The Search for 'Gay Girl in Damascus' and a Stolen Photo
A London woman says someone has been using her photos for a year
The search to confirm the identity of a Syrian-American named Amina Abdallah Arraf who blogs as A Gay Girl in Damascus took a visual twist on Wednesday when a London-based publicist named Julian Just came forward to say that widely circulated photos (that have also appeared on our previous reports) that purport to be of Arraf are actually a Croatian woman named Jelana Lecic who works as an administrator at the Royal College in London. But in an interview with The Atlantic Wire, Just--who got involved after a family friend of Lecic asked for his assistance--says this case of "mistaken identity" has been going on for quite some time. A friend of Lecic's first spotted photos from her private Facebook account on the profile belonging to a woman named Amina Abdullah Arraf a year ago. Lecic filed a complaint with Facebook at the time and the social network shut down Arraf's account.
But the issue resurfaced this week when Arraf was reportedly abducted in Syria after attracting international attention for her musings on homosexuality and the Syrian uprising. Lecic saw her photo in a story about the case in The Guardian and Just issued a press release to alert the media about the mistaken identity. The story was first reported by The Wall Street Journal. Just says Lecic is concerned for Arraf's safety but also "wants to protect her identity, which seems to have been stolen from the outset."
The story, he added, is getting "more and more complex and mysterious."
In more evidence that the Lecic photos weren't simply attributed to Arraf mistakenly this week, The Guardian reports that when it set up an in-person interview with Arraf for a story last month, she supplied a photo to the paper that Lecic claims is her as well. The Guardian says Arraf never showed up for the interview in Damascus, explaining that she'd been followed and instead communicating with the paper by email. NPR's Andy Carvin, who is doggedly trying to unearth more information about Arraf's identity, has come across an old MySpace profile that appears to belong to Arraf with yet another woman's picture: that of Palestinian militant Leila Khaled.
Meanwhile, the broader search for information about Arraf is ongoing. A spokesperson for the U.S. embassy in Damascus tells The Guardian that the embassy has not been able to confirm that Arraf is a U.S. citizen, as she claims in her blog, or identify any records of someone named Amina Abdallah Arraf living in Damascus. The U.S. State Department, likewise, tells Carvin that it can't yet confirm any of the details in Arraf's blog. In good old shoe-leather reporting, AP journalists tried to track down Arraf's family and friends in Virginia, where Arraf claims she was born, but found no public records with her name or her parents' names, or evidence that they were there. The Washington Post also couldn't find information about Arraf's American-born mom in Georgia, where she supposedly lived. An American blogger who communicated with Arraf via email tells the Post that Arraf's IP address appeared to have been routed through Scotland, though Arraf may have simply been using a proxy web address, as many Middle East bloggers do.
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.
We've reached out to Rania Ismail, who identified herself as Arraf's cousin in the blog post reporting Arraf's abduction, but we haven't heard back. We'll update if we do.
Update: In an appearance on BBC Newsnight, Jelena Lecic claims Arraf used hundreds of pictures of Lecic, including the one above, which was taken in Paris a year ago and used as Lecic's main Facebook photo. Lecic says she's never met Arraf and is not friends with her. Here's a screenshot of the interview, via Twitter user Elizabeth Tsurkov.
Video of the interview has been posted as well: