This June, to the month, marks the ten year anniversary of a story that took world news headlines by storm for about a week. It was my original intention to write about this on the exact anniversary of the exposure of it, but as I have work to do and am about to embark on a move, I figured I might as well do it now while I have time. It is also the kickoff of Pride month, a time I used to enjoy now thoroughly corrupted by neoliberal normies, obnoxiously woke ‘queer’ hetrosexual larpers, and megacorporations into something more cringe than valuable. So, while I have time, what better way to start off Pride Month than talking about that time I met Amina Arraf, the famous Syrian Lesbian blogger who changed the world…by being exposed as a heterosexual man from Georgia. A guy, it turned out, I had met the month before the story dropped and whose wife I had known for almost a year.
Lets reel it back to late April, 2011. I was a first year doctoral student at the University of St Andrews and still, at that time, based in the namesake town in Fife, Scotland. I had returned from an amazing road trip with friends to the Isle of Skye where we hiked the Old Man of Storr up its more challenging frontal face. After this I was given the charge I needed to complete the work I had to do early, and so by the end of the month I was newly free and took a rail trip down to London for a few days to visit with the friends I had living there (I had previously lived in London before moving up north).
The last day of my time in London two things happened simultaneously. My bank card decided to lock my account for some random mistaken reason which I cannot recall the specifics of today-leaving me with only the remaining cash in my pocket for my train trip back to Fife…and a massive windstorm descended on the UK and Scotland in particular. ‘No problem,’ I thought, ‘I’ll be back home in St Andrews where I can mooch off friends until the bank fixes this issues and unfreezes my account in a day or two.’
But the windstorm put paid to those plans. The historic and distinctive Forth Bridge, which was the only way the east coast rail line can go north of Edinburgh, was closed due to how intense the windspeeds were around it. The last station the train would stop at was Edinburgh itself. And while it is true that in slightly over a year I would be living in Edinburgh along with quite a few other people I knew, neither I nor they had moved there yet. With my bank card locked and about five pounds and change in my wallet, I frantically called people on a blackberry (remember those?) with a dying battery in a time before phone chargers on trains were common asking who they knew in Edinburgh. It is my favorite city in the world so the prospect of wandering its streets all night did not horrify me, but during a horizontally-cutting-rain-windstorm? No thanks. Surely there was a couch I could crash on. Fortunately, someone remembered an acquaintance from our program, Britta, and sent me her phone number. She, to my eternal gratitude, picked up and agreed to give me her address and let me crash overnight at their place.
Using my last handful of currency to hail a short cab ride (I’m normally a walker but once again, that weather) I made it to their place where I met, for the first time, Britta’s husband Tom. A guy about a decade older than me who I was happy to find shared some interests with myself about medieval history and Middle Eastern/Central Asian stuff in particular. We all got along well and they even covered some of my food costs since I had no money on me. I promised I would pay them back soon. I charged my phone at their place and slept on their couch.
The next day the bridge was open again, I was able to redeem my partially cancelled tickets and finish the train ride to coastal Fife, lucky to have been able to get through all of that without having to weather the experience on the street.
Fast forward about a month and a half.
Something one needs to know. St Andrews has one of the top Syria Studies programs in the world. Also, the Arab Spring had just begun and was gradually starting to mutate (already in Libya and just starting in Syria) into civil wars for some countries. Syria was big in the news for the first time since the Yom Kippur War for normies. While I was not part of the Syrian studies center or anything like that, Britta was, as well as a friend of mine whose book I previously reviewed on here before. So when the world media was taken by stories about the kidnapping by state security forces of the mildly famous author behind the blog ‘A Gay Girl in Damascus’, I turned to some people I knew for some local updates. My friend Francesco told me that the Electronic Intifada had looked into this blog and suspected it was a hoax, so I went back to ignoring the story save as a cautionary tale about how easily led along the media can be by potboiler stories. Something that would become enormously clear yet again in another part of the world about a year later.
Anyway, a few days after this rise of the blogger Amina Arraf to international headlines, the other shoe dropped. The Guardian had exposed the whole thing as a charade. An American man living in Edinburgh was Amina Arraf. Certain details, like if his wife knew or what purpose, salacious or ideological or both, this blog was meant to serve, were up to question. I was texted the news by friends that morning and I thought they were joking about who it really was, considering that they might be alluding to the fact that the blogger fit the demographic of a guy we knew about in Edinburgh. But upon reaching the office I saw the interview with the news on streaming video and….yup, that was him.
Needless to say that because this was us and not most people once about 5 minutes of shock had faded we naturally and pretty much immediately came to find it incredibly fucking funny. It must have been terrible for the women ‘Amina’ was cyber-romancing, of course, but for us it was the capstone event of what had already been a wild and wacky year.
Both Tom and Britta disappeared after that. I heard Edinburgh University kept him on so he could finish his dissertation, but on the down-low. Britta, despite not being the blogger, just ghosted St Andrews and I have no idea whatever happened to either of them. Needless to say, I still owe them a couple GBP.
Obviously, I didn’t make this post to rag on them as they were perfectly nice to me. But 10 years after this event and we really do live in “Amina’s” world to some degree. People have taken to adopting oppressed identities that often do not belong to them in order to live some kind of vicariously interesting life. Much more importantly, Syria became a magnet for attracting strange North Atlantic pathologies. It would become the regime change cause-du-jour for a bizarre alliance of woke liberals, anarchists, neocons, and the like. A group I have taken to calling Anarcho-Neocons as a shorthand term. Hillary Clinton famously mentioned that regime change in Syria was her top priority in all three general election primary debates in the run up to 2016. Jihadists and European social justice missionaries stood side by side at rallies in Germany demanding that ‘we must do something.’ People whose connections to the country were either tenuous or nonexistent became intense advocates for knowing what is best for that land and how to bring it about. And, Turkey, the U.S., the Gulf States, and Israel, having failed to topple the government in Damascus ten years on now, have resorted to punishing and dangerous sanctions in order to cripple the country and prevent its rebuilding. And considering the enormous amount of foreign recruits and support masquerading as grassroots revolutionaries in Idlib Province today and through the ‘moderate rebel’ movement in general this past decade, I can really think of no more perfectly symbolic figure for the whole tragic farce than Amina.
And after all, she was arguably the first victim in a long line of those who fell to the ‘Assad Must Go’ curse.