Gay Girl In Damascus. If you put together the world’s savviest bloggers and challenged them to come up with an attention-grabbing name for a blog, I’m not sure they could come up with something more provocative than that. A Syrian American woman named Amina Abdallah Arraf came up with the title when she launched her blog in February 2011, just prior to the start of the Syrian uprising. Her timing couldn’t have been better.
In fact, her timing – or at least her luck - was stunning. Amina had spent years living in the US before deciding to move back to Syria in 2010, well before the Arab Spring was on the minds of anyone. Once the uprising started, she was positioned to be one of its most unique chroniclers.
Amina’s blog posts were blunt, passionate, in-your-face. She made no bones about being a lesbian living in a conservative Muslim society, and was openly contemptuous of the Assad government. She discussed coming from a prominent Syrian family, as well as being a US citizen. Perhaps this combined background made her feel confident that she could speak her mind with relative impunity.
"Did she tell you that she likes to sleep with women?" [the policeman] grins, pure poison, feeling like he has made a hit. "That she is one of those faggots who fucks little girls?" (the arabic he used is far cruder ... you get the idea)
My dad glances at me. I nod; we understand each other.
"She is my daughter," he says and I can see the anger growing in his eyes, "and she is who she is and if you want her, you must take me as well…."
"Your father," he says to the [other policeman] who threatened to rape me, "does he know this is how you act? He was an officer, yes? And he served in ..." (he mentions exactly and then turns to the other) "and your mother? Wasn't she the daughter of ...?"
They are both wide-eyed, yes, that is right,
"What would they think if they heard how you act? And my daughter? Let me tell you this about her; she has done many things that, if I had been her, I would not have done. But she has never once stopped being my daughter and I will never once let you do any harm to her. You will not take her from here. And, if you try, know that generations of her ancestors are looking down on you. Do you know what is our family name? You do? Then you know where we stood when Muhammad, peace be upon him, went to Medina, you know who it was who liberated al Quds, you know too, maybe, that my father fought to save this country from the foreigners and who he was, know who my uncles and my brothers were ... and if that doesn't shame you enough, you know my cousins and you will leave here….”
"And right now, you two will both apologize for waking her and putting her through all this. Do you understand me?"
The first one nodded, then the second one.
"Go back to sleep," he said, "we are sorry for troubling you."
- It was dramatic stuff, no doubt about it.
Then one day in June 2011, she was kidnapped.
- A cousin of Amina's posted a blog entry describing what happened:
Amina was seized by three men in their early 20s. According to the witness (who does not want her identity known), the men were armed….
I couldn’t believe what I was reading. The most prominent English-speaking blogger in Syria had been nabbed. I quickly retweeted @MalathAumran’s post, adding the exclamation, “Dear God - she's been kidnapped?” I then dashed out another tweet, just to emphasize the gravity of the situation:
It didn’t take long for word of Amina’s kidnapping to spread across the region, well beyond Syria. You could almost sense the horror in the tweets of @LeilZahra, herself a lesbian activist based out of Egypt:
A leading Syrian online activist, @Razaniyet, issued a call-to-action to organize a campaign on Facebook for Amina’s release:
And in Canada, far from the chaos of the Mideast, Amina’s girlfriend Sandra Bagaria quietly joined in, her words plaintive and direct:
The hunt for Amina Abdallah Arraf had begun.
I had no illusions that it would be next to impossible to figure out where she was being detained. She could’ve been imprisoned in a police station, an army barracks, or in – I didn’t even want to consider worse places she might be detained. Syrian civilians were being brutalized in ways scarcely imaginable. Children had been castrated. Women had been skinned and dismembered. The depravity of their torturers knew no bounds. And now, at that very moment, Amina could be staring into the eyes of one of those demons.
Without direct information on where she might be, it was vital I learn who knew her best. I privately messaged my contacts in the Syrian activist community to find out what they knew about her. According to one of them, Amina had attended at least one meeting of the Damascus Local Coordination Committee, the core group of activists organizing protests in the Syrian capital. He hadn’t been at the meeting, but had been told by a fellow activist that she participated.
In public conversations on Twitter, Amina’s friends and supporters had fully mobilized. The hashtag #FreeAmina was gaining steam. Competing Facebook pages sprung up supporting her cause; one of which featured an ink drawing of her, head tilted and eyes downward, as if she paused for a moment to reminisce about a pleasant memory from long ago.
“Borders mean NOTHING when you have WINGS,” read the picture, quoting a poem from her blog. “FREE AMINA ARRAF.”
Seeing the drawing, I realized that I had no clue what Amina actually looked like. I went back to my Twitter stream to see if any of my contacts had tracked down any photos. One of them, @Bsyria, had just posted:
The photos showed a woman who clearly looked like the one depicted in the artist’s rendition on Facebook; in fact, one of the pictures served as the basis for the drawing. Amina was pretty, probably in her late 20s or early 30s. She had dark brown hair, distinctive cheekbones, an elegant neck and a conspicuous mole above her left eyebrow. That mole would come in handy, I thought, especially if other pictures reportedly of her began to surface.
Wanting more details about the photos, I tweeted