In June 2011, shortly after the events now often described as the Arab Spring, Western media was preoccupied with the story of the "Gay Girl in Damascus"—a queer blogger from Syria, who identified herself as Amina Arraft—writing extensively about her life, family, politics, and sexuality. For the mainstream media, as well as for many Facebook and Twitter users, Amina often appeared as the new hero of computer revolutions,1 as a brave and Internet-savvy young woman. In the early days of June, the media's attention focused on Amina's disappearance. She was assumed to have been abducted by the Syrian authorities; massive organizing in her support began on Facebook and Twitter. Later in June, the same media and activists were shocked to discover that the blog was a hoax, created by a young male student from Scotland, Tom MacMaster. The discussions following MacMaster's revelation and apology were many, ranging from debates on the history of cyberhoaxes (and on-line masquerade, more broadly) to questions of ethics and responsibility for the damage caused to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) online organizing in the Middle East.
Why has Amina's story generated so much attention? We suggest this is due to her blog's focus on queer sexuality. As one of the Guardian's journalists put it, "'A Gay Girl in Damascus' is brutally honest, poking at subjects long considered taboo in Arab culture" (Marsh 2011). This and other media descriptions are part of the imperialist Western narratives about oppressed Middle Eastern queers requiring salvation from the Global North, or, at least, the help of digital technologies, to express their sexuality and communicate with the world. In that respect, the fascination with Amina is far from new—it draws on a long history of colonialism and Orientalism, as well as on contemporary imaginaries of global(ized) sexualities on one hand, and the liberating potential of the new media on the other. Exploring these histories and [End Page 1] their contemporary manifestations is precisely the mission of this special issue, which aims to address the gap in current scholarship, whereby concepts like "queer," "digital," and "Middle East" are seldom examined together. Our aim is to bring feminist and queer analyses of media and communication technologies (the Internet, mobile phones, surveillance technologies, digital television, and telecommunication) to the field of the Middle East, as both a geo-cultural space and a political entity. The special issue examines—empirically and theoretically—the conjunctions between sexuality and technology, between queerness and the Middle East, and between transformative politics and colonial and imperial legacies. Recent events in the region have brought a renewed interest in the role of digital technologies—and the Internet in particular—in shaping identities and fostering social change in the Middle East and its diasporas. Gender and sexuality are yet to be properly conceptualized in this emerging post-Arab Spring field. Yet, this much-needed analysis does not emerge in a vacuum. Rather, it draws on the long scholarly legacy of queering Middle Eastern studies on one hand and queer cybercultures on the other.
Queering Middle Eastern Studies
What does it mean, then, to "queer" Middle Eastern cyberscapes, conceptually and politically? In assembling this special issue, we stand at the nexus of a burgeoning interest in the fields of sexuality and Middle Eastern studies. This is, in part, due to a recent proliferation of queer area studies scholarship within the Anglo-American context, as well as a pressing need to undo the Orientalist tradition, which has inundated the field of Middle Eastern sexuality studies and its scholarly past. Writing from within Anglo-American academia, we interrogate the nature of this all-pervading tradition and situate our project in relation to more recent interventions in the field (Abu Khalil 1993, Babayan and Najmabadi 2008, Dunne 1990, 1998, Habib 2007, 2010, Massad 2002).2 We also bring together the fields of queer studies and Middle Eastern sexualities: While the term "queer" in the latter field has limited currency and rarely circulates as a descriptor of subjects and identities in the region, we employ "queering" as a metaphor for our scholarly...