Lies taken for wonders: on gay girls, straight guys, Arab revolutions
Mimicry reveals something in so far as it is distinct from what might be called an itself that is behind.
Amina often flirted with Brooks, neither of the men realizing the other was pretending to be a lesbian.
Washington Post Blog 13th of June 2011
I have never met Tom MacMaster, the Edinburgh-based fantasist behind ‘Gay Girl from Damascus’ although I assume we must have passed one another in the library or a cafe: unless, of course, ‘MacMaster’ is yet another alter-ego. He is, he says, sorry. He certainly should be. He took in some people, me included, but much more seriously has surely emboldened the Syrian regime in its efforts to portray the current uprising as a fake media war against the country and endangering real online gay activists in Syria who don’t need him or anyone else to make things up on their behalf. This is before we get to the enormous assumption of entitlement behind this identity theft. Given the subject position from which I speak and my own execrably scanty knowledge of post-colonial, gender and queer theory I don’t think I can say much about that: but I eagerly await the thoughts of comrades and friends who,unlike me, know what they’re talking about.
There’s still a lot to be said about this incident, the extraordinary richness of which can be summarised by the image of two middle-aged straight men flirting with each other in the guise of lesbians while neither knows the other is pretending to be a lesbian. This seems an almost-haiku like condensation of the ideological construction of the self. What I find especially interesting about the story lies in what it says about Western liberal response to the Arab revolutions and the analogy – certainly tenuous but I hope not offensive – between ‘Amina’ the online sock-puppet and that response.
MacMaster’s ‘Amina’ is an avatar of what Slavoj Zizek refers to as the ‘ cynical wisdom of western liberals, according to which, in Arab countries, genuine democratic sense is limited to narrow liberal elites while the vast majority can only be mobilised through religious fundamentalism or nationalism.’ Far from overturning ‘orientalist assumptions’ as he seems to have believed he was doing, MacMaster’s creation of Amina confirms them. Amina is a woman: this innoculates against the assumed misogyny of the Arab male, potentially unleashed if the dictatorships fall. Amina’s support for the revolutions therefore functions to legitimate them against this danger, and in the process legitimating the original assumption. Arabs and Muslims are assumed to be homophobic: let’s make Amina gay (without regard to the actual experiences or voices of gay people in the cultures in question) to perform the same function. The avatar Amina congratulates its own creator by legitimating the revolutions through an unimpeachable interlocutor. That there already exist campaigning (and anti-imperialist) LGBT organisations in the Middle East is irrelevant to the echo chamber.
MacMaster is not alone in this maneouvre, I think. The current Euro-American attempt to appropriate the Arab revolutions for a narrative of liberal progress towards market democracies reveals more than a dash of this sock-puppetry. When Barrack Obama speaks of how ‘we must teach our children to be like Egypt’s youth’ is there not a hint of Amina? When the World Bank’s Robert Zoellick tells a conference of other bankers and bigwigs that Mohammed Bouaziz set fire to himself for the sake of more free-market policies, is there not a flash of Tom MacMaster and Bill Graber flirting with each other in the mirror image of each other’s delusion?
One establishes a mirror vision of the ideological image of oneself and then sets it up to be emulated. Here is what Egypt’s youth – it’s ragged, confused slum youth and the workers of Suez – had to do in the revolution when they faced the riot police.
I think we do need our children to be like this: but I don’t think Obama really does.
This brings us back to Amina. She stands in well for that group of online, Anglophone activists most accessible to and therefore favoured by the Western media – to the extent that her non-existence only became a problem when her inventor went on holiday. The real activists of this kind should not be disparaged: they are brave and important.But the desire of the Western liberal gaze to invest them with ownership of the revolutions should not be accepted. It is the feared Arab masses to whom these revolutions belong and who will determine their future.
This film, for which I find it difficult to muster superlatives, demonstrates the emergence of such a collective subject.
It also shows, I am perfectly sure, the largest assembly of LGBT people that Yemen has ever seen – simply because it is a cross-section of the population. Some of those will be wearing full niqabs; others beards; some may be undergoing the turmoil of a suppressed identity, others not. The women are separated from the men. But when they’ve come out onto the streets in this way, in these numbers and in the face of all the violence directed against demonstrations in Yemen for the past four months, is it so difficult to believe that they might march out, proud and together one day?