Syria In Vogue But On The Outer
As the Kofi Annan plan peters out and the shelling of places like Hama and Homs resumes, the international focus on Syria is now focused momentarily on a sideshow, the mysterious disappearance from the Vogue website of a profile on Asma al-Assad first published in March 2011. (http://www.theage.com.au/world/vogue-deletes-glamour-story-on-assads-wife-20120426-1xo1i.html ). However, some of that original piece still remains available via a Syrian website. (http://www.presidentassad.net/ASMA_AL_ASSAD/Asma_Al_Assad_News_2011/Asma_Assad_Vogue_February_2011.htm ).
The received and popular version of this story now goes something like this. The piece appeared in Vogue just at the time when the Syrian troubles were beginning to assume ominous lines. Asma al-Assad was portrayed as a glamorous and smart woman intent on doing good things for her country, yet at the same time it was obvious that her husband, Bashar al-Assad was beginning to crack down on the citizenry in ways reminiscent of his father, Hafez al-Assad. Of course, this version goes, the piece was ill-conceived and should never have appeared, so the Vogue management has been sensible to remove it from public gaze. Opprobrium distributed all around, consciences salved, mainstream political views satisfied.
Now, at the outset, let us be clear that what follows here is not a defence of the Assad family or what has occurred in Syria over the past year or so. I still have friends from my time there. At least one of them has had shelling occur in the hometown, the others have all had their lives disrupted dramatically and with no end in sight. It is appalling to watch this drag on day after day, to see people killed and maimed in steadily increasing numbers, towns and villages destroyed, community turn against community.
Against that backdrop, the Vogue story looks puny. What this little frisson does, however, is to highlight one of the enduring problems about analyzing the Syrian condition because, for the most part, we have had journalists interviewing and sometimes later turning on other journalists. In part this was because of the difficulties of getting into Syria (which later cost the wonderful Anthony Shadid his life), and partly it was because, frankly, many of those providing the coverage had clearly read little and perhaps even thought less. From the outset a highly complex social structure and political condition were regarded as simply being the latest domino in the “Arab Spring” set to fall, and for a long time it was reported that way. The current attacks on the Vogue piece are part of this, and problematic in two main ways.
First, the piece is now viewed through a lens filled with images of the last twelve months. That is to say, much has been read back into the article on the basis of what has transpired since, rather than the piece being treated in the context in which it first appeared. That context was not about Syrian politics or the Arab Spring. The writer was Joan Juliet Buck who grew up in Europe where her film producer father shifted his family in protest at the Joe McCarthy anti-communist hearings. She went into the fashion world as a writer and editor to create a stellar career: editor of British Vogue at 23, then fashion correspondent posts in Europe and then, later, boss of French Vogue. While Buck had some broader journalism experiences she was and remains firmly in the fashion mainstream, so to now refer to her in this present context as a “journalist”, with all the attendant connotations, is a bit of a stretch, most especially so in Middle East let alone Syrian terms.
As Buck explained to Melissa Block in an interview on National Public Radio a couple of weeks ago, Vogue had been trying to get a profile on Asma al-Assad for quite some time because she was a first lady with a “combination of power and beauty and eloquence”. (http://www.npr.org/2012/04/20/151058724/a-look-into-the-world-of-syrias-first-lady ) This was in response to Block’s opening gambit about the article “putting a really shiny gloss on a very unsavoury regime”.
Hold the press. The article was developed then appeared during a period when the United States had reinstated its Embassy in Damascus on the grounds that Syria, under Bashar al-Assad, was showing clear signs of wanting to return to the global mainstream by way of a more market-oriented economy and more political interaction. French President Sarkozy and other Western leaders were taking the same view. The disturbances in Syria were in their infancy, and few if any noted international analysts of Syria and the region really thought that the situation there would develop to what it has become a year later. Block was definitely commenting ex post facto.
Joan Juliet Buck, then, wrote an article on a beautiful, well-dressed woman who happened to be the first lady of Syria and involved in some social service activities. One version here, too, has it that the story was engineered by the Assad family through a well-paid American public relations firm, and that Buck was essentially a shill. (http://jezebel.com/joan-juliet-buck-syria/ ). Be that as it may, and despite even more 2020 hindsight now appearing, the article was predominantly about Asma’s clothes and spectacular items like the Christian Louboutin shoes she was wearing. That latter item is a wonderful weapon in attack journalism – in the uptown stores in New York a cheap pair will go for around $US600 while most are over $1,000 heading towards $2,000. (http://www.nextag.com/christian-louboutin/shop-html ) By definition, any stylish wife of an identified dictator must be wearing these off the back of an oppressed people. Never mind the fact that Asma al-Assad herself made a lot of money as an investment banker before her marriage and was of independent means. Guilt by association, in other words.
The second problematic is an extension of the first, really, in that the Syrian regime must be vilified in whatever way possible, so as to serve a mainstream view that has emanated consistently from the White House and especially the State Department. One current international version of this is Alain Juppe threatening to demand international intervention in Syria if the Annan effort fails. (http://www.theage.com.au/world/french-ultimatum-on-syria-violence-20120426-1xnyb.html ). This is wonderfully ironic, given France’s dubious record internationally. It can only be imagined that this might have as much if not more to do with the looming French Presidential runoff than with the fate of Syrian citizens. That “group think” is powerful, though.
Towards the end of her interview with Block, Joan Juliet Buck said that “I don’t think I should have gone near the Assads”, and that it was “horrifying to have been near people like that”. She described Asma al-Assad as speaking “like a banker with a degree in computer science”, with that being derogatory rather than complimentary, and implied that Asma had no real interest in the Syrian people. Some of this repeats, it should be said, the views given by now anti-Syria hardliner Andrew Tabler on his dealings with Asma and the Assads ((http://www.amazon.com/In-Lions-Den-Eyewitness-Washingtons/dp/1569768439 ). Well, Buck’s original piece certainly reflected none of that, so either she was then being completely hypocritical when she wrote it (and that is entirely possible, of course) or that she is now recasting things on the basis of the current condition. Either way it is not an entirely satisfactory “look”, as they say.
The central issue here, yet again, is that the real Syrian story is being swamped by the desired one. The mainstream media wants villains, Asma al-Assad is now a convenient one and the Vogue piece allows a neat and rapid reversion to the earlier leaks of the private e-mails allegedly attributed to Asma that supposedly reveal her spending thousands on jewellery and clothes while her husband orders in the tanks on the latest raids. The word “unverified”, used conveniently elsewhere, has not often been spied in this dimension.
Asma al-Assad has conveniently become “the Marie Antoinette of the Arab Spring”. It is going to be hard to find the truth under that, or any of the other “revelations” that come along.