Syrian-American Blogger Reportedly Detained – (c) Robert Mackey and Liam Stack – The New York Times

Posted on 07/06/2011


Amina Abdallah Araf al Omari was a fictional character or hoax persona created and maintained by American peace activist and graduate student Tom MacMaster.[1] The identity was presented as a Syrian-American blogger, identifying herself as a lesbian on her weblog A Gay Girl In Damascus and blogging in support of increased civil and political freedom for Syrians. During the 2011 Syrian uprising, a posting on the blog by a person who introduced herself as Amina’s cousin reported that Amina was abducted on 6 June 2011 and her whereabouts were unknown for several days. This sparked a strong backlash from the LGBT community and was covered widely in mainstream media.

In the wake of the reports, questions arose regarding the possibility that Araf al Omari was an elaborate hoax. Author/blogger Liz Henry, Andy Carvin (a journalist with National Public Radio in Washington, D.C.) and others raised doubts about the identity of the blogger. The photos purported to be of her were proven to be a woman residing in Britain with no relation to Syria, the blog, or the ongoing protests in the country. On June 12, Ali Abunimah and Benjamin Doherty of the website Electronic Intifada conducted an investigation that pointed to a strong possibility that the identity of “Amina” was MacMaster, an American living in Edinburgh. Hours later, Tom MacMaster posted on “Amina’s” blog and took responsibility for the blog and the false reports of her capture.

According to a note posted on the blog A Gay Girl in Damascus, the blog’s author, Amina Abdallah Arraf, who has described herself as a Syrian-American taking part in the uprising inSyria, was detained on the streets of the Syrian capital on Monday evening.

The note, written by someone who identified herself as Ms. Arraf’s cousin, Rania O. Ismail, passed on an account of the blogger’s arrest provided by an unnamed eyewitness. Ms. Ismail wrote that Ms. Arraf, accompanied by a friend, was on her way to meet a member of a Syrian opposition group inDamascus at about 6 p.m. local time when she was “seized by three men in their early 20s. According to the witness (who does not want her identity known), the men were armed. Amina hit one of them and told the friend to go find her father.”

Ms. Ismail continued: “One of the men then put his hand over Amina’s mouth and they hustled her into a red Dacia Logan with a window sticker of Basel Assad. The witness did not get the tag number. She promptly went and found Amina’s father.”Baselal-Assad was an older brother ofSyria’s current president who died before he could inherit the office.

According to her blog, Ms. Arraf, 35, was born inVirginiato a Syrian father and an American mother and holds dual citizenship. She began writing her blog in February and has been openly critical of the Syrian government’s response to the protest movement and her desire to see President Bashar al-Assad’s fall.

On Sunday, she wrote: “Today or tomorrow might be the last one for me; or, tomorrow might be the first day of the newSyria. Ben Ali isgone, Mubarak isgone, Saleh, they say, isgone as well. Assad has not much longer and I plan to see him go.”

In the same post, Ms. Arraf described her part in the protest movement and argued strongly that opponents of the government should not turn to violence:

We went up north and helped spread sparks, in the cities of the plain and by the banks of theOrontes; we listened and we carried messages. Some were sent beyond this land, others were carried here in turn. And we heard people talking of frustration; we’ve been pushing so long, they said, and they kill us and we just die.… Why not take matters in our own hands and let them know? Take up the guns which are buried, uses bombs and make revolutionary justice.

I for one pushed back against that; we want a newSyria, a break from all that’s come before. If we take power by killing and torturing, if we make summary justice and examples of Them, how are we different?

It is not clear if Ms. Arraf has helped to smuggle video as well as messages out of the country, but the risks faced by Syrian activists armed only with phones and Internet connections were made very plain in a chilling clip posted online just after her arrest.

Late Monday night, Ms. Arraf’s cousin wrote in a brief update on the search for the missing blogger:

I have been on the telephone with both her parents and all that we can say right now is that she is missing. Her father is desperately trying to find out where she is and who has taken her.

Unfortunately, there are at least 18 different police formations inSyriaas well as multiple different party militias and gangs. We do not know who took her so we do not know who to ask to get her back. It is possible that they are forcibly deporting her.

A State Department spokesman told The Lede on Tuesday: “Officials in Damascusand Washingtonare working to ascertain more information about Ms. Arraf, including confirmation of her citizenship.” If the first chapter of Ms. Arraf’s autobiography, posted on her blog in February, is accurate, her American roots are very deep indeed.

