacy, what hoaxers really exhibit is self-interest. Often, this is because there is only the self to support their false claims; any revelations merely provide further opportunities for details and forgery. Though no one had met her, Amina Arraf’s Facebook page was a real “who’s who of the Syrian opposition movement,” as the Post put it—in fact, the confusion over Arraf’s identity continued for longer than it might have, because online pseudonyms were commonly used within the Arab uprising to hide activists’ real identify and protect against reprisal. Arraf’s purported “advocacy” not only put real bloggers in the Middle East and Syria in jeopardy, but her unmasking suggested that the online postings of those who helped foment the uprisings were somehow fake, too. The Syrian government seized on the exposing of Arraf to say that the Arab Spring was simply crafted, or instigated, by carpetbagging foreigners.
In an interview after he was outed, so to speak, MacMaster described his feelings after his first full-fledged stories were published on Lez Get Real. “When I got a first couple initial media bites, I was extremely flattered and impressed with myself that here I had written something that was fictional but it was getting taken seriously and treated as a real event,” he said. “It appealed to my vanity that here I am, I’m so smart, I can do this.” Of course, his interlocutor was none other than “Paula Brooks.”
Can you explore real issues as a fake character? Yes, it’s called acting. Or fiction. But acting is not a method of engaging with the actual world, just as pretending to know what a character might eat does not a novel make—much less make that make-believe real. MacMaster mistakes backstory for the real story—or for real talent—and his creation for the story of Pygmalion and Galatea when it’s really Geppetto and Pinocchio.
Of course, MacMaster’s hoax hurt not only the cause but also the people who believed that Arraf was real. His hoax’s domino effect was made clear when NPR spoke to Arraf’s would-be girlfriend, Sandra Bagaria, who had helped publicize her disappearance and had tried calling “Amina” in Syria repeatedly and got no answer. (Her search has been dramatized in a fascinating French-language documentary, “The Amina Profile,” from 2015.) Later, MacMaster-as-Arraf would post a response to the missed connection: “We will have a free Syria and a free nation; it is coming soon. The revolution will succeed and we will rise above sectarianism, despotism, sexism, and all the dead weight of these years of bitterness, of division and partition, of oppression and of tyranny. We will be free!”
It should be no surprise to find that MacMaster’s “fake novel,” modelled as a memoir, fashions Arraf as a biracial symbol of displacement. Her mother, being white, helps her serve as a kind of mixed-girl wonder. “Maybe half of me is from here and everything else is confusion between those two sides, the stranger and the native, the believer and the infidel.” These stark dichotomies and bothersome biracial tropes are the only options, ones the hoax reënacts again and again, without the complexity of lived lives or of full-fledged fiction. The true love these hoaxers have is with their characters, which is to say themselves.
This has been made all the more easy by the Internet, with the “fireside traveller” or travel liar having been replaced by the desktop one. The Gay Girl in Damascus blog is now squirrelled away somewhere in the ether, like Amina Arraf was; Lez Get Real bears no trace of the controversy. For the Internet is a bit of a travel liar itself—an unreal place where real things happen. We’ve learned quickly that the Web is far more pseudonymous than anonymous: online, our names have simply been changed to a number, an I.P. address, protocol, and code. Hoaxes, especially online ones, prove that on repeat almost anything, from our lives to our loves, can be made unreal.
The hoax not only expresses a fantasy but also records a fantasy sold, and most importantly bought, even by hoaxers themselves, as true. It’s not just a wish but a cure for that wish—a curse—it’s face paint you wear, if only for a while. “People want to believe,” MacMaster would say. What he doesn’t seem to realize is that, unlike Amina Arraf, Tom MacMaster is people, too: his willingness to believe his own story is one more sign that the hoax’s first victim may be the hoaxer.
This is the third in a series of pieces adapted from “Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News,” which will be published in November by Graywolf Press. The first piece examined race, the penny press, and the Moon Hoax of 1835, and the second considered the time when Virginia Woolf wore blackface.