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.
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.