HOAXED!
The week of May 29, 2016
Disappearance-OfAminaArraf_JLongo_41516

The disappearance of Amina Arraf, a gay girl in Damascus

By Duncan Fyfe

MONDAY, JUNE 6, 2011: One hundred and twenty security personnel were dead in the Syrian town of Jisr al-Shaghour. State television reported they were slain by armed gangs; anti-Assad activists countered that they’d been killed for trying to defect. The violence had continued from the weekend: On Saturday, army snipers had opened fire on 100,000 demonstrators mourning at a funeral for protesters killed by security forces the day before. In response to the Jisr al-Shaghour killings, the Assad government announced immediate crackdowns on protesters. Tanks began rolling into the streets, and that evening in Damascus, Amina Abdallah Arraf al-Omari, a 35-year-old activist blogger, was grabbed on the street and forced into a station wagon bearing a window sticker of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s brother.

Internationally, Amina Arraf was among the uprising’s better-known voices. Her blog, A Gay Girl in Damascus, offered firsthand accounts of the civilian revolt against Assad and his government. She wrote with fierce eloquence of the cruelties of Assad’s secret police, of the great hope of the Arab Spring, of seeing friends shot dead, and of identifying proudly as a lesbian despite threats of rape and imprisonment by government agents. Arraf and her blog were featured by the Washington Post, TimeJezebeland Andrew Sullivan. The Guardian, in a laudatory profile, had named her “a heroine of the Syrian revolt.”

After her abduction, she’d never be seen again. But then, she’d never been seen by anyone, ever, because she didn’t exist.

Writing from the University of Edinburgh student housing where he lived with his wife, Tom MacMaster, 40, formerly of Georgia, published the story of Amina’s kidnapping on A Gay Girl in Damascus. That was his blog, which he’d been writing pseudonymously as Amina Arraf since February, without any indication it was fiction. The new post, written by “Amina’s cousin Rania,” assured horrified readers that she and Amina’s father were praying and working desperately to ensure Amina’s safe return.

Tom MacMaster was going on vacation. He’d had Amina “abducted” partly to explain why she wouldn’t be blogging for a week; basically, it was an elaborate out-of-office message. The other reason was his concern that Amina was getting too big, too fast: Who gets profiled by the Guardian after four months writing on Blogspot? The Guardian had even wanted a Damascus reporter to interview Amina in person. MacMaster agreed but stood the reporter up, saying Amina had been followed to the meeting by government agents. They agreed to do the interview over email.

Although perversely impressed with himself for outmaneuvering the Guardian, a paper he respected, it was the kind of close call he didn’t want to keep on having. He decided to retire Amina. Step one was having her abducted. Step two was to happen a week later. Amina would be released, shaken but unharmed, and write one final post, in which she’d announce that, having tried blogging, she’d decided it wasn’t really her thing after all. The end.

As a plan, it was a lot like a straight white man pretending to be a queer Muslim woman of color online: problematic.

TUESDAY, JUNE 7: “This is horrifying and angering,” began a comment on the blog post, typical of hundreds left overnight.

“You truly are an inspiration and a wonderful example of a strong woman and I hope that you will be returned safely to continue leading as an example not only for women in Syria, but everywhere.”

“Amina, it is my dream to drink coffee with you in a free Damascus … I perhaps have a way to help from the inside. My prayers are with you Sister.”

“Desperately hope she’ll be ok … Please do let us know if there is anything non-Syrians can do. I have already shared this article, hoping it will gain some media attention.”

The story of Amina’s abduction was promptly reported by the Guardian and the Atlantic. Amina’s readers urged people to sign a Change.org petition and to contact the Syrian embassies in their countries, the U.S. State Department—Amina had dual American and Syrian citizenship—and journalists on Twitter. Amina’s friends lost sleep getting the word out; these included Elizabeth Tsurkov, a human rights advocate based in Israel, with whom MacMaster had regularly corresponded over Facebook chat as Amina. “Crying has now progressed to violently shivering…” she tweeted. “I don’t even want to think what the Syrian regime has in store for Amina.”

“[Amina’s] frank observations about Syria and its government—especially how it feels to be a lesbian under those conditions—are brave, courageous, and artfully rendered,” wrote the lesbian and queer culture website Autostraddle, in a post asking readers to join the Free Amina Arraf Facebook page. “Her reception has been so positive and so enormous that eventually the Syrian government took notice, and clearly didn’t like what they saw. Amina’s writing gives a beautiful voice to the revolutionary feelings stirring in Syria and it’s amazing she’s been able to write this as long as she has.”

• • •

Amina Arraf had come a long way since Tom MacMaster invented the online alias in 2006. MacMaster, an academic and fiction writer, used to spend a lot of time on Yahoo Groups discussion boards debating history. (He left the United States in 2010 with his wife, Britta Froelicher, to undertake a postgraduate degree program in medieval studies at the University of Edinburgh.) Discussions of Middle Eastern history would sometimes drift into politics, another interest: MacMaster was a member of Atlanta Palestine Solidarity, a local organization for advocates of a free Palestine. He’d also been banned by Wikipedia for making too many edits to its page on Syria.

MacMaster, who posted on Yahoo Groups under his own name, often felt that he was shouted down in discussions. His views on Palestine were an issue. Other Americans would turn on him to ask why, as an American, he didn’t support Israel. And international voices didn’t necessarily trust that the American had the Arab world’s best interests at heart—a cynicism MacMaster himself shared about American intervention in the Middle East. Nonetheless, he was frustrated by putting in the effort to articulate a position just to have it dismissed. The problem, he thought, was that he was American—or rather, that others saw him as one.

Amina Arraf was the solution. Under an Arabic name, MacMaster found, he could hold forth on Middle East issues without having his motives or bona fides constantly questioned.

Writing as Amina so engaged MacMaster’s literary sensibilities that he began to develop the character further. He gave her a Facebook profile and started writing her memoir. Amina’s comments on the lesbian news site Lez Get Real so impressed editor Paula Brooks that she invited Amina to became a contributing writer, which MacMaster found enormously flattering. In early 2011, Brooks encouraged Amina to start her own blog about life as a lesbian in Damascus. At that time, the Arab Spring was gathering powerful momentum, having forced regime changes in Tunisia and Egypt, and MacMaster felt he had something to say about that. Or rather, Amina did.

“I live in Damascus, Syria. It’s a repressive police state. Most LGBT people are still deep in the closet or staying as invisible as possible,” Amina wrote in an early post, by way of introduction. “But I have set up a blog announcing my sexuality, with my name and my photo. Am I crazy? Maybe. But I’m also aware of the winds of freedom and change blowing from one end of the Arab world to the other. And I want that freedom wind to bring with it our liberation, not just as Arabs and as Syrians, but also as women and as lesbians.

“I have to begin by doing something bold and visible,” she explained. “I can, because I’m a dual national and have benefits of politically connected relatives, be more visible than many women here.”

Time praised Amina as “an honest and reflective voice of the revolution,” and called her a hero. “[T]his lady is awesome,” Autostraddle wrote, to which a commenter opined: “This is so incredibly brave that I’m not even brave enough to watch her be that brave.”

Just about everyone used the word “brave” to describe Amina. It was brave, what she was doing: In dozens of articulate, confident, and well-reasoned blog posts, she decried a government that was understood to punish protest with detention, torture, and murder. And she signed her own name to them. Even Thomas Paine didn’t do that. That was to say nothing of her sexuality, which she wore proudly in a difficult place to do so. And why? Just because she wanted democracy for her country. She fought so hard for hopes that were so simple.

Amina wrote more than 100 posts in less than five months, steeped in Syrian historical and political context. She wrote on-the-ground accounts of protests and Assad’s brutality, interspersed with lengthier essays, like a widely circulated rebuke of attempted pinkwashing of Assad through insinuating the alternative would be worse for LGBT rights. She was happy to spend long posts breaking down the history of Syria, the Ba’ath Party, and the Assad family for the benefit of readers who only understood that Amina was brave.

Her personal life was an open book. Readers learned of Amina’s struggles with race and sexuality: that as a young girl in the American South she fantasized about having white skin and blonde hair, and as a young woman she shunned her homosexuality by marrying and embracing conservative Islam for a decade. As forceful as she was speaking about current events in Syria, she could also be unassuming and affable. She was bookish, geeky, and in the photos she posted she looked cute, petite and maybe slightly shy. She dished on love affairs. She liked Karen Gillan, Ursula LeGuin, and H.P. Lovecraft, and hated Thomas Friedman.

“You are a queer political junkie’s dream come true,” one unknowing commentator marveled.

Readers were naturally inclined to question Amina’s safety, especially when she did things like posting the names of 86 government officials, military personnel, police officers, and other collaborators allegedly complicit in massacres of Syrian civilians. The regime arrested bloggers as a matter of course. In perhaps the most egregious example, Tal al-Mallohi, an 18-year-old who posted her poetry and an image of George W. Bush’s face on Hitler’s body, was arrested on charges of spying for the United States. Syria was already a dangerous environment for someone like Amina, but MacMaster gave his readers additional reasons to worry.

In April, MacMaster wrote a post that propelled Amina to major media attention. In it, Amina told of how after three months of blogging and involvement in local coordinating committees, the mukhabarat—secret police—showed up in the middle of the night at the house where she lived with her father. The two men accused her of conspiracy and treason, and demanded to take her. When Amina’s father refused, the mukhabarat taunted: “Did she tell you that she likes to sleep with women? That she is one of those faggots who fucks little girls?” Amina wrote that one of the men placed a hand on her breast and said he’d rape her. Her father, calmly, responded.

“Your father,” he says to the one who threatened to rape me, “does he know this is how you act? He was an officer, yes? And he served in …” (he mentions exactly and then turns to the other) “and your mother? Wasn’t she the daughter of …?”

They are both wide-eyed, yes, that is right,

“What would they think if they heard how you act? And my daughter? Let me tell you this about her; she has done many things that, if I had been her, I would not have done. But she has never once stopped being my daughter and I will never once let you do any harm to her. You will not take her from here. And, if you try, know that generations of her ancestors are looking down on you.

Eventually, the mukhabarat left sheepishly, apologizing for the disturbance.

That was the post that got Amina coverage and praise in the likes of the Guardian and Jezebel. They pointed to it as an example of the important work Amina was doing, and to Amina herself as an example of the Internet’s empowerment of marginalized and grassroots voices in the Middle East. For MacMaster, it was tremendous validation. He’d been failing to sell the same political thrillers and fantasy novels since the 1980s—so people did want his writing, even if they didn’t know it.

To Ahmed Danny Ramadan, an activist for gay and queer causes working out of Damascus, the story didn’t ring true. No professional thug was going to be cowed by a stern dad. But he didn’t think much of it until Amina’s kidnapping.

Ramadan asked his private Facebook group of LGBT residents in Syria if anyone knew Amina. Nobody did. He also asked a friend who worked with the Assad regime to look for official references to the abduction. Nothing. “My heart goes 2 #FreeAmina; only if she’s real,” he tweeted. “If rumors that she’s fictional is true: Then she singlehandedly fucked all #LGBT in #Syria.”

The problem, he thought, was that he was American—or rather, that others saw him as one.

Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C., Andy Carvin was making similar inquiries. Carvin, a senior strategist with NPR, had a large online network of activist contacts in the Middle East. He and his Twitter account had become trusted sources of information throughout the Arab Spring, especially once governments started cracking down on Internet access in their countries. Elizabeth Tsurkov had reached out to him for help.

Carvin asked his contacts if anyone knew Amina. Yes, some of them said—or rather, they knew someone who knew her, or they knew that Amina attended local committee meetings. Nobody said that they personally knew Amina. Then again, what did that prove? You’d expect someone in Amina’s position to use a pseudonym. But late in the day, Ramadan sent Carvin a series of direct messages. “I have it from a good source that she is a fictional character. She isn’t a real person,” he said. “No one knows her.”

