I got really worried when I first read about the abduction of Syrian blogger Amina Omran Aref in Damascus last Monday. Images of mutilated bodies, tortured children and abused activists we have been seeing over the last weeks started passing through my mind as I imagined the 35-year-old blogger facing the nightmare of arrest by members of Syrian Secret Intelligence. Nothing of what followed, however, came as a huge surprise. Given the international exposure that the author of the “Gay Girl in Damascus” blog has been getting, the campaigns by thousands of her friends and followers launched on Facebook and other social media outlets, came as the most normal reaction. With the growing attention, rose serious questioning about Amina’s identity and eventually an article by The Guardian on Thursday named her a potential “cynical hoax” when no records could be found about the person she pretends to be neither in Syria nor in the US—her alleged two countries—and when it was established that she used fake pictures identifying herself on her blog. So far, and despite hundreds of emails exchanged with her, there hasn’t been a “real” man or woman who said he or she has known Amina in person, which gives additional reason to believe she may in fact be the virtual creation of an activist or writer based anywhere in the world. Obviously, I don’t know Amina either, but in the scope of my work on a documentary about Syrian bloggers I have come across activists who have explained to me why for years they have had dual and sometimes even more than one virtual personality. Rami Nakhle, a human rights militant, better known by his pseudo name Malath Omran, now Syria’s most famous cyber activists, told me at our first meeting last March that it was via the Internet—and while using virtual identities—that he and his friends used to organize demonstrations when it was still very difficult to mobilize people who were still very scared and very suspicious. One such demonstration was against the high pricing of telephone bills, which a year ago was pretty much a taboo, given the ownership of Syriatel by Rami Makhlouf, the cousin of President Bashar Al Assad.When he felt that security apparatuses were close to uncovering his virtual identity, after more than 40 investigation sessions by different security agencies, Rami decided to flee Damascus and was smuggled to Lebanon after he was forbidden from traveling. In Syria according to him, security officials don’t need legal proof to “throw an activist indefinitely in jail.” A mere suspicion by the investigator that a person is involved with any political activity deemed dangerous to the regime would be enough. “I decided to flee not because I was scared, but because I know am more useful when I’m free, what Syria needs is someone who sheds the light on what’s going on and not another hero in prison, we have enough of those,” he said.Examples are indeed countless. Tall El Moulouhi, the high school student who has been detained since 2009 for social commentaries she has written on her blog, is just one of them. Despite the fact that his identity has been uncovered following interviews he gave in Lebanon, Rami is still most active and famous by the fictional identity of Malath Omran, whose “face” on Facebook is the collection of 32 different portraits. He is one of scores of cyber-activists making sure that the world knows, and cares about what’s going on across Syria. This is very much what Amina has been doing in her own way. I became aware of her site a couple of months ago when I started researching Arab bloggers, and I was initially intrigued when my search for political blogs kept taking me to “Gay Girl in Damascus.”A Foreign Policy article entitled “Here’s your reading list, Mr. President” picked her among top Arab Blogs that President Barrack Obama should keep an eye on. She was also often quoted and referred to by international media outlets for her coverage of the demonstrations in Syria. As I started reading her entries, it became obvious to me that Amina’s blog, and her courage weren’t as much about her sexual orientation as they were about her strong political views. I was impressed by her writing and touched by her story which flew like a novel rich with inspiring characters: a “heroic” Syrian father, an American mother, glorious ancestry, uncles, cousins, friends and neighbors all roving across the times around the charming houses of a Jasmin smelling Damascus…By narrating what’s allegedly the story of her family, Amina retold Syria’s modern history exposing the hypocrisy and the atrocities of a brutal Baath regime. Her blogs are well researched and are often accompanied by images, videos and sharp commentaries.Whoever she really is, Amina has found a way to tell the world the story of deserted Quneitera and the Hama massacre and why she is confident what is happening in Syria now, is a people’s quest for freedom, and not the seed of a sectarian war.Her name may very well be fake and the title “Gay Girl in Damascus” may have been chosen to attract, but behind Amina there is also a real writer whose sensitivity to and knowledge of the places imply is a young Syrian who really knows the story, and who has used all her skills to get the attention of the widest audience possible, which she undoubtedly managed to.For the sake of the writer, who I hope is somewhere safe and sound, I hope Amina is an invention.Still then, cynical hoax? I don’t think so. I prefer virtual heroine.
By Alia Ibrahim