UPDATED: Is Missing Lesbian Blogger for Real?
This updated version of the article includes comments shared with EDGE by Huffington Post writer Leah McElrath Renna and information from a June 8 AP article on questions regarding the veracity of "A Gay Girl in Damascus" blogger Amina Arraf’s accounts, as well as questions regarding her identity.
The blog’s dateline is Damascus. Its topic is a terrifying late-night visit from Syrian state security forces.
"[T]hey came late, in the wee small hours of the morning," the blog entry recounts. "Everyone was fast asleep. I woke when I heard the clamor and immediately guessed what had happened.... I haven’t been shy in making my opinions about the situation here clear and I had suspected that, sooner or later, I’d get a visit. Already, friends and comrades had been taken. So why not me?"
Weeks later, the other shoe reportedly fell. Online reports about "armed thugs" grabbing the blog’s author, a young and openly lesbian Syrian-American woman named Amina Arraf, and stuffing her into a car. The rumors started at once in the international press: Had the courageous blogger been detained by the Syrian government? What horrors might she face as an open lesbian, not to mention a participant in anti-government demonstrations?
But a June 8 update to a June 7 New York Times article posed a more troubling question: Just who was Amina Arraf? And why was it seemingly the case that none of the journalists who had spoken with her had actually met her in person? Were the accounts she wrote factual, or works of fiction? Indeed, did Amina Arraf even exist?
In the age of J.T. LeRoy and other wholly invented literary personalities, it’s not being paranoid to ask such questions. It may seem callous, in the face of a reported abduction, to wonder whether the victim is even a real person -- but it also makes journalistic sense. Given Arraf’s sensationally compelling story, which reads like the outline for a novel, a skeptic might well entertain just such doubts.
Arraf, the daughter of a Syrian father and an American mother, had been born in the United States. She and her family traveled between the two countries until a government crackdown in 1982, at which point they remained in America, according to media accounts. Arraf could have opted to remain here instead of returning to a country where women are second-class citizens and gays and lesbians have even less status.
But nine years ago, at age 26, Arraf returned to Syria and became a schoolteacher. When the "Arab Spring" began earlier this year and unrest in Syria precipitated into a series of brutally quashed street demonstrations, Arraf found herself among the protesters because the school where she taught was closed.
Arraf described life in Syria and the sights of the street protests in her blog, fearlessly titled A Gay Girl in Damascus. She relied on luck and her family’s connections to protect her from arrest for her blogging. According to news reports, her father was able to dissuade the government agents who had come for her in the night. After that, the story goes, Arraf went into hiding, staying in various places around the city and staying on the move.
Then came the abduction, in broad daylight, on June 6. Arraf’s cousin Rania Ismail, described the abduction in an entry posted that same day on Arraf’s blog, an Associated Press story said. At the time, Arraf was on her way, in the company of a friend, to a meeting with someone associated with the Local Coordination Committee, which organizes street protests.
"We are hoping she is simply in jail and nothing worse has happened to her," Ismail’s June 6 blog entry at A Gay Girl in Damascus read. Another entry from the same day followed up.
"Unfortunately, there are at least 18 different police formations in Syria as well as multiple different party militias and gangs," the follow-up posting read. "We do not know who took her so we do not know who to ask to get her back. It is possible that they are forcibly deporting her," the blog entry read.
"From other family members who have been imprisoned there, we believe that she is likely to be released fairly soon. If they wanted to kill her, they would have done so."
In one of her last entries on the blog, Arraf wrote, "I am complex, I am many things; I am an Arab, I am Syrian, I am a woman, I am queer, I am Muslim, I am binational....
"I am also a Virginian. I was born on an afternoon in a hospital in sight of where Woodrow Wilson entered the world, where streets are named for country stars."
The two worlds Arraf bridged could not be more different. The AP article reporting on her alleged abduction drew a stark backdrop against which to portray the event.
"Since the uprising against Assad began in mid-March, a government crackdown has left about 1,300 people dead and more than 10,000 detained, according to human rights groups," the AP article reported. "Several activists who were briefly detained during the revolt said they were tortured, humiliated and forced to sign pledges to avoid anti-regime activities."
Could the same grim treatment await the brave young woman who had dared to raise her voice against the regime?
The June 7 New York Times article on Arraf’s abduction suggested that even worse might befall her, reporting on how one young Syrian was killed while taking video of government tanks. He had previously posted similar video online.
But the June 7 update to that article injected a note of a different sort of uncertainty.
"After this post about the author of the blog A Gay Girl in Damascus was published, Andy Carvin, an NPR journalist and expert at debunking Internet rumors, pointed out that none of the reports of the arrest of Amina Abdallah Arraf appeared to have been written by journalists who had previously met or interviewed her," the update said.
"It’s just odd that I can’t find anyone who has actually met her in person," Carvin said.
The update noted that, "it remains possible that the blog’s author was indeed detained, and has been writing a factual, not fictional, account of recent events in Syria," but also said that "the one person who has identified herself... as a personal friend of the blogger, Sandra Bagaria, has now clarified that she has never actually met the author of the Gay Girl in Damascus blog." Rather, Bagaria said, she and Arraf had corresponded extensively via the Internet.
Likewise, when CNN conducted an interview with Arraf, contact was limited to an exchange of emails. The update went on to say that contact had not been achieved with Arraf’s family, and that some of the material appearing at Arraf’s blog "was previously posted online in 2007, in a blog attributed to the same author that was described by her as a mix of fact and fiction."
The Huffington Post’s Leah McElrath Renna claimed in a June 7 article that she had corresponded with Arraf, who provided a "cleaned up" version of one of her blog postings for publication at the Huffington Post (the same one cited at the start of this article). Renna also wrote that she had communicated with Arraf’s family.
"Although her cousin and father have made numerous inquiries, they have told me they continue to be uncertain about whom exactly has taken Amina and where she is being held," Renna’s article said.
Contacted by EDGE on June 7 to comment on the questions regarding the identity of Arraf and the veracity of her blog, Renna emailed the same day to say that she was uncertain about what was actually happening with the blogger.
"I am as confused as the rest of the world about the issue of her identity and location and don’t really have anything to say that would shed additional light on the situation," Renna told EDGE, adding, "[T]here could be many reasons for that (getting lots of homophobic hate-mail, for instance -- take a minute and review the comments under the news of Amina’s abduction and the update).
"Occam’s Razor leads me to believe that a woman exists who wrote this blog and who appears to have been detained by the Syrian government," Renna continued. "By which I mean it is the most simple answer. If I were an out Syrian lesbian protester, I’d go incognito too and use a pseudonym or otherwise hide my true identity.
"But is that woman named Amina Arraf? I have no idea," Renna said in her email. "I will say that if the blog is a work of fiction, it’s a damned good one."
A June 8 AP story said that further doubt had been cast on the question of Arraf’s accounts, and possibly her existence, when a British woman named Jelena Lecic came forward to say that her photo had been posted on Facebook and identified as Arraf.
"A representative for Jelena Lecic said the London woman first learned her likeness was being used on the Facebook account of a blogger known as Amina Arraf when her photo was linked to article about Arraf in the Guardian newspaper on Tuesday," the AP reported.
Moreover, the Local Coordination Committees activist who had earlier confirmed for the AP the story of Arraf’s kidnapping followed up on June 8 to say that he had ""no independent confirmation" for the abduction claim. Moreover, he was also unable to speak to the question of Arraf’s existence.
"As far as we know, nobody’s emerged who has actually met her," he told the AP.