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That thorny rose in the desert   

Arab News - 29 April, 2012
Author: Fawaz Turki

Rejoice, all ye! As is well-known by now, the EU countries have banned Bashar Assad’s wife, Asma, a notorious shopaholic, from buying luxury goods in Europe. No more expensive Dior watches, Armani shoes, Guchi bags, Cartier rings and Prada dresses for the Syrian first lady.

True, a catastrophe for the poor dear — according to leaked e-mails recently, she reportedly shopped till she dropped even while the bloodbath in Homs was under way, ordering jewelry, chandeliers and designer clothing online from boutiques in Paris and London — though hardly a threat to her husband’s vicious dictatorship. But hey, as the songwriter’s lyrics would have it, little things mean a lot. Well, kinda.

Now enter Vogue.

Large circulation magazines in the US have always had a penchant for puffing up first ladies from our part of the world who “look” European (as opposed to dowdy-Semitic and brown-skinned), who project European chic and who know how attire themselves in European high couture. Anwar Sadat’s wife Jihan, Yasser Arafat’s wife Suha and now Bashar Assad’s wife Asma come to mind.

Consider the case then of how one such publication, Vogue, has recently not just gone overboard fawning over the Syrian first lady, but how its editors have made utter fools of themselves in the bargain. Now before you dismiss Vogue as a lowbrow magazine with less than exacting intellectual standards, you would do well to keep in mind that it is the world’s most influential fashion publication, issued monthly in 19 national editions and read roughly by 650,000 people who see it as the ultimate arbiter of political discourse gleaned through the prism of fashion. Its editorial articles and profiles are perused avidly by the country’s powerful industry elite. Just as, say, the New York Times could make or break a producer’s Broadway show, so could Vogue make or break a designer’s budding career.

Vogue is now the laughing stock of media watchdogs — those analysts on the lookout for transgressions by fellow journalists — over its infantile, over the top, tin-eared profile of Asma Assad as a true democrat who loves her people, well, to death. Dubbed “The Rose in the Desert,” the 3,200-word article, written by Joan Juliet Buck, a staff contributor, talks of Asma’s “energetic grace” and “analytic mind.” It describes the Assads as “wildly democratic,” a progressive couple who embrace all things American and passionately care for the welfare of their people.

Buck’s profile, which went to press as the Assad regime began its despotic crackdown on the opposition, proffers the revelation that “Mrs. Assad’s central mission is to change the mindset of six million Syrians under eighteen and encourage them to engage in what she calls ‘active citizenship’.” Nary a word in the entire piece about the Assad family’s history of repression over the last 42 years, and how Asma has emerged, through her personal excesses and cavalier pretenses, as the Imelda Marcos, perhaps even the Marie Antoinette, of the Arab Spring.

All of which of course has drawn widespread ridicule from watchdogs watching over transgressive blunders in their craft and from Washington’s foreign policy community. The end result? Vogue has done something virtually unheard of for a mainstream media organization to do — it scrubbed the article from its website, an act tantamount to acknowledgment by a publication that it has committed a colossal journalistic booboo. (The article, which has vanished from the Internet, is now available on the subscribers-only Nexus database and on PresidentAssad.net, a fan site of the Syrian government.)

There is no need to dredge up here the equally fawning profile of the blonde-haired, blue-eyed, designer-attired Suha Arafat that appeared in the New Yorker in May, 1994, where the Palestinian first lady was described as a feminist, a refined, cultured young woman ardently dedicated to the interests of the Palestinian people. Never mind that Suha Arafat had chosen to give birth to her baby in Paris, not Gaza, where her husband was based at the time, because, as she was quoted saying, “there are too many germs” in the Strip. And never mind that the 4,000-word piece appeared in the New Yorker, the bastion of New York intellectual sophistication and style, the outpost of literary hip and political savvy.

So be dismissive, as this column is, of the puerile grasp that both the mainstream and elite media in the US has on the complex issues bedeviling Arab culture, politics and society. But be kind in your dismissal, for even professional journalists in the US have the tendency, if only subconsciously, to extrapolate from their own cultural experience. When you deal with the first lady in Damascus, Cairo or Ramallah, you accord her the same gifts of pomp and mystification, the same clichés and saccharine pathos, you attribute to the first lady in Washington.

And yet. Yet, the moment of drastic truth will one day arrive for Syria, as the country’s remaining cash reserves quickly dwindle, followed by a steady hollowing out of the economy in the face of sanctions and trade embargoes. A financial noose is tightening around the government’s neck. According to US intelligence officials and outside experts, quoted in the Washington Post recently, “Assad’s reserves and sizable black market income are probably sufficient to keep the regime’s elite in power for several months — perhaps longer.”

Then what? The Syrian people will still be around (in street lingo, we ain’t going nowhere), but will the 42-year-long reign of the Assad family? What will be their fate? And how will the 35-year-old Asma Assad, Syria’s Marie Antoinette, hack it without designer clothing and other Western baubles? Will she, when that drastic moment of truth arrives, as it surely must, be taken to task by her people?

Marie Antoinette was 37 on Oct. 16, 1793, when she was taken from her cell in the Conciergerie, the 14th century fortress on the Ile de la Cite in Paris, and paraded in an open oxcart on her way to the guillotine in the Place de la Revolution. Her beheading was preceded by a drum-roll.

In our culture, it is widely believed that for every oppressor, a day will come.

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