Syria's Fake First Family
Buck, Joan Juliet, Newsweek
Byline: Joan Juliet Buck
My notorious Vogue interview with Mrs. Assad, the first lady of hell.
Late in the afternoon of Dec. 1, 2010, I got a call from a features editor at Vogue. She asked if I wanted to go to Syria to interview the first lady, Asma al-Assad.
"Absolutely not," I said. "I don't want to meet the Assads, and they don't want to meet a Jew."
The editor explained that the first lady was young, good-looking, and had never given an interview. Vogue had been trying to get to her for two years. Now she'd hired a PR firm, and they must have pushed her to agree.
"Send a political journalist," I said.
"We don't want any politics, none at all," said the editor, "and she only wants to talk about culture, antiquities, and museums. You like museums. You like culture. She wants to talk to you. You'd leave in a week."
A week: clearly my name was last on a list of writers that the first lady had rejected because they knew nothing about Mesopotamia. I didn't consider the possibility that the other writers had rejected the first lady.
"Let me think about it," I said. I had written four cover stories that year, three about young actresses and one about a supermodel who had just become a mother. This assignment was more exciting, and when else would I get to see the ruins of Palmyra?
I looked up Asma al-Assad. Born Asma Akhras in London in 1975 to a Syrian cardiologist, Fawaz Akhras, and his diplomat wife, Sahar Otri. Straightforward trajectory. School: Queen's College. University: King's College. Husband: president of Syria.
Syria. The name itself sounded sinister, like syringe, or hiss. My notions about the country were formed by the British Museum: the head of Gudea, king of Lagash, treasures from Ur, Mesopotamia, Sumer, Assyria, and Babylon--all of which had occupied what is now Syria. Both Aleppo and Damascus had been continuously inhabited for more than five millennia. This was where civilization was born, 6,000 years ago.
I knew the country's more recent past was grim, violent, and secretive. The dictator Hafez al-Assad took power in 1970 and, until his death in 2000, ran the country as cruelly and ruthlessly as his idol Stalin. He was an Alawite; he dealt with a Sunni Muslim Brotherhood uprising in Hama in 1982 by killing 20,000 of its men, women, and children.
Bashar al-Assad looked meek. He'd been studying ophthalmology in London in 1994 when his older brother, the heir to the presidency, died in a car accident. Bashar was brought home, put into a series of military uniforms, and groomed for power. At Hafez's death, a referendum asked whether the 34-year-old Bashar should become president. There was no other option. He "won." At first he was perceived as a reformer, but his only reforms were to do with banking.
Under Bashar al-Assad, Syria was still oppressed, but the silence and fear were such that little of the oppression showed, apart from vast numbers of secret police, called Mukhabarat.
Syria and Hizbullah were the suspects in the 2005 car-bomb murder of the former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri. Damascus was home base for Hizbullah and Hamas; Syria was close to Iran. But these alliances also made Syria a viable interlocutor for the West, even a potential conduit to peace in the Middle East. In December 2010, Obama had just named a new ambassador, the first since George W. Bush had broken off diplomatic relations in 2005.
In 2010 Syria's status oscillated between untrustworthy rogue state and new cool place. A long 2008 piece on Damascus in the British Conde Nast Traveller described its increasing hipness. It was the Soviet Union with hummus and water pipes. In the worldview of fashion magazines, Syria was a forbidden kingdom, full of silks, essences, palaces, and ruins, run by a modern president and an attractive, young first lady. Nancy Pelosi and John Kerry had visited, as well as Sting, Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt, Francis Coppola. …