“Has anyone met [Amina] in person?” Carvin tried. “If we can’t find anyone who has met #Amina in person, is there anyone who has Skyped with her? Talked to her on the phone?”

Yes, Tsurkov replied: “I’m in touch with her girlfriend in Canada.”

WEDNESDAY, JUNE 8: “[She] exists,” tweeted the journalist Mona Eltahawy. “Her girlfriend has verified so. Questioning her existence can jeopardize her life. Let’s focus. #FreeAmina.”

Sandra Bagaria, a Frenchwoman living in Montreal, had exchanged hundreds of emails and instant messages over many months with Tom MacMaster, under the impression he was Amina Arraf, a lesbian living in Damascus.

The relationship predated the Gay Girl in Damascus blog. They’d found each other on a dating website, where MacMaster had set up a profile for Amina. When Amina expressed an interest in starting a blog to talk about Damascus in the Arab Spring, Bagaria encouraged her. When Amina was taken, Bagaria tried to get the word out. She spoke with the New York Times and NPR, and in those interviews it came out that the girlfriend everyone assumed had “verified” Amina’s identity had never actually seen or spoken to her.

Although Carvin was finding more and more reasons not to trust Amina’s story, he worried about debating semantics if there were any chance that a genuine person had been detained and tortured. According to the New Yorker, Assad had set up a secret security committee in March 2011 to crack down on protesters. It had detained, slaughtered, and murdered its prisoners, and such were its remit and paranoia that the committee spent a month tracking down the writer of anti-Assad graffiti on a highway water pipe. There is no chance it was not aware of, and searching for, an outspoken Damascene lesbian lauded by the foreign press as a heroine of the revolution. Amina herself could never have been taken by the Syrian government, but if they believed that she was a real person working out of Damascus, who could have been taken in her place?

• • •

There was still some reason to think Amina was real. If she wasn’t, then who was the woman in all of her Facebook photos (which went back years), or in the pictures Bagaria had, or in the shots currently circulating in international news stories? The pensive, light-skinned woman with dark features, short hair, and a mole above her left eyebrow?

“As you can see,” the BBC’s Jeremy Paxman announced that night, “she’s here in the studio.”

Her name wasn’t Amina, but Jelena Lecic had her face—or vice versa. “I was very upset to see my picture [in the Guardian],” Lecic said in Croatian-accented English, “because obviously I’m not Amina.”

All the photos were from Lecic’s Facebook. MacMaster had been trawling Facebook one day and come across Lecic’s profile, and thought: That’s her, that’s Amina. It was the exact image he’d had in mind of the character he’d been writing for five years. He used Lecic’s photos to populate Amina’s Facebook profile and had given other shots of her to the Guardian when their reporter asked for a photo of Amina. He hadn’t thought anybody would notice.

“The main reason I’m inclined to call it a hoax is that I can’t come up with an innocent explanation for the faked photos,” wrote a Jezebel commenter, but others disagreed. “To me, it’s totally logical not to hand out her photo to random people on the web … everyone keeps going on like it’s some totally illogical and random thing because it’s something they would never do.” If Amina was using a pseudonym, it might well follow that she’d also use a different face. But she’d said, outright, that Amina was her real name. That it was her real face.

In Montreal, Sandra Bagaria watched the BBC footage, unsure what to think. “I never met Amina,” said the woman with Amina’s face, sitting in a London TV studio, looking peeved. “I’m not part of her blog. I’m not friends with her.” So the photos hadn’t been of Amina, but someone had been writing to her—what did they look like?

THURSDAY, JUNE 9: Ostensibly, Amina’s sexuality was a lens through which MacMaster could explore Syrian politics and culture, but his writings on the subject extended just as often to the prurient. He wrote erotic Sapphic poetry and serialized excerpts from Amina’s long-in-progress memoir, which detailed each of her significant sexual encounters: “nuzzling each other’s breasts, groping each other, and finger banging.  I was a woman in love and was lying nude entwined with my lover in her bedroom, having sex.” In one chapter, Amina recalled getting a massage from a gorgeous female friend, which erupted into passionate lovemaking—on 9/11.

