Amina Arraf started blogging in Syria under the nom de plume “A Gay Girl in Damascus” and gained Internet fame with her outspoken criticism of the Syrian government and posts about her participation in the antiregime demonstrations.
On Monday, a letter signed by Rania O. Ismail, which said she was Arraf’s cousin, was posted on the blog. It said Arraf had gone missing and her family suspected she had been arrested. By Tuesday, though, many began to doubt whether Arraf ever existed at all.
Just as the story of her potential arrest went viral, questions over her identity started to arise. NPR’s Andy Carvin wondered if Arraf was simply a blogger with a creative writing streak. On Tuesday, Carvin began to share his doubts on Twitter, asking if anyone had ever met or interviewed Arraf. Her interview with BlogPost in April was conducted via e-mail.
Robert Mackey at the Lede found that some of the writing posted on “A Gay Girl in Damascus” appeared on a blog published in 2007, which described itself as a mixture of fact and fiction and that the writer “will not tell you which is which.”
In April, during her interview with BlogPost, Arraf said, “I've been trying to write a slightly fictionalized autobiography for some time (fictionalized as in other people have their name's changed) and when the Arab revolutions began, I realized I wanted to get my voice out there. The force of events has meant that my blog is more about events than anything else right now.”
On Wednesday morning, suspicion flared again when a London publicist claimed photographs of Arraf were in fact showing a woman named Jelena Lecic, the Wall Street Journal reports. Lecic said the photographs, which show a young woman with a mole over her eye, were taken from her Facebook page.
Lecic appeared on BBC Newsnight Wednesday, confirming that the pictures were indeed of her. Lecic told Newsnight “I have never met Amina, I am not friends with her.”
A woman named Sandra Bagaria had told the New York Times, the BBC and al-Jazeera that she was a personal friend of the blogger, but has since admitted she has never met Arraf in person, but rather has conducted an online-only relationship with her since January over e-mail.
It also appeared that posts questioning Arraf’s existence on the Free Amina Facebook page were being removed.
American blogger Paula Brooks started communicating with Arraf via e-mail in February, but was initially suspicious about Arraf’s identity when she saw the location of her IP address. The address seems to have been routed through Edinburgh in Scotland. Arraf told Brooks she occasionally used proxy Web addresses to protect her safety in Syria, a procedure some Middle East bloggers have turned to under Internet blockades. The two spoke regularly on e-mail and chat.
Arraf also told Brooks she had been born in Staunton, Va., but now lived near a mosque in Damascus. Brooks has visited Damascus and Arraf’s descriptions of places in Syria matched Brooks’s memories perfectly. Arraf said she started her blog in part because of Brooks’s encouragement and because she wanted to write the great “Muslim coming out” novel, which would be 95 percent autobiographical 5 percent altered.
Arraf also sent Brooks a photo of herself in February that matches the photos Jelena Lecic claims were taken from her Facebook page.
Addressing the doubts Wednesday, Carvin wrote on Twitter: “Again, people should operate under the assumption that there is a real blogger under detention in Syria. Who they are is another matter.”
In the Guardian, Liz Henry at the Composite blog speculates that the numerous inconsistencies surrounding Arraf could indicate that Arraf either is who she appears to be — a writer living in Syria, but with a different name and with the names of her family members obscured — or is someone else entirely, who could live in Syria or elsewhere.
Brooks suggests another possibility. An email that Arraf sent her in February reads, “On another subject, do you have any opinions regarding graduate schools for history/classics/archaeology in the UK? I'm applying for masters’ programs (at Edinburgh, St Andrews, Oxford, Cambridge, and Kings) with the intention of doing a PhD afterwards (as I can 'commute' from here for the majority of the time) and wonder if it is a good idea (I've been accepted to three and waiting to hear from Oxbridge).”
Since Arraf’s IP address is in Edinburgh in Scotland, Brooks notes that Arraf could have been blogging from the University of Edinburgh all along.
Arraf also told Brooks over Gchat that she was related to Najah Al-Attar, the current Vice President of Syria, who attended the University of Edinburgh. Al-Attar could possibly be the member of the government Arraf earlier said she was related to and had said made her invincible.
On her blog, Arraf repeatedly named her parents as Abdallah Ismail Arraf and Caroline McClure Arraf. The Post has been unable to find a Caroline McClure Arraf in either Atlanta or Georgia, two locations Arraf claims that her mother lived.
Arraf also mentions having grown up in the town of Riverport extensively on her blog. The Post has been unable to find a zip code for Riverport.
Syria has banned foreign journalists and prevented access to trouble spots, making it difficult to verify witness accounts independently.
The Guardian reports that U.S. embassy officials in Syria are urgently trying to establish further details about Arraf.
Arraf, Bagaria and Ismail have not responded to e-mails.
We’ll have more on the story as it develops.