Lessons in how not to be a serious journalist in Syria

Back in 2011, an article by Joan Juliet Buck in Vogue appeared that profiled the Assads in Syria. I covered it back then. It was a puff piece, sycophancy due to access. The piece was shunned, wiped from the Vogue website but never forgotten.

Now the writer is back, explaining herself in a strange piece in Newsweek. It’s written in terrible Orientalist style, all about the allegedly dangerous Arab. She clearly has no clue, then or now. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, for us all, but seriously, writing that Syria sounds like syringe or hiss? Though it’s hard not to feel a little sorry for her, nobody could have expected the exact events in Syria today:

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.

Both Assads were in jeans and sweaters. Bashar turned out to have a neck so long that he looked like something you might glimpse breaking the water in a Scottish loch. He spoke with a slight lisp. He showed me his cameras, described the wide variety of lenses now available, and showed me framed photos he’d taken on family holidays in Qatar. He didn’t strike me as much of a monster.

And he wanted to talk. I thrust the recorder at him and asked the most innocuous question I could think of.

Why had he wanted to become an eye doctor?

“Because it’s never an emergency,” he said. “It’s very precise, and there is very little blood.”

Never an emergency. Very little blood.

He wanted to talk about computers. “When we met, I was Mac and she was PC!” he said.

Their daughter, Zein, a 7-year-old with curly hair, watched Alice in Wