A few years ago, I spent a month in Damascus. I arrived late in the evening but was so eager to see a city I’d long wished to visit — getting a visa had proved nightmarish — that I soon found myself in a little coffee shop round the corner from my budget hotel. I was well aware of Syrians’ reputation for being extraordinarily welcoming and friendly, even by Arab standards; but even I wasn’t quite prepared for the frank opening salvo from the handsome young guy sitting next to me. ‘Are you active or passive?’ he asked me.
It turned out that the coffee shop — packed with men of all ages and types, from English-speaking teenagers to elderly Bedouins — was a pick-up joint. Two other nearby ramshackle coffee shops served the same function, as did the only (packed) local bar. The city’s public parks, moreover, were 24-hour cruising areas, resembling nothing if not Russell Square in its 1980s heyday.
It would be tempting to describe all this as a thriving ‘gay scene’, but it would be foolish to do so. It’s an error often made by Westerners who report on homosexuality in the contemporary Arab world through the rose-tinted prism of their western ideals.
To that list can, alas, now be added a 40-year-old American studying in Britain, Tom MacMaster, who this week was exposed as the hoaxer posing as a Syrian blogger under the name ‘A Gay Girl in Damascus’. MacMaster’s antics came to light when his IP address was traced back to the UK. However, for anyone who knows the Damascus scene he was purporting to describe, or has even the vaguest understanding of how homosexuality plays out in the Arab world, there was a much more obvious giveaway.