A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Monday, June 13, 2011

"Amina" Evaporates into Sockpuppetry; The Tragedy in Syria Remains Real

A week after the blogging community (and not just Middle East bloggers, including me) were horrified by word that Gay Girl in Damascus blogger Amina Arraf had been abducted by security men, the story has gradually been eroded by growing skepticism and now has apparently entirely evaporated. The author of the blog appears to be neither gay, a girl, nor in Damascus. Other than that, says the  confession on the blog, "While the narrative voice may have been fictional, the facts on this blog are true and not mısleading as to the situation on the ground. I do not believe that I have harmed anyone -- I feel that I have created an important voice for issues that I feel strongly about." Other than that, other than not being gay, or a girl, or in Damascus, or abducted, it was all "true and not misleading"? HUH?

Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?

The brief confession signed by Tom MacMaster includes the lines, "This experience has sadly only confirmed my feelings regarding the often superficial coverage of the Middle East and the pervasiveness of new forms of liberal Orientalism." Whatever exactly that means, the creation of an imaginary sockpuppet blogger and then the claim that said blogger has been abducted would seem to offer little to really educate Westerners out of their  ignorance (undisputed: it's the reason for this blog, which bears my real name and identity and my employer's real name and identity) or to help the plight of gays, women, or dissidents in Syria; if anything it may have focused the security forces' attention on those very communities. It also plays into the regime's hands: this particular "dissident" was apparently a man and woman living formerly in Georgia and currently in Edinburgh, Scotland but traveling in Turkey. I can see the regime claiming, if they are clever enough to capitalize on this, that the "dissident movement" is a creation of the West, just as "Amina" proved to have been.

Okay, I'll admit. I was fooled. So were nearly 15,000 followers on the Free Amina Abdalla Facebook site. Before I comment further, let me echo theirs:
Be assured administrators of this site - who were friends with "Amina" online - are just as angry as everyone else over the revelation made by Tom MacMaster. This foolish and cruel hoax has distracted from the real issue in Syria - that the Syrian people are sacrificing their lives for calling for an end to a regime that silences, disappears, tortures and murders its people, a regime that has repeatedly fired directly into peaceful demonstrations. Thousands of political prisoners are being held by authorities, with many of them undergoing torture right now. The world should know about the courage and suffering of these innocent Syrians and stand with them.
Someone behind that blog knew Syria pretty well, and wrote convincingly. I'd been reading "her" blog even before the "abduction" and had even linked to it. Credit must go to those who smelled something fishy early on: by last Wednesday there were already red flags, raised first (so far as I am aware) by NPR's Andy Carvin, followed soon by Robert Mackey at the NYT's the Lede (link is to an updated version.) Liz Henry was also on the case early on, and as near as I can tell she, along with The Electronic Intifada,  are the people who finally ran this thing to ground. Read their posts for the evidence. Some other reactions here. 

It gets still stranger. A lesbian-oriented website called The LEZ Get Real which helped promote Amina has also published an apology. But The Electronic Intifada investigation has also raised questions about the existence or non-existence of the purported Executive Editor of that website, "Paula Brooks", whose real world identity seems a bit thin. Are we completely in sockpuppet (linked above, but essentially a false online identity) country here? [Later Update: "Paula Brooks" was a guy, too. Are we learning about some new Internet fetish here, or what?]

Of course like anyone moderately familiar with the culture of the Internet I realize that what you see is not, always, what you get, and that the idea of the "sockpuppet"  can rarely be excluded. The famous New Yorker cartoon of some years back, at left (I hope The New Yorker copyright lawyers will see this as fair use) summarizes it perfectly.

Anonymous blogging is fine. Many of the finest bloggers in the Middle East either started out, or remain, anonymous for good, survival-related reasons; but I assume when I read them that their basic personas are real; even if I don't know their names. The guys are guys; the women are women; the young people are young. Those that have unveiled their real identities in the age of revolution have pretty much matched up with their anonymous persona. I didn't care if the "Gay Girl in Damascus" was really named Amina or not: as her story crumbled a lot of us waited, fearing she was a real person who'd used a fake name and stolen somebody else's Facebook photos, but might in fact be in a Syrian jail. As online sleuths demolished first her photos, then her not very detailed biography (searching Virginia and Georgia records for her claimed background and finding no records), it became clear that both her photos and her name were fake. A 2007 blog under the same name offered fragments of autobiography, with a birth in Staunton, Virginia, and being raised in Damascus and Virginia. That blog admitted it included fictional elements. (It does, however, show a familiarity with the real Shenandoah Valley, especially the Harrisonburg-Dayton-Bridgewater area. If I have anything to add to this overall investigation it is to say that her (fictional) childhood town of "Riverport" is almost certainly Bridgewater, a town I know well. The description, the neighboring towns, the river and the Old Order Mennonites pretty much nail it.)

But as long as there was a chance there was a real person, with another name and another photo, in a Syrian prison (or worse), I didn't want to pile on. But now that we see this as a complete invention, with no real person involved, I want to see more than a brief apology that says we meant well. Harm has been done to the communities involved and, worse, the international press has been diverted from a humanitarian horror in Syria by a blogger-driven diversion.

What makes it worse is that I contributed to it, and inadvertently committed the prestige of The Middle East Institute and Middle East Journal as well. So did a whole lot of other good folk and true, who are hoping for real change in Syria. Shame on these insensitive hoaxers who. whatever their misguided intentions,  may have cost lives among the real people who live in the real Syria. There are real gay girls in Damascus and in Syria, but you cannot speak for them. We are not they. During the Tahrir days, many Westerners said "We are all Egyptians."  No we aren't, and no we weren't; our butts weren't on the line and nobody was threatening us with live ammunition. Pretending you're a frontline dissident is like pretending you're a Medal of Honor Veteran: it steals from those who really are, and it demeans you.  Fiction hurts those whose butts really are on the line, and all Syrians who are living a real nightmare and are really being abducted. Shame.


Tim said...

Which leads me to wonder. If most of the folks in Jisr Al Shugur have fled to Turkey, just who is the Syrian Army fighting in the town?

And why do they need what appears to be overwhelming force to do so?

Are they fighting sock puppets? Or something a bit more heavily armed?

Like the Amina story, this just doesn't seem to add up.

Michael Collins Dunn said...


Josh Landis raises some questions to which I'll link to in the morning. While I think the Syrian government is capable of anything, a Hama-level response raises the issue of whether there is a Hama-level challenge. Of course if the regime is facing a genuine armed uprising, perhaps it should consider inviting in the foreign press.