by Jen Paton
The man disguised as Mirza Abdullah, better known as Richard Francis Burton, was overcome when he glimpsed Mecca for the first time. Burton spent years perfecting his language, his dress, his mannerisms, his very way of moving, to go undetected into a city forbidden to outsiders. And when he finally saw this city, he felt himself drawn admiringly inwards, rather than outwards: “It was as if the poetical legends of the Arab spoke truth, and that the waving wings of angels, not the sweet breeze of morning, were agitating and swelling the black covering of the shrine. But, to confess the humbling truth, theirs was the high feeling of religious enthusiasm, mine was the ecstasy of pride.”
In January 2011 two modern-day Westerners in disguise sought to insinuate themselves into “the Orient”, or at least its virtual space. An American man and his wife posed as a lesbian blogger living through a heady time of revolution. They took the name of Amina Arraf, named her blog “Gay Girl in Damascus,” and began chronicling the life of a completely imaginary Syrian-American woman, returned to her father’s homeland to “be a part of the change that is coming.”
Back in January, as the Middle East shook, “Amina” wrote she had to do something “bold and visible”, and that was writing a blog as an out woman in Demascus, under her real name, with “my photo.” Her writing was compelling, and she was bold. When Amina’s cousin came online last week to post that she had been detained, her readers, some of whom felt themselves friends, sounded the alarm.
And then, masks began to come off. The publicity surrounding her detention led to Newsnight’s report last week that the photographs on Amina’s blog were actually of Londoner Jelena Lecic, who had no connection to Syria. This cued the furious investigation of Andy Carvin of NPR (whose account is here), the Electronic Intifada, other news organizations, and a fleet of increasingly furious, and betrayed, Twitterati, to track down Tom MacMaster, a graduate student in medieval studies at Edinburgh, and his wife, Britta Froelicher, an expert in Middle Eastern studies and Syrian economics. Late last night, MacMaster posted a confession on Amina’s blog, which was titled an “apology” but was anything but. MacMaster wrote that “ 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.”