Podcast News

How a blogger's disappearance served as an early wake-up call for the internet era

A new podcast sheds light on what happened to a blogger who mysteriously vanished during Arab Spring how it marked a profound change for the internet era.

The new podcast Gay Girl Gone tells the story behind the infamous 2011 blog, Gay Girl in Damascus

Samira Mohyeddin smiles to camera. She is wearing a white shirt and black suit and has short cropped black hair. To the left of her is a logo for the podcast Gay Girl Gone. It's purple and pink with yellow writing. There is an image of two hands typing on a keyboard. The square logo is edged with Syrian tile imagery in all four corners.
Samira Mohyeddin, left, is the host of a new podcast called Gay Girl Gone about a blogger who went missing during the 2011 Arab Spring. (Artwork by Natalie Vineberg)

Amina Arraf was many things to many people. The Guardian called her the "unlikely hero of revolt in a conservative country." Sandra, her long-distance lover in Montreal, called her "girlfriend." Amina described herself as "the ultimate outsider."

Amina ended up being none of those things — but the unraveling of her online identity, and the terrible toll it took on real people in the real world are explored in a new CBC podcast, Gay Girl Gone, hosted by journalist Samira Mohyeddin. 

Amina was the titular Gay Girl in Damascus, a blog published in 2011 during the Arab Spring and the start of the Syrian conflict. In it, she documented her life as an out lesbian in a country where homosexuality was punishable by law, as well as the stirrings of revolt in Syria: ordinary citizens  were starting to protest the authoritarian regime of President Bashar al-Asad, only to be met with brutal violence.

Amina's unique voice quickly garnered loyal readers and global attention, boosted by the aforementioned Guardian profile. 

To Mohyeddin, sitting in her Toronto apartment back in 2011, Amina was a shining light who swiftly turned into a cautionary tale. 

Because when a post appeared on the blog, saying Amina had disappeared, her dedicated followers sprung into action and found out much more than they bargained for.

Below is a conversation with Mohyeddin about the series.

What is your personal connection to the Gay Girl in Damascus? 

GGID was a blog that I was reading back in 2011. Remember blogs? Anyway, I loved it. She was touching on things that were important to me. LGBTQ rights, Middle Eastern history and politics. She was a Syrian Lesbian who was out, and back in Damascus doing everything I wanted to – fighting against authoritarian regimes. I was also heavily into the blogging world myself. I had a blog and it was an excellent place to connect with other people and read other peoples work and ideas from around the world.

Can you set up the time period a little bit — what was it like blogging in 2011? (Or, for people too young to remember, what was the internet like in 2011?)

2011 was still a time of hope really for the internet. Social media was still young at this point and there was this utopian feeling that everyone had a voice and could tell their story to the world.It felt like online spaces were more democratised than ever (now it feels like they're run by tech bro billionaires and a deepfake rot has set in.) It was also the year the Arab Spring kicked off and so you were seeing all these decades-old dictatorial regimes just falling like dominoes. Anything seemed possible and it was all playing out on social media. 

A screenshot of the blog post on Gay Girl in Damascus that detailed Amina's disappearance. It reads: Update on Amina. 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 desparately trying to find out where she is and who has taken her. Unfortunately, there are at least 18 different police formations in Syria as 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. From other family members who have been imprisoned there, we believe that she is likely to be released fairly soon. If they wanted to kill her, they would have done so. That is what we are praying for. I will post updates as soon as I have them. Posted by Rania at 22:48.
A screenshot of the blog post on Gay Girl in Damascus that detailed Amina's disappearance. (Gay Girl in Damascus)

How did you feel when you found out the truth about Amina? 

I was, like many other people, gutted. Just gutted. We were really heartbroken as Queer people and as Queer Middle Eastern people. I remember finding out and then never, ever even looking back. I was so pissed off and really felt betrayed.

Have your feelings about the incident since changed? How?

They've changed quite a bit because I came to understand why Amina was so appealing to so many — and to whom and why. Being able to theorize about it really helped me not to beat myself up over it or feel like I got sucked into something because of naiveté. It was much more than that.

Listen to an interview with Samira on The Current with Matt Galloway:

Samira Mohyeddin sits in studio with Matt Galloway.
Samira Mohyeddin, host of Gay Girl Gone, speaks with Matt Galloway, on CBC's The Current. (Submitted by Samira Mohyeddin)
Amid the Arab Spring a decade ago, Amina Arraf was an openly gay blogger sharing news about life in Syria — a place where homosexuality is illegal. But when she disappeared, questions arose about whether Arraf was really who she said she was. Samira Mohyeddin explores that story in the new CBC podcast, Gay Girl Gone.

Why was it important for you to tell this story? In terms of the process, did you get pushback or encouragement from people involved in the story?

Many people don't and didn't want us to tell this story because they felt we were centring a person who was already sucking all of the oxygen in the room … and they are right in a sense. But we felt it was really important to shine a light on this incident because it can happen again and it has in different ways. It also points to the nefarious ways in which people can be influenced and manipulated for political and cultural gain. 

Sandra wears a bright yellow shirt and sunglasses and hugs Samira (to her right), who wears a blue t-shirt.
Samira (right) stands with Sandra, Amina's girlfriend (left) in Barcelona, Spain. (Submitted by Samira Mohyeddin)

What lessons does Gay Girl Gone hold for us today?

I wish I could say none but really it's too many. I'm not sure how much I want to give away here but the biggest take-away for me has been to try to understand why some voices get lifted up, while others get drowned out. And I think with the proliferation of mis- and disinformation and the advent of AI, it has become increasingly difficult to trust what we see and hear.

That is very, very dangerous because as Hannah Arendt said, the danger in always being lied to, is not that you believe the lie, but that you end up not believing anything and with a population like that  (people who don't believe what they see or read), you can do anything.