Painful doubts about Amina

This morning I woke up to reports that Amina Abdalla, aka Amina Abdallah Arraf al Omari, who blogs on Gay Girl in Damascus had been detained in Syria. Her cousin posted to give the details, and people were twittering and blogging about the situation, there was a Facebook page and a #freeamina hashtag and people talking about what to do as activists to pressure for her release. At work in the morning, I let people at BlogHer know, since we featured her post some months ago, My Father, the Hero. My coworkers were very concerned, Heather Clisby posted about Amina’s situation, and our entire community of women bloggers geared up to support her. I wrote to one of my senators and signed some online petitions in her support, and sent out messages to everyone I know to try to help her.

Over the course of the day as I tracked the stories about Amina I noticed that all the articles sourced her blog, and then her other blog from 2007. I started looking for traces of her elsewhere. She has a Facebook page, but not a lot of other presence. It looked to me like her 2007 blog was a few chapters of experimentation with a memoir or a novel. Then she abandoned that and brought it back in mid-February on a new site. Not uncommon. But I started having doubts based on some of her patterns of talking about personas and fiction. Back when people were talking about My Father, the Hero, I heard people doubting Amina’s existence simply based on her being an out lesbian in Damascus. I argued against that doubt and would not doubt someone based on their identity. But now began to feel differently.

As the afternoon wore on I felt that (even sluggish as it is) mainstream media should by now have found people who were personal friends, family, fellow students or co-workers of Amina from her time in the U.S. if not contacts in Syria. Again.. a day went by and all the sources and quotes were from two blogs by the same person, about that person. Interviews surfaced but they were all interviews by email. Then as I questioned things on my blogs and on twitter, in some phone calls to activists and journalists, I saw that Amina’s friend Sandra Bagaria in Montreal was twittering about her and was beginning to give interviews. She was reported as close friend, girlfriend, and partner in different sources. Sandra Bagaria, unlike Amina, had a clear presence on the web. That put my fears partly to rest. But I wondered a bit about Bagaria’s aliases: her twitter description read: “aka Marjane, aka Lisbeth and a Syrian lover.” Really… Hmm.

I would hate to have my existence doubted and am finding it painful to continue doubting Amina’s. If she is real, I am very sorry and will apologize and continue to work for her release and support.

But it now turns out that Bagaria has never met Amina in person. They had an online relationship. As I see it, this could indicate various possibilities:

– Amina is as she appears to be, a talented writer living in Syria; perhaps with a different name and with the names of her family members obscured.

– Amina is someone else entirely in Syria.

– Amina is someone else; anything goes. Amina could be Odin Soli for all I know. In fact, wouldn’t it fit all too neatly?

– Amina is Sandra Bagaria.

In 2007 I gave a talk at SXSWi on Fictional Blogging. I talked about astroturfing, sockpuppets, deep cover established online over time, and hoax bloggers who turned out to be not what they seemed. My own blogging community in around 2003 included a charismatic blogger named Plain Layne. Her life as a bisexual young woman was full of drama; she was goodhearted, generous, incredibly engaging, a fabulous writer, and would sometimes get herself into situations that would just make you stay awake at night worrying about her life, her cousin who had a baby, her upcoming dates, who she was going to sleep with… it was quite incredible. I’m sure many bloggers and blog readers have gone through this cycle of becoming fascinated with another person’s life through their textual output. Plain Layne had fans. When she wrote about being a rape survivor, many of us emailed and IM-ed her to offer long nights of support, or told our painful stories of trauma or abuse so she’d know she wasn’t alone.

Well… to make a long story short Plain Layne turned out to be this middle aged guy named Odin Soli who had also won blog awards years before as Acanit, a young lesbian Muslim girl with a Jewish girlfriend. Despite watching many of my close (in person and online) friends feel that their basic trust in humanity was damaged from this hoax, I invited Odin to come speak with me at SXSWi about blogging under a persona and how his “experimental fiction” had gone too far. We had a fantastic public discussion that stretched (at the audience’s request) an hour past our allotted panel time. I liked Odin a lot. He was fun to be around, as well as being a good writer and superb online performer of identity. His Layne stories evolved later into a novel, The Mexican Year… which by the way were about a Muslim woman. If you read all three of these writing projects, you may see some stylistic and thematic similarities with Amina. I believed in Amina, up till the spark of doubt I began feeling this afternoon. But… I believed hard in Layne too.

odin soli

One of the high points of the discussion at SXSWi was talking with Ethan Zuckerman about political and government uses of “fictional” blogging. It would certainly be easy to imagine disinformation campaigns — say, a refugee camp blogger who reported on conditions in some way that was false and aimed at discrediting a political movement or government either because they were believed, or because they were revealed as fakes. What we thought was that if we could imagine it, someone else had probably already thought of it and was doing it.