MacMaster didn’t find that verses like “We push and we pant/Your sex is so soaking/I delve and devour/And mine it is shaking” came easily. (Though readers liked it: “Ohhh. Oh wow. I think I… need a moment.”) For him, the reason to write in the voice of a gay woman was exactly because he was neither. It was a literary challenge, difficult and therefore worthwhile.

It was the same kind of reason he’d set up profiles for Amina on lesbian dating sites, where he’d encountered Bagaria. (As Amina, he’d exchanged flirty emails with other lesbians, including his editor at Lez Get Real, Paula Brooks.) That was research, to explore who Amina was, how she spoke. It helped him creatively. He found he could be in everyday situations and know instantly what Amina would do in his shoes.

The relationship with Bagaria was never supposed to last as long as it did. Other flirtations, like the one with Brooks, had just fizzled out. But Bagaria cared. She told Amina she loved her. Amina said it back.

Amina did more than that. Over months of online courtship, MacMaster sent Bagaria photos purportedly of Amina nude—in reality, just some naked woman with her head cropped out of the shot. In explicit messages, he described to Bagaria how Amina had masturbated to the fantasy of going down on her. Because it was interesting to do that, as a writer.

Bagaria had always been eager to speak with her girlfriend. MacMaster had been able to rule out Skype, claiming it was blocked in Syria, but it was clear that the most complicated and difficult part of catfishing was about to begin. Bagaria wanted Amina’s phone number. Eventually, in May, he relented, and he gave Bagaria the number of a Syrian pharmacy. When she called it, nobody answered, and she told Amina so. Then, MacMaster went dark, re-emerging with a new Gay Girl post:

A very, very dear (and, of course, quite gorgeous!) friend in Quebec emailed me that she was trying to call me at home and no one was answering. I was startled as my father should have been around.

After further investigation, Amina found that her father had fled to a friend’s house. The mukhabarat had returned. “This time,” Amina’s father said, “there’s nothing I can do. Go somewhere and don’t tell me where you are. Be safe. I love you.” So Amina announced she was going off the grid, but promised to keep blogging—obviously, though, phone calls from girlfriends would have to wait.

Then there was the problem of the trip. Amina and Bagaria had agreed to meet in the summer, in Rome. Bagaria had booked her flight. MacMaster said Amina had too. The trip was scheduled for June. In June, Amina was abducted.

• • •

In Washington, D.C., Andy Carvin got a lead from Paula Brooks of Lez Get Real. Since Amina had been a Lez Get Real commenter before she was a contributing writer, Brooks had a record of her IP address, which put her not in Damascus, but Edinburgh. When Brooks had asked MacMaster about this, he’d said Amina was using a proxy server to obscure her location, which Brooks bought. In Amina’s circumstances, that seemed a sensible precaution.

Meanwhile, the Washington Post had found a friend of Amina’s from her Yahoo Groups days, who remembered corresponding with her on a group called the Crescentland. Even better, he’d sent her Christmas cards. Amina had given him an address in Stone Mountain, Georgia. Property records revealed that the Stone Mountain house was owned from 2000 to 2010 by one Thomas J. MacMaster. In 2010, MacMaster had sold the house and moved to Edinburgh with Froelicher—the Post reporters ascertained that from MacMaster’s Facebook invite to a goodbye cookout.

Separately, one of Carvin’s contacts had turned him onto the Crescentland. The board was still active on Yahoo, but it was private, so Carvin applied to join. His contact, one of the board’s administrators, approved his request. Carvin wrote a brief note to the members, explaining he was looking into the disappearance of Amina Arraf. Within minutes, the Crescentland was deleted. Carvin asked his contact who might have done that. Only an administrator could, he said, and apart from him, the Crescentland only had one other administrator: Amina Arraf.

That night, the phone began to ring in the Istanbul house where Tom MacMaster was vacationing. Emails came in, all from reporters.

“Britta Froelicher,” they wanted to know, “are you Amina Arraf?”