She wrote that she was born in Staunton, Virginia, in October 1975 to Abdallah Ismail Arraf and Caroline McClure Arraf. The McClures, she explained, emigrated to Virginiafrom Ulsterin 1742. Four decades later, Ms. Arraf added, her mother’s family fought in the American Revolution at Yorktown, “earning me the right to be in the DAR.” A Daughter of the American Revolution inDamascus.

Ms. Arraf’s blog has garnered her a lot of attention from bloggers and journalists in recent months. As soon as word of her detention was posted online on Monday, one of her close friends, Sandra Bagaria, immediatley turned to social networks to try to draw attention to the case, alerting journalists and bloggers via Twitter. A short time later, a Free Amina Arraf Facebook page was set up to call for the blogger’s release.

In a telephone interview with The Times on Tuesday, Ms. Bagaria, who is inMontreal, said: “I have no news. I am working as hard as I can, we all are, to gather as much information as I can gather. I talked to Rania yesterday at the end of the day, but she had no news. None of us have any news. What we are doing now is alerting as many people as possible inSyriato get as much information as we can. The blog is very popular and since yesterday word has spread on Twitter, and now people are spreading the news very quickly.”

Ms. Bagaria added that Ms. Arraf had been hiding in “four or five different apartments in four or five different cities” acrossSyriasince two young men appeared at her home inDamascusseveral weeks ago.

“Amina woke up in the middle of the night and saw her father outside talking to two young guys in their early 20s. I think they were there just following orders, they didn’t know what they were doing,” Ms. Bagaria said. Although the two men eventually left without arresting the blogger that night, Ms. Bagaria said, “since that day, we agreed they might come back for her. It was only a matter of time.”

One month ago, Ms. Arraf wrote that she had gone into hiding after her father reported that men had come looking for her while she was out blogging at an Internet cafe. In a post headlined “Gone Underground,” she explained that her father said: “They came back for you. This time, there’s nothing I can do. Go somewhere and don’t tell me where you are. Be safe. I love you.”

Two weeks later, Ms. Arraf told readers of her blog that she had been sent a fake message by someone posing as her partner, inviting her to a meeting at a hotel inDamascus.

In recent weeks, Ms. Arraf had traveled around Syria, sometimes in disguise and once riding inside a box in the back of a truck. Ms. Bagaria said that at one point, the blogger donned an Islamic head scarf and posed as her father’s wife so that they could slip more easily through government checkpoints. “When she was traveling with her father, she was grabbed by a soldier who said, ‘What is a lovely young girl like you doing with an old man like him?’” Ms. Bagaria said. “There were crazy, intense moments when her heart must have been beating so much.”

Ms. Arraf started blogging a month before the first mass protests in Syria, but she wrote in the introduction to the blog that she was inspired by the fact that “The winds of change are blowing hard through the Middle East.” She concluded her first post by writing:

A revolution is underway and all of us want to see it revolutionize every aspect of our societies, rethinking not just how the states are governed but also the role of women in these societies, the rights of sexual autonomy, and, yes, the right to marry who we love.

Two days later, in a post headlined, “Why I Am Doing This,” Ms. Arraf explained that her family’s political connections gave her a measure of freedom:

I live inDamascus,Syria. It’s a repressive police state. Most LGBT people are still deep in the closet or staying as invisible as possible. But I have set up a blog announcing my sexuality, with my name and my photo.

Am I crazy? Maybe.

But I’m also aware of the winds of freedom and change blowing from one end of the Arab world to the other. And I want that freedom wind to bring with it our liberation, not just as Arabs and as Syrians, but also as women and as lesbians.

Maybe it will happen. Maybe it won’t.

But if I want it to happen, I have to begin by doing something bold and visible. I can, because I’m a dual national and have benefits of politically connected relatives, be more visible than many women here.

According to her partner, Ms. Arraf was concerned about leaving the country, even though the two women were planning a vacation in Rome this month. “She did not want to risk being trapped outside Syria,” Ms. Bagaria said. “She wanted to be part of what is going on there. She wanted to keep protesting every day, meeting with people and organizing community meetings. She had a lot of contacts to make sure the protests would keep going and the opposition would keep growing and growing, to make people aware of what the regime was doing.”