In this case, how could I tell from this distance? I hope you can see why my spidey sense went off for Amina. I don’t disbelieve in her becuase she’s a great writer with a sense of drama and rhetoric, or because of her sexual orientation or her activism. For example, I don’t for a second doubt the existence of Riverbend, who blogged so eloquently and for so long from Baghdad and then fled to Syria with her family. But I start to really, really, want some trustable and deep sources for Amina. How can an activist whose life is in danger provide that credibility? It’s a very hard question. There have been good experiments done of inventing credible people — inserting them into conferences by having them tweet a lot and write about what they’re doing, then have them friend everyone they “met” at the conference — 9 times out of 10 I would friend that person back even if I couldn’t remember meeting them. Then I’d “know” them on Facebook and Twitter and in the blog world, and they’d be friends with lots of my real life friends. I would not at all be surprised if some of my social media contacts were complicated fictional creations — either literary experiments, or politically motivated cyber-infiltrators.

Like I said, not only was I imagining how to do this well back in 2005 or so, other much more powerful — or much more creative and weird — people than me were likely imagining it — and doing it. We saw with the HBGary case that there is software to manage a stack of complicated online personas and their social media presences and keep their backgrounds and relationships straight. Of course. Right?

At one point in 2008, I busted an entire fake astroturf political community, PumaPAC. That was fun.

In this situation, if I were Sandra Bagaria, and if I weren’t Sandra/Amina, I’d be taking my computer to a friendly hackerspace and get an expert vouched for by the community there to look at my email headers and whatever other records of contact I had with Amina. From that it should be possible to tell something of her location. I would believe a fair bit of sophistication in hiding that location and identity is realistic of course. But it might not hold up to scrutiny.

Andy Carvin has been twittering all afternoon trying to find someone who has met Amina in person and has not succeeded.

If this is a hoax, I feel for everyone involved whose emotions were brought to a pitch and who stepped up to try and support Amina Araf. It also must be really infuriating for the LGBT people actually in Syria and for many other activists and bloggers who have been detained for their online writing.

If I’m wrong then I am being very rude to Amina and I am terribly sorry for that. But, I feel that it’s incredibly important to maintain some skepticism when sources are so thin.

Please change my mind with evidence and good sources. On the other hand, I’d like it if Amina didn’t exist, because then she wouldn’t be in jail and in danger, though other people are who need our support.

Update: Andy Carvin just posted with his thoughts. He is leaning towards believing that Amina is real, but doesn’t know a lot of people in person and lives her social life online. That is plausible, and I’m sure we’ll find out more over the next couple of days. Someone must have known her in Atlanta, for example… Meanwhile, I hope she is safe.

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423 Responses to Painful doubts about Amina

  1. Jules says:

    Although this new story uncovered by Electronic Intifada seems to be quite interesting, I’m still not convinced that the blog and the whole story are some sort of collective enterprise. We should probably reflect a bit more on the reasons and motivations behind “Amina’s” behavior. This person probably has some sort of connection with all these people, but her actions still seem to me consistent with the picture of someone with serious, I’d say even dangerous, mental issues.

    • Grazia says:

      I agree, it doesn’t sound like a collective enterprise…there is a clear connection but it doesn’t explain the all the dating sites and the interaction on yahoo groups, which suggests “Amina” being a separate person.

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  4. Oscar says:

    ‘Amina’ has just wiped comments off her blog

  5. Richard Braverman says:


  6. Oscar says:

    Britta and Co.

    ‘Amina’s pictures from Syria’ sent in emails to various people were all from Britta’s collection

  7. Oscar says:

    The confession:

    ‘Amina’ was Tom MacMaster all along:

  8. Grazia says:

    Breakthrough, it seems that we have a confession!
    Tom MacMaster apologies on GGID website:

    some doubts, still…

  9. Mark says:

    Tom MacMaster just confessed to being Gay Girl in Damascus on the GGID blog.

