Arraf, Daskal, Katz: unmasking the logic of web disguises

Arraf, Daskal, Katz: unmasking the logic of web disguises
"The Great War" by René Magritte.

The search for the true identity of Amina Arraf, the Damascus blogger who captured thousands worldwide with her courageous writing, brought back a memory.

Arraf, author of the inspiring blog “A Gay Girl in Damascus” was reportedly abducted on Monday by Syrian security forces. The story of her arrest, published on her own blog by someone said to be her cousin, stirred the world and major news sources soon attempted to report on it. They found themselves short of sources. No one has ever met Arraf, and the photos published on the blog are reputedly those of a London woman with no relation to Syria.

The story I am about to tell is nothing to compare with the intensity and implications of Arraf’s story. It involves no violent revolution, no standing up to tyranny, and only a gag vaguely resembling an abduction. It too, however, is an awkward tale of a made up net-identity and the search for the person behind it.

In October of 2007 Tze’ela Katz was one of Hebrew poetry’s greatest promises. To proponents of the offbeat group of artists known as the Ma’ayan group, she was the greatest. Katz’s poetry, which opened the second issue of Ma’ayan’s celebrated poetry review, became strongly recognized with the group and an emblem of young Israeli literature.

Katz was an active creative personality. She published a great number of poems, corresponded with other poets, was active on online forums, and appeared at events, reading aloud such hits as her masterful poem “Superpharm.” On her Ma’ayan profile, Tze’ela was described thus: “Born 1976, makes love in Hebrew.”

Then, suddenly, she passed away. News of her death was published on the blog of Ma’ayan’s editor, Roy “Chicky” Arad. While eulogizing Katz to some extent, Arad seemed strangely nonchalant about the passing of his greatest collaborator. He preceded the obituary with a love poem written for another girl, and made no mention of how Katz died or where a funeral was too take place. Soon the rumor spread that she never was born.

Little by little, the very obvious truth dawned on Tel-Aviv’s literary scene. The person who appeared as Katz at poetry events was an imposter. She did wear a wig and huge shades, which, in the hipster clime of the late Aughties didn’t seem all that strange. Arad himself was instantly metioned as a likely suspect. Did he compose the poems? He denied it, saying that they were sent to him by email.

I myself wasn’t quite sure what to believe, but, being a fan of the poet and a friend of Arad and ohter figures involved, found myself truly curious. At the time I provided several freelance pieces to the Tel-Aviv edition of TimeOut. I promised my editor that I would bring back the real Tze’ela Katz within a week.

It was a strange week. On Sunday I underwent surgery on my throat that rendered me mute for several days. My thought was that since Tze’ela was an internet entity, her true identity could be uncovered by an online research. On returning from the hospital, I began to ask around via email, approaching people that I assumed held part of the information.

Soon a stranger appeared and pulled me away from my desk and out of the safe realm of cyberspace. His name was Aaron Daskal, and he claimed to be an ex-lover of Tze’ela’s. Several score emails and mind games later, Daskal invited me to an evening in Tze’ela’s memory. A car was to pick me at a Tel-Aviv street corner and take me to where the event was held.

I went to the chosen meeting spot and was picked up by two very non-artsy suburban types whom I had never met before. They drove me out of the city, to the sleepy suburb of Nes Tziona. There, in the basement of a cookie cutter suburban home, an event in Tze’ela’s memory was indeed held. Refreshments were served, her poems were read, and all seemed to have a great laugh at the expense of the poor mute reporter, the only person present who wasn’t in the know.

This was only the beginning of the story. Cracking the mystery demanded dealing with the elusive Daskal and his strange sense of humor, as well as calming down the editors at TimeOut, who feared that an actual death was involved. In the wee hours of the night, when my nervous system, still hurt by the full anesthesia, seemed unable to cope with all of this, I appealed to friends to help mediate between the late Tze’ela and I and calm her down. She seemed panicked over the thought that I would uncover her and willing to go to lengths to stay in hiding.

In the end I deduced, correctly, that Tze’ela was dreamed up by one or more individual who was in one way or another a high-tech professional. I also decided that the main figure behind the project was probably a man.

It indeed was a man – talented programmer and poet Eran Hadas, who is today both a dear friend of mine and a respected artist and poet under his real name. As you might have guessed, He also played the role of Daskal.

Hadas was misled, due to a rumor, to believe that my intensions as a journalist were “yellow” and that I was intent on harming his reputation. By being boundless and outspoken, the mask named Tze’elah won herself enemies in the literary community. Hadas prefered to switch masks and have Daskal help cover up Tze’ela rather than face public ridicule, anger or defamation. Besides, taking joy in gender-bending is not exactly frowned upon in liberal Israeli society, but could still turn you into the butt of some very mean jokes.

I’m somehow led to believe that there’s a gender-bending factor in the Arraf story. For a gay guy in damascus, simply switching one’s gender on a blog offers far greater liberty of expression. Gender is the perfect shield, but it can easily turn into a sword poised against one’s own heart.

If the person behind Arraf’s identity is indeed a man, the risk of “coming out” in Damascus is huge for him. Now that his online identity has drawn so much attention, too much attention, it would make better sense to feign an abduction and disappear than to be outed and face the public.

This is my secret hope: that whoever is responsible for this blog is safe and sound, and has simply put together the final text (written by a “cousin” of Arraf, who also doesn’t seem to exist) as a way of staying safe. I pray that everything written on this blog was true, except the word “girl” and that last, scary post. Finally, if it makes things easier for “Amina”, I pray that we will never find out who she was.