‘Gay Girl in Damascus’ may not be real

June 8, 2011

Questions emerged Wednesday about the existence and identity of a Syrian American blogger whose eloquent postings on life in Damascus and her purported detention Monday by Syrian security forces had catapulted her to global fame.

The Washington Post was among the news organizations in the United States and around the world that reported on the writings of Amina Arraf and her alleged detention, which was publicized in a posting on her blog, A Gay Girl in Damascus, by a woman who claimed to be her cousin.

But although many Syrian activists said they had corresponded with Arraf online, none acknowledged actually meeting her. A friend in Montreal, Sandra Bagaria, who started a campaign for Arraf’s release and said she knew her well, said she had corresponded with Arraf only by e-mail. Photographs of Arraf released by the friend and on her Web site are of a woman in London, Jelena Lecic, who said her identity had been stolen, according to a statement from the woman’s publicist.

The cousin, Rania Ismail, whose Facebook page identifies her as a “fulltime mommy” in Lilburn, Ga., did not respond to e-mails, although she had previously corresponded with journalists. Spokesman Mark Toner said the State Department was “seeking to confirm the details of [Arraf’s] case — including her citizenship.”

Syrian activists maintained Wednesday that they were sure Arraf existed, that she had been detained and that she had been using a fake identity to protect herself, as do most of the activists engaged in covert activity against Syria’s government at a time when the country is in the throes of a widespread popular uprising.


Photographs of Amina Arraf released by the friend and on her Web site are of a woman in London, Jelena Lecic, who said her identity had been stolen, according to a statement from the woman’s publicist. (Courtesy of Sandra Bagaria/COURTESY OF SANDRA BAGARIA)

But alternative theories flew within the online community, including that Bagaria and Arraf are the same person, that Lecic and Arraf are the same person, and that Gay Girl in Damascus is an invention.

Bagaria, when contacted in Montreal, seemed distraught at the possibility that the person with whom she had established a close relationship online might have been using a false identity.

“I don’t know. I really can’t tell. I would love to tell you I know,” she said. “I just want it to be clarified, and then I will deal with what I should and should not feel. But for now I just want it to be a little more clear.”

If A Gay Girl in Damascus is indeed a hoax, it would be an elaborate one. Arraf’s Facebook page reads like a who’s who of the Syrian opposition movement, and although none of the activists contacted had met her, all of them said they found it difficult to believe she wasn’t real.

“My feeling is that this lady exists and that she’s been risking her life to serve her cause,” said a prominent Beirut-based activist. “But she can’t write under her real name or reveal her identity. I know many activists, and none of them reveals their real identity.”

The saga illustrates the difficulty of establishing what is really going on in Syria at a time when the government is engaged in a brutal attempt to crush the 11-week-old uprising. Most information comes from the state-sponsored media or shadowy cyber-activists who post reports and videos online.

One activist contacted in Damascus, the Syrian capital, said he doubts Arraf is real and expressed concern that the opposition’s efforts to convey to the world the regime’s ruthlessness will be undermined by the apparent fabrication.

“It’s selfish because it means real issues in the future won’t be taken seriously at all,” he said, speaking via Skype on the condition of anonymity because he fears the consequences of talking to the media.

Liz Sly is the Post’s Beirut bureau chief. She has spent more than 15 years covering the Middle East, including the Iraq war. Other postings include Africa, China and Afghanistan.
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