In Disguise

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.”

348140-gay-girl-in-damascus 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.”

People are, not surprisingly, angry, about being deceived, and about an apology that manages to not apologize at all. For some, the anger was more than theoretical: people who were worried about “Amina” put themselves in potential danger in inquiring about her: as the anonymous editor of Gay Middle wrote, “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. Really … Shame on you!!!”

When initially confronted by NPR and the Electronic Intifada, MacMaster denied he was behind the blog, and with what must have been a heady brew of the “ecstacy of pride” and the agony of imminent discovery, he told NPR: “”Look, if I was the genius who had pulled this off, I would say, 'Yeah,' and write a book. ” Now we know he is the “genius” who pulled this off, but why?

From what little they have (left up) of themselves on the internet, it seems as if MacMaster and Froelicher are passionate about the Middle East and the Palestenian cause. Interestingly, MacMaster also wrote that his project was simultaneously to “illuminate” for a “Western audience” the events in the Middle East and about critiquing a certain myopic view of the region in the West, a view he felt his experience following Amina’s “disappearance” “confirmed my feelings regarding the often superficial coverage of the Middle East and the pervasiveness of new forms of liberal Orientalism.” For very different reasons, MacManus had come to the same conclusion as Burton: that impersonating the Arab was the best way to allow the Westerner to understand “them.”

However wrongheaded, or even despicable his means of trying to redress it, the paucity of coverage MacManus describes is real. I feel lucky that, of all years to study communications and media at the School of Oriental and African Studies, I happened to do so in 2011. I would not have understood what was happening had I been watching next to other Americans. It is well-trod ground in communications and criticism that the West Covers Islam in a deeply unable way. This Spring has been a time of big change in the Middle East, and a time of opportunity for Al-Jazeera English. As revolutions unfolded, AJE saw visits to their Web site multiply, particularly from America. Could this new exposure change how the Middle East, was covered in the West?

A recent study purports to try to examine how Americans “received and evaluated AJE in the weeks after” Hosni Mubaraks’ overthrow. William Youmans and Katie Brown asked “whether Americans will evaluate one report from AJE differently than they would the same report by CNNI, an American news outlet.” Participants were shown a report – actually originally from AJE – with AJE branding, and others were shown the same with CNNI branding. Those who watched the latter had increased positive ratings of CNNI, while those who saw the former had their generally negative attitudes toward AJE remain unchanged. Participants consistently rated AJE as more biased than CNNI. Youmans and Brown conclude that “ a considerable segment of Americans is cognitively predisposed against the channel.” They feel this does not bode well for AJE’s hoped for expansion into the American marketplace. With an estimated 1.7% availability on US cable, AJE is not accessible in the United States – purely for economic reasons, as Comcast sees little value in adding another news station. But we need access to news – news we don’t have to seek out online, but that flows over us and into our daily lives in the way that only broadcast news can – which offers that slightly different perspective. Otherwise, “we” in the “West” will be relying on untrustworthy interpreters, drunk on the ecstasy of their pride.