‘Gay Girl in Damascus’ Had a Previous ‘Existence'

An image posted on the Facebook page 'Free Amina Abdalla'

An image posted on the Facebook page 'Free Amina Abdalla'

In his 2010 book Reality Hunger, US writer David Shields argued against traditional realist fiction in favour of a new kind of fiction, one that wasn’t afraid to blur the boundaries between fiction and reality. It was a manifesto that appeared to be a theoretical mirror to the collapse of fiction and reality that is occurring in the online world, where invented personae proliferate. But when the writer of a blog called ‘A Gay Girl in Damascus’ was recently outed as being 37-year-old US peace activist, student and heterosexual male Tom MacMaster, and not Amina Abdallah Arraf al Omari, reactions across the world were a clear indication that, pace David Shields, we still expect some authenticity in our authors.

While the story has slipped off the front pages, the blog hasn’t been killed off. At least, not yet. Last Thursday, a contrite Tom MacMaster published another post. Writing as himself now, he blogged about a previous incarnation of his heroine. In Amina’s former existence (which ended in 2010), he had fabricated an Amina who was, on this occasion, a married Syrian-American mother of two. This proto-Amina, MacMaster wrote, also suffered injustice at the hands of Syrian authorities: her husband had disappeared for several days during a family trip.

In response, the silence - writes MacMaster - was deafening. “She received exactly one anonymous comment: ‘That kinda sucks’. Nothing more. No one was alarmed. No one started a campaign to free him. No one sent messages of support. The blog had two followers. I deleted it. A failure. No one had noticed. I revised Amina. Now, she was single and in Syria … and openly gay … I worked on her back story for a while before debuting the new version.” Amina mark II, on the other hand, received much more attention. Perhaps it was her youth, or her good looks, or her openly transgressive identity, or perhaps it was because world events caught up with her - whatever the reason, this Amina received decidedly more attention.

As some bloggers achieve celebrity status through their blogs (albeit of a minor order), it’s no surprise that flogs (short for fake blogs) will also mushroom. But whereas literary fiction retains prestige despite dwindling sales, flogs are the blogging world’s dirty little secret. And Amina Abdallah Arraf al Omari is a case in point: a figure that for a day or two became the torchbearer of an entire nation’s tortured soul turned out to be a hoax. But in an online world that thrives on concealment, is is still reasonable to expect a clear demarcation between the invented and the real?

Addendum: we were alerted on Facebook to an article in The Age suggesting MacMaster has invented another persona for himself.

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