In recent days, the world has followed closely the saga of Amina Arraf, the blogger who presented herself online as "A Gay Girl in Damascus" and who drew attention with her passionate writings about the Syrian government's crackdown on Arab Spring protesters.
In recent days, the world has followed closely the saga of Amina Arraf, the blogger who presented herself online as “A Gay Girl in Damascus” and who drew attention with her passionate writings about the Syrian government’s crackdown on Arab Spring protesters. Those writings stopped last Tuesday, and a posting to the blog, ostensibly written by a cousin, said she had been hauled away by government security agents.
The news became an Internet and media sensation. The U.S. State Department started an investigation. But almost immediately skeptics began asking: Has anyone met Amina? Two days after her disappearance, images presented on her blog as being of Amina were revealed to have been taken from the Facebook page of a London woman.
And on Sunday, the truth spilled out: The gay girl in Damascus confessed to being a 40-year-old American man from Georgia.
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The persona he built and cultivated for years — a lesbian who was half Syrian and half American — was a tantalizing Internet-era fiction, one that Tom MacMaster used to bring attention to the human-rights record of a country with severe media restrictions that make traditional reporting almost impossible.
On Sunday, MacMaster wrote an apology on his blog, “While the narrative voice may have been fictional,” the facts are true and not misleading.
“I do not believe that I have harmed anyone — feel that I have created an important voice for issues that I feel strongly about,” he wrote.
The hoax raised new questions about the reliance on blogs, tweets, Facebook postings and other Internet communications as they increasingly become a standard way to report on global events. Information from online sources has become particularly important during the Middle East uprisings, especially in countries such as Iran and Syria, which severely restrict foreign media.
MacMaster, a Middle East peace activist who is now working on his master’s degree at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, wrote he fictionalized the account of a gay woman in Syria to illuminate the situation for a Western audience. Amina’s story may have remained believable, but when he wrote of her arrest, his fans — to help the woman they had grown to care about — found a trail of evidence that led to MacMaster.
In telephone interviews and email exchanges with The Post over the past three days, MacMaster initially denied any connection to Amina. He insisted he had never heard of her and he had been unaware of the blog.
“Look, if I was the genius who had pulled this off, I would say, ‘Yeah,’ and write a book,” said MacMaster, reached in Istanbul, where he is vacationing with his wife.
However, in many ways, his life intersected with the writings and personal details of Amina.
For starters, Scott Palter, a board-game creator from Minnesota, corresponded regularly with Amina on Yahoo message groups. In a telephone interview, he said he asked her several years ago for a mailing address to send her Christmas cards. He said she gave him an address in Stone Mountain, Ga. A search of local real-estate records shows that MacMaster has owned the house at that address since 2000 and lived in it until he left for Scotland in September 2010.
In 2005 and 2006, MacMaster was an active participant in a Yahoo message group, an online email discussion forum, for people interested in “alternate history.” MacMaster debated possible outcomes if major historical events happened differently.
Although MacMaster said he had never heard of Amina, she was also an active participant in the same group and frequently engaged MacMaster in discussions about the Middle East and other subjects. Amina wrote from an email address, “threefoldamina,” whose online profile identified the user as a man with the same age and hometown as MacMaster.
The biographical information that Amina provided about herself on her blogs is also similar to MacMaster’s.
Amina wrote of her childhood as a young half-Syrian, half-American girl growing up in Virginia, at the bend of a river in the Shenandoah Valley. She wrote that she lived in a home overlooking the buggies in the yards of the Old Order Mennonites. “The first time I saw these plainly dressed people, I mistook them for our own,” the blog read. “I proudly announced to my parents that I had seen Muslims going into the bank.”
MacMaster grew up in Harrisonburg, Va., in the Shenandoah Valley, as a Mennonite. His mother, Eve MacMaster, a Mennonite pastor, had taught English in Turkey before she married. “He was raised in a family that has a warm feeling for the Middle East,” his mother said in a phone interview.
Messages from Amina Arraf’s email address were sent from a computer in Edinburgh, where MacMaster is studying, according to the editor of Lez Get Real, a lesbian news website based in Washington.
In several interviews, the editor, who goes by the pseudonym Paula Brooks, said she and Amina first started corresponding online after Amina posted a thoughtful comment on her site. Brooks encouraged her to write more — first as entries on Lez Get Real and later on a new blog titled “A Gay Girl in Damascus.”
In February, just as the Arab Spring protests were swinging into full gear, Brooks said Amina told her she had moved back to Syria with her elderly father. She seemed to have extensive knowledge about Damascus, describing intricate details that Brooks, who had been to Syria, knew to be true.
Brooks said she questioned Amina about one thing that bothered her: Amina’s IP address. An IP address is a geographical locator — a sort of digital ZIP code — for Web connections. Amina explained that for security reasons, she used a proxy Web server that made it appear she was writing from Scotland. It is a common tactic by Syrian bloggers, many of whom write online anonymously. Brooks said she accepted Amina’s explanation.
MacMaster had moved to Edinburgh in September of 2010 to start a master’s program at the University of Edinburgh.
He has extensive experience in the Middle East, and Syria in particular. He became interested in Palestinian issues during college, his brother, Sam MacMaster, said in a phone interview.
Sam MacMaster said Emory University offered his brother a full scholarship, which he chose for the school’s expertise on the Austro-Goths, but he quickly switched his specialization to Arabic studies. Later, he would travel to Syria and Jordan to perfect his language skills.
MacMaster’s interest in Syria also seems to have been deepened by his 2007 marriage to Britta Froelicher, a woman he met in Georgia on an online dating site. MacMaster said in the interview from Turkey that he and Froelicher traveled to Syria in 2008. In the same interview, Froelicher said she was very interested in Syria and is now working on a doctorate at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, focusing on Syrian economic development.
The controversy has created anguish among people interested in the increasingly brutal government crackdown in Syria, in the LGBT community which rallied around Amina and for those most interested in issues of how information flows on the Internet. Others, though, agreed with MacMaster that he had created an important voice for Syria.
“The situation in Syria is no less horrific just because she wasn’t actually there,” wrote Linda Carbonell, a blogger who contributes to the Lez Get Real site. “People are dying, people are being mowed down in the streets, people are disappearing into the jails and secret police dungeons. It doesn’t … matter who tells us this as long as we listen to the cries of people who want to be free.”