Manufacturing xenophobia

Mona Anis , Thursday 23 Jun 2011

Two incidents that took place recently have triggered memories from a distant past

Two seemingly disparate incidents set me wondering about the dividing lines between academic research, espionage and xenophobia: the arrest in Cairo of a suspected Israeli spy; and the revelation that the Damascus lesbian blogger was in fact an American straight man living in Scotland. While the story of the alleged spy might become clearer once the investigation is over, the Damascus story is a stark example of the way westerners “sought deliberately to influence Arab concepts of sexual desire and practice”, to quote Joseph Massad in his book Desiring Arabs.

Let me first share my thoughts about the suspected spy, Ilan Grapel, which to my mind seems overloaded with confusing signs and signals. How could all the facts concerning the man’s identity be so readily available from day one, for example? Given that this is the first "Jewish spy" to be arrested by the Egyptian authorities since the Lavon Affair of 1954, surely an Israeli spy – and there must have been quite a few of them in Egypt over the past six decades – would be better equipped to conceal his identity. Not Grapel, a veteran Israeli Army paratrooper with dual American-Israeli citizenship. Information posted online reveals that Grapel was among the soldiers who invaded Lebanon in 2006, and featured in the international as well as the Israeli press as one of the wounded. In 2008 Grapel received an Israel Project media fellowship and in 2009 he worked as a media analyst for the Australia-Israel Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC); he wrote openly under his own name against the Palestinian cause and the incumbent “terrorism”. How is it that a man with such a history will move freely from one hot spot to another at the height of the Egyptian uprising without worrying about his cover?

One hopes the investigation will give some answers, clarifying the picture, but what interests me is the way the story has been used by the Egyptian press to tarnish the image of the revolution – with photos of Grapel in Tahrir splashed across front pages – implying that the demonstrators were the voluntary or involuntary agents of Israeli interests. An old trick, this: in 1972, when student protests swept university campuses across Egypt, a photo of the student leader Ahmed Abdalla listening to a Zionist speaker brandishing the Israeli Flag at Hyde Park was published as evidence of the warm relationship between the protesters and Israel — at a time when the rallying cry of the Student Movement was Popular Warfare against Israel. Another accusation levelled at Abdalla was that he was a North Korean agent, based on a visit he paid to the Korean press centre in Cairo to collect data for a political-science paper he was writing at the time.

Hardly surprising, then, that most student activists in the 1970s did not welcome foreign correspondents in their midst – something Abdalla mentions in his book The Student Movement and National Politics in Egypt. One incident he recalls involves three foreign correspondents, including David Hirst of the Guardian, who managed to slip into the sit-in in Cairo University's Assembly Hall unnoticed, and were eventually recognised and asked to leave. Almost 40 years after that event, I wonder, what would have happened in Tahrir had the powers that be managed to expel the army of foreign correspondents, as they tried to do by whipping up a frenzy of ugly xenophobia? Most probably the Tahrir protesters would have found themselves in a situation similar to that of the Syrian protesters now challenging a ruthless regime without direct reporting from places where the confrontations are taking place.

This brings us to the second story: the bizarre story of the lesbian blogger allegedly abducted by Syrian security. The story began last February when a blog entitle "A Gay Girl in Damascus” began to draw attention after the Syrian uprising gained momentum. Amina, the gay girl of the title, described street protests in which she took part and how she finally sought shelter outside her home with the police on her heels. On 6 June, an alleged cousin claimed that Amina was arrested on the streets of Damascus, and a wave of solidarity messages from human rights organisations was duly directed at the Syrian authorities. A few days later, after Arab activists suspicious of the story started to unravel the riddle of Amina, it transpired that the blog was actually written by a 40-year American man, Tom MacMaster, studying for a masters at Edinburgh University, whose wife is writing a PhD on Syria. As the name of the real author of the blog was revealed by the Palestinian web site Electronic Intifada, MacMaster made a public apology in which he explained his reasons for assuming the character of a Syrian gay woman:

“I had written a couple of fantasy novels. My experience has been with my fiction that if I can get five people to read it and finish it, I’m doing good. I wasn’t expecting it to get like this. When all the attention came, I thought here is an opportunity to put forward some things I thought were important: issues around Middle East conflict, religious subjects. However, I also had a real ego boost in thinking that ‘I’m good. I’m smart. These journalists don’t realize I’m punking them.’”

Punking indeed. But does MacMaster realise the amount of damage he dealt to the just cause of the Syrian people by trivialising their struggle and lending credence to the authoritarian Baath regime in Syria, whose leader only this week spoke about saboteurs being behind the protest movement in his country?

I think not.




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