  10. Charles says:

    One thing that struck me about the whole sordid affair was the narcissit, paternalist nature of it. Here is a white heterosexual man who, instead of supporting the efforts of real GLTB Middle-Easterners, decided instead to steal the spotlight from them and claim their voice. I guess he figured his little brown brothers and sisters just couldn’t do it themselves, so he appointed himself their spokesperson. That is rather disgusting.

  11. pj says:

    What vile warmongers you liars are. I hipe you all drop dead for this fi fithh, you stupid tools.

  12. Jade says:

    Toms confession and apology aren’t really enough especially as he says he doesn’t feel like he’s done any harm. What about the girlfriend Sandra Bagaria? The countless people he had more intimate connections with? I don’t believe he created that blog for altruistic reasons either, if it was just highlight the plight of Syria why did he have profiles on dating sites and cultivate a girlfriend? He’s not taking full responsibility at all in my opinion.

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  14. Andy Walpole says:

    It should be noted that the Syrian state media has picked up on this story and are using it as evidence that opposition voices are fabricated in the West

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  19. Poliminance says:

    Whfoooaaar, lesbians! The only way to get the average white male interested in the West’s Middle East shenanigans.

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  31. Anon says:

    W-O-W Nasim, you really need to drop this and get a life in Qatar, Syria, Oshkosh or wherever the hell you are….

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  33. Kim says:

    I was just remembering the Amina Arraf / Gay Girl in Damascus hoax today, and when I looked it up to confirm the aftermath facts on Wikipedia, yours was the first mention of dissent. I recognized your photo from meeting you, very briefly, at either WisCon or WorldCon or both. I remember going to a hard sci fi and its accesibility to women panel that you also attended, so it was probably my first WisCon.

    Today, this post:

    and this gofundme:

    are exploding, and my spidey sense is going off.

    Just like any other queer person or straight ally, of course I want this to be a positive responsive to a negative situation.

    I can’t help but notice, though:

    1. Baker’s updates use the Same kind of Capitalization for Emphasis as the Letter from the Anti-Gay Christian.

    2. I’m originally from Kansas and I’ve met and been exposed to a lot lot lot of anti-gay Christians, most notably members of the Westboro Baptist Church. The letter doesn’t read right to me. It reads like the straw dog that non-Christians sometimes create when they’ve carried a persecution complex with them from childhood which exceeds the actual persecution they’ve experienced. An Us and Them construct. Instead of “Your kind need to have Respect for GOD”, I’d expect a genuine Christian concerned about gayness to be praying for their souls, citing the Bible or invitation to Church / prayer. I’ve seen all of those things. This has a level of vitriol that is 2d and comical. But maybe someone really is that awful. And if so, I hope they don’t respond poorly to the escalation.

    I feel AWFUL for being this cynical. And I thought of Amina. And then I read this, and realized your Layne lead you to question Amina, and my Amina lead me to question this… and maybe I should give these thoughts a little consideration.

    I am SO glad you said something about Gay Girl in Damascus, because the longer that went on, the more likely it was to undermine real Syrian LGBTQ efforts. Maybe we’re short enough attention span now and the LGBTQ movement strong enough now that, even if this more recent incident was in some way fraudulent, it wouldn’t fundamentally undermine the movement.

    I am standing on a fence trying to decide if I just carry on because, without fingerprinting the letter, I can’t really think of any way to reassure myself that the letter was genuinely from a neighbor. And that’s probably not a reasonable ask.

    A lot of people feel like really good people today because they got to do something light-hearted and fun for the Relentlessly Gay. And maybe for realz, too.

    • Kim says:

      It turns out I wasn’t the only one who had questions about authenticity …

      There was a note from the Relentlessly Gay campaign creator shortly before the campaign disappeared saying that she’d learned she could suspend donations, and that the world was full of “hate and fear” and she wouldn’t take a penny until she could prove the authenticity of the letter. I still hope it’s real, but others collected more evidence than my periphery skim, and it’s about as damning as I suspected.

      I hate it when people do something that punishes a good Samaritan, or calls their urge to act with kindness into question. Grr. I hope that’s not the case here…

      • Liz says:

        Arrrrrgh. My goodness.
        I wonder if this was not real what the hell fueled it.
        And whether it was intended to go as big as it did.
        Either way, the person could not stand up to that scale of public scrutiny in some way. I think that is or would be of many of us no matter our authenticity.

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