Anyone who followed the controversy over the fictitious Gay Girl in Damascus blog, created by Edinburgh-based US graduate student Tom MacMaster writing as Amina Arraf, might have despaired of the prospects of subalterns speaking for themselves. Female, lesbian, Arab, and an anti-Assad protester, MacMaster’s Amina quickly became a posterchild of the Arab Spring for a wide swath of the liberal media and activist blogosphere. For those cognizant of contemporary critiques of homonationalism against the backdrop of pervasive homophobia, Amina’s dispatches from the frontline seemed a perfect embodiment of left liberal fantasies about the possibilities for progressive sexual politics in a time of revolution. Yet if critics such as Joseph Massad have been accused of dismissing subjects who don’t conform to their theoretical predilections, the Amina hoax gestured at an opposite, if no less insidious, temptation: that of desperately seeking subjects who confirmed theoretical utopia.
Omar El-Khairy’s Sour Lips deftly weaves together the impulses of benevolence, ventriloquism and celebrity that are the principal lineaments of this troubling story. El-Khairy’s MacMaster (played by Simon Darwen) is a complex figure, driven by a desire to counter Orientalist stereotypes of Arabs, a desperate need to occupy the positionality and authenticity of the native so as to be taken seriously in the online communities in which he seems to spend most of his life, and a more prosaic hunger for fame, book deals and everything else a PhD candidate might want. Yet in some ways, true life was stranger than the narrative that El-Khairy conjures up. MacMaster’s elaborate hoax was uncovered, in part, through information provided by a Paula Brooks, executive editor of the US-based lesbian and gay news site LezGetReal, with whom ‘Amina’ had been in contact. Thank fuck, I hear you say, except that Brooks was herself a fake identity created by Bill Graber, a 58-year old former air force pilot and retired construction worker based in Dayton, Ohio, who claimed to have been inspired to create his online avatar after a lesbian couple with whom he was friendly had been mistreated by an Ohio hospital. Convinced that the mainstream media did a poor job of representing LGBT folks, Graber created Brooks because he felt that ‘the best way to do it was to have people who were in the life, living the life, tell the story.’ Clearly more than lone eccentrics, the uncanny simultaneity of MacMaster and Graber’s performance as putatively liberal straight men getting off on playing spunky lesbians speaking truth to power begs a gigantic WTF?!
There is something slightly discomfiting about El-Khairy’s portrayal of Arraf. The ‘real’ Amina was an empty signifier—a vessel into whom everyone poured their desires for intersectional harmony. On stage, Amina is an active subject, speaking back to Tom, troubling his authorial sovereignty. Eschewing a possible Spivakian move in which the silenced subaltern might have been placed centre stage with no words of her own, this device in effect sets up a battle between two Aminas—MacMaster’s hoax and El Khairy’s desire for an authentic subject who emancipates herself—leaving this member of the audience wondering whether the playwright was complicit with MacMaster in writing his preferred version of Amina. (I wonder if George Bernard Shaw contemplated possibilities other than having Eliza Doolittle storm off or live happily ever after with Henry Higgins; in a postmodern time in which character development takes place through mass viral endorsement, there were a million Aminas floating around in the ether: she was everything we wanted her to be.) But perhaps I am being reductionist and too literal, for the violent eroticism of the interaction between Tom and Amina performs all sorts of other representational work: in these most dramatic scenes, we see the inner conflict that one supposes MacMaster experienced in the course of perpetrating his extraordinary fraud, and, more fundamentally, the always fraught relationship between author and character.
Most compelling and disturbing about the staging of Sour Lips is its three-member chorus (Takunda ‘TK’ Kramer, Celine Rosa Tan, Eden Vik) whose herd-like, frenzied canonization of Amina and equally frenzied demonization of Tom—‘share to Twitter, share to Facebook, share to Google plus’—are the motor driving the plot. Who were these people in real life? The sorts who would trek to a fringe theatre in south London to watch plays about the Arab Spring. If this is what civil society looks like, it’s enough to make you shudder.