Blush is off Syria’s ‘Rose of the Desert’
Zeina Awad is an Al Jazeera correspondent for the award-winning Fault Lines current affairs programme. She is currently based in Washington DC. She’s reported for news and current affairs from the Middle East, Africa, and the Americas. Follow her on Twitter.
“Asma al-Assad is glamorous, young, and very chic – the freshest and most magnetic of first ladies.”
These were the opening words of the now infamous Vogue magazine profile of Syria’s first lady which was published a little over a year ago.
Today, the freshest of first ladies is the target of a petition and a video started by the wives of two European ambassadors, demanding she use her political clout to stop her husband, President Bashar al-Assad, from killing his own people. It’s been signed by close to 20,000 people so far.
The closing lines of the petition, written in a form of a personal letter to Asma, state: “No one cares about your image. We care about your action. Right now.”
Yet “image” is exactly what the West has been fixated on ever since Asma married Assad in 2000.
What the 36-year-old ex-London investment banker looks like, what she wore, how British her accent is, and what private all-girls school she attended in the UK – in other words, her image – shaped how many came to see Asma.
And they saw themselves reflected in her image. In fact, before the Syrian uprising, Asma became one of “us” in the Western imagination, and many felt that her civilising influence on the president would surely set him straight.
The Vogue profile of her captures this perfectly. It came out just as Syrians began their revolution. Vogue dubbed Asma the “Rose of the Desert”, a rather curious nickname given the fact that that Syria is located at the heart of the Fertile Crescent, famous in for its water resources. (You can grow crops on 25 per cent of Syria’s soil, compared with and estimated 18 per cent in the US.)
Vogue spent time with the Assads, portraying them as the humble-yet-privileged Westernised family next door. According to the piece, Assad “was elected […] with a startling 97 per cent the vote”.
Family decisions are made democratically. Bashar takes pictures of his children. The kids go to Montessori school. Asma drives her own car and says she wants to use the skills she acquired in the corporate world to give modern Syria a “brand essence”.
The Atlantic Monthly magazine spoke to Vogue senior editor Chris Knutsen after Asma’s fall from grace. Knutsen defended the story, admitting only that Vogue’s portrayal made one error when assessing Syria: “It is not as secular as we might like”.
Knutsen’s mea culpais another inaccuracy that’s patently obvious to anyone who understands basic things about Syria. (Secularism is one of those most basic things about Assad’s Syria. In fact, the regime’s secularism is precisely why some still support it.)
Vogue was not alone in going through an extended Asma coup de foudre, or love at first sight. France’s Paris-Match magazine called the Syrian first lady the “Eastern Diana” and the US-based Huffington Post ran a photo gallery of her titled “Asma Al Assad: Syria’s First Lady and All-Natural Beauty”.
Her country got a bit of a makeover, too. The New York Times had Damascus in its Top 10 places to visit in 2010, a few notches below Argentina’s legendary wine country and one rank above Cesme, a stylish and beautiful Turkish seaside town on the Aegean sea that’s replaced Bodrum as the “it” resort for sophisticated global travelers.
During that whole coup de foudre, however, the Assad regime was still the Assad regime.
Syrians were still living under emergency laws that were put in place in 1963. Hafez al-Assad murdered 20,000 Syrians in 1982 when they rose up in Hama. Bashar’s regime clamped down on the Damascus Spring, the name given to the brief political opening that took place immediately after he took over power, arrested activists, tortured so-called terror suspects, and subjected his people to intense round-the-clock surveillance.
All of this happened before the Syrian revolution even began.
And Asma has always had a taste for luxury goods and the ability to spend an inordinate amount of money on Christian Louboutin shoes irrespective of the human rights situation at home.
But before the Syrian revolution, it was considered un-chic to bring any of this up outside of the context of her cutting edge, Western sense of style, which was seen as a reflection of how cutting edge and Western “like us” Asma herself is.
The French president put it succinctly. According to former French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner, Nicolas Sarkozy’s response to the suggestion that the Syrian president might be excessive in his use of force was “[W]ith a wife as modern as his, he can’t be completely bad”. Translation: with one of our own as part of the Assad regime, the regime can’t be that bad.
In the Western imagination, all that glitters on Asma must be gold. That was the thinking, until the Syrian revolution began.
Yet, Asma is still the same person, which is probably why she continues to shop online while the streets of Homs burn. It is the mission civilisatrice, or civilising mission, role that the West constructed for her that has fallen flat on its face.
Vogue has deleted the “Rose of the Desert” feature from its online archive and Asma is now on the list of Syrian government officials banned from a number of countries. Her assets are frozen, and her fate increasingly compared to that of France’s Marie Antoinette. The coup de foudre between the West and Asma al-Assad is now turning into a nasty divorce.
But cutting her off completely, erasing her from the Western narrative, is impossible. She is British-born, not naturalised.
She is British raised. She cannot be stripped of her passport or her personal history.
Asma belongs to the Western collective “us” and, like it or not, she will continue to belong even after the mission civilisatrice had failed.
As much as we in the West try to distance ourselves from her, she remains one of us.
Even if Syria’s first lady ignores the petition she’s been handed, and chooses not to use her Western, perhaps moral, advantage to reign in her husband’s excesses, she will still be one of us – in all her beauty and in all her ugliness.