Is there really a 'Gay Girl in Damascus'?
An English language blog, "Gay Girl in Damascus" popped up in February, chronicling the adventures of the supposedly out and proud Amina Abdullah Arraf.
Ms. Arraf described herself as a Syrian-American lesbian inspired by the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia and living with her family in Damascus. While a gay Syrian woman using her own name might have seemed unlikely in a notoriously ruthless and conservative police state, her blog quickly attracted a modest following.
In April, influential blogger Andrew Sullivan flagged a post of hers about how her father stopped members of Syrian state security from arresting his daughter. The post says that two armed "thugs" arrived in the dead of night to take her away. Her father first defended her against charges she might be an Islamist by referring to the fact that she's a lesbian. After that yielded crude sexual taunts and groping of his daughter, according to the post, he delivered a lecture on the need for Syria to overcome its social and religious divisions, telling the state security men that his daughter was a fighter for that kind of change. His words, according to the blog, completely won the two men over and they meekly departed.
This rather implausible story (an Arab father proudly disclosing to strangers that his daughter is a lesbian, members of Bashar al-Assad's security forces failing to carry out their orders because of an impassioned speech straight out of Hollywood) was an internet hit. Mr. Sullivan called it a "must-read," yielding the site a bigger following. News outlets like CNN interviewed her via e-mail on gay rights in the Arab world.
Then on Monday, a poster to the website identifying herself as Rania O. Ismail and claiming to be a cousin, said Amina had been abducted, presumably by the state. On the day she "disappeared" Sullivan called her "a great, feisty Syrian blogger," said a poem on the site that used a flying-bird metaphor for freedom reduced him to tears and urged his readers to "pray for her, wherever she is. And for the people in her country, who are yearning to fly." Within days, the "Free Amina" Facebook page had 13,000 "likes."
The disappearance of this presumed Syrian-American garnered coverage in the Washington Post, CNN, The Guardian, and elsewhere. But a picture that accompanied many of these articles was of Jelen Lecic, a student in London, who says "Amina" stole pictures from her Facebook page. It turns out no reporter or foreign fan has even spoken to Amina, and "Gay Girl in Damascus" is quickly being unraveled as a largely fictional exercise.
For the past few days, bloggers and journalists have been digging into the tale. Probably most vigorous has been NPR's Andy Carvin, who's been chronicling his efforts to discover whether this person exists on his Twitter feed. As far as I can tell, he was the first person to publicly express suspicions about the story. He's been searching voting records and property records in Virginia, where she claims to have been born, for evidence of her or her family and has found nothing. The US Embassy in Syria told him while it's concerned that an American might be detained, it's been unable to confirm any of the claims on the blog or the existence of such a person.
Who is "Amina?" It's pretty clear that the name is a fiction at this point.
The blog itself is filled with red flags. There's the simple implausibility that a Syrian woman in Damascus felt safe publicly identifying as gay, in a blog in which she shares explicit if sophomoric erotic poetry. There's the constant reminders that her father is aware or her sexual identity and habits. In one post she discusses making out with a fellow Syrian girl in the Damascus airport (not recommended behavior). The post in which her father stares down the state security officers, while vivid and cinematic, seems a bit much.
And then there's her first set of posts. The first one went up on Feb. 19, and is duplicate of a post here made by "Amina Arraf" two days before, already using the stolen picture of Ms. Lekec at "Lezgetreal" a website that focuses on lesbian views.
Soon after two long, apparently autobiographical posts were put up filled with details that, on examination, don't check out. (For instance she writes she "came into the world... in the hospital down the street from the house where Woodrow Wilson was born." Yet the closest hospital to Wilson's birthplace in Staunton, Virgina is 10 miles away.)
None of this is to say there isn't a real person behind the blog who might be in danger. Many bloggers in repressive states hide their identities (though they're usually honest about that) and for good reason. So it's possible that someone is currently under arrest for working on the blog. Roughly 1,000 political activists have been detained in Syria, and there are credible reports almost every day of torture and summary execution there.