FRIDAY, JUNE 10: Tom MacMaster’s wife was, in some ways, a likelier candidate for the authorship of Gay Girl in Damascus. Froelicher was a research fellow at Scotland’s University of St. Andrews, studying the Syrian textile industry. She had a long and easily searchable history of interest in Syrian politics and culture. In Atlanta, she’d been involved with institutions for the promotion of Middle East culture and had hosted Syria’s ambassador to the United States. Whatever one might say about “Amina,” she seemed sincere and knowledgeable about what was happening in the region.

In fact, MacMaster would often pick his wife’s brain for blog posts, though neither of them would ever say that Froelicher knew about MacMaster’s alter ego. When Froelicher told her husband about the strange emails she was getting about a lesbian blogger, MacMaster’s face went pale.

The girlfriend everyone assumed had “verified” Amina’s identity had never actually seen or spoken to her.

Froelicher did know that her husband wrote. MacMaster had been writing fiction for about 25 years, but in that time hadn’t been able to get anything published, or even secure an agent. His body of unread and unsold work consisted of a Middle Eastern–set political thriller, the first two entries in a planned fantasy saga, and some short stories and poetry. There’d never been any interest. Not until Amina. Since the ’80s, he’d been unsuccessfully foisting Books I and II of The Oathsworn cycle on agents’ assistants—now, people were falling over themselves to call his work beautiful and brave, and journalists begged him for interviews. “You’re a good writer”: that was his favorite thing to hear.

In a post from May, MacMaster had Amina innocently ask if her readers could help her find a literary agent. Amina had that autobiographical novel she’d been working on: A Thousand Sighs, and a Sigh: An Arab American Education. Readers, including a contributor to the New Yorker, immediately offered to connect her with agents in New York, California, London, and Italy, or to help her stage her blog posts as a one-woman show.

When the Washington Post called to confront MacMaster—him, at this point, not Froelicher—he replied: “Look, if I was the genius who had pulled this off, I would say, ‘Yeah,’ and write a book.”

The Electronic Intifada, a Chicago-based blog covering Palestine and Israel, was also closing in on MacMaster. When approached for comment, MacMaster replied, “Thanks, but as I have stated before, it is neither my wife nor me.”

In a later statement to the Intifada, MacMaster allowed: “I understand there are a number of unusual coincidences regarding the blogger and either me or my wife. Those are, as far as I am aware, simply unusual. I am not going to make more of that.”

“It’s true, I think, that there’s a person with a name and a face somewhere in the world who’s been writing ‘The Gay Girl in Damascus,’ but we know now that whomever was writing it wasn’t who she said she was,” wrote Marie Lyn Bernard, the editor-in-chief of Autostraddle, in a post that day. “[W]e can’t imagine why any human being would do something like this. She seems so level-headed in her writing.

“I think sometimes people are addicted to being worth it. To having the best story, to being praised and appreciated for doing a genuinely good thing, even if it’s a lie and you’re not really doing it. Anyone constructing a lie this massive has lied before, she’s likely spent her life creating and escaping various webs of lies, leaving destruction in her wake—this time she could be a part of something worthwhile. It’s hard to believe anyone would lie to steal the feeling of being a good person, usually we imagine people lie for money, or sex, or to save their own lives. But they do it all the time, right?”

In Syria, Assad’s army descended on the town of Jisr al-Shaghour with tanks and helicopters. Civilians fled for the border.

SATURDAY, JUNE 11: I’ve got her, Sandra Bagaria told Andy Carvin.

In March, Amina had sent her some photos of the neighbourhood. Photos that Bagaria had just found on Britta Froelicher’s public Picasa account, of a Damascus vacation Froelicher and MacMaster had taken in 2008. But the pictures weren’t exactly the same. Froelicher had uploaded cropped versions of high-resolution originals—originals that MacMaster had sent to Bagaria. Only Froelicher or MacMaster could have plausibly had access to those images.

Carvin emailed Froelicher about it. She and MacMaster were both getting all sorts of emails—from the Washington Post, from Electronic Intifada—all of which were fairly damning. It was clear to MacMaster he wouldn’t be able to wind down Gay Girl the way he’d envisioned. Amina Arraf wasn’t going to get to come home.

SUNDAY, JUNE 12: “I never expected this level of attention,” MacMaster wrote on Gay Girl in Damascus, in a post read by about 750,000 people in 24 hours.

While the narrative voıce may have been fictional, the facts on thıs blog are true and not mısleading as to the situation on the ground. 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.

I only hope that people pay as much attention to the people of the Middle East and their struggles in thıs year of revolutions. The events there are beıng shaped by the people living them on a daily basis. I have only tried to illuminate them for a western audience.

This experience has sadly only confirmed my feelings regarding the often superficial coverage of the Middle East and the pervasiveness of new forms of liberal Orientalism.

However, I have been deeply touched by the reactions of readers.

Best,
Tom MacMaster

“You’re a fucking bastard.”

That was Ahmed Danny Ramadan. “If I live in a country where I can sue Mr. Tom MacMaster, I would sue him. You cause so much harm, sir, and for that I hate you.  Actual LGBT activists had to go even deeper in hiding because of #GayGirlHoax just because one individual wanted his 15 minutes of fame.”

“He never thought the blog would get attention,” wrote Jezebel, “but he wanted to use it to bring attention to problems in the Middle East? It always helps your case when you contradict yourself within the first 100 words. That, my friends, is what I call a non-apology, a self-righteous justification for, quite frankly, reprehensible behavior. What about the fact that real time and energy was expended on trying to locate ‘Amina?’”

“If we could only calculate the sheer number of hours we spent this week on #Amina,” bemoaned Andy Carvin in a tweet, “each one of which was an hour spent not on Syria itself.”

“[It’s] breaking my heart,” said Paula Brooks of Lez Get Real, who as it happened was not a lesbian or a woman either, but 58-year-old Bill Graber of Ohio, who’d been using his wife’s name and photo online for years.

That day, Sandra Bagaria didn’t say anything.

Tom MacMaster, on the other hand, spoke to the Washington Post, the Guardian, NPR, and the BBC.

“I didn’t imagine…” MacMaster said to the Guardian, “I just figured that no one cares… I like to write, and my own vanity is that if you want to compliment me, tell me you like my writing. That’s something that certainly—you know, the fact that I had people saying, you’re an incredible writer, really… that’s how you make me happy.

“I was not expecting anything, really. As the Syrian story became bigger and bigger, and the story I created became bigger and bigger, it was just getting harder and harder… I didn’t set out to get in the Guardian. I had no such intention. It was just, everything blew out of control.

“I wish… in retrospect, I would have done things very, very differently.”

When he spoke to the Washington Post, MacMaster was asked to pass the phone to his wife. He said no.

“Furious,” Froelicher said to the Post later anyway, “does not begin to describe my feelings.”

MARCH 9, 2006: “Before looking for Atlantis in either the Atlantic or in some other ancient civilization, I think anyone examining the story should start by figuring out what, if anything, Plato was doing in the Timaeus and Critias.”

Tom MacMaster was mid-debate on Yahoo Groups. The board, one of his frequent haunts, was dedicated to discussions of alternate histories. Today, they were postulating what would happen today if Atlantis was real, and resurfaced.

“What do you mean by ‘Atlantis’? Plato’s story or Edgar Cayce’s?” asked another poster, Amina Arraf, signing her posts as Ami. She ridiculed Plato’s claim that the legend had been passed down to him from an ancient Egyptian priest.

“I think Amy is reading from the original Atlantis source, Plato’s dialogues.” said MacMaster.

“Yes, I’m funny like that, going and looking up things at the source,” Amina replied. “[Ami, not] Amy, by the way!”

MacMaster and Amina went back and forth on the board like that for years, wondering what the world would look like if Atlantis were real, or if France had invaded California, or if America never knew rock ’n’ roll. It was nice to think about how things could have gone differently.

Note: The posts on Gay Girl in Damascus have since been deleted. An archived copy of the blog is available from Minal Hajratwala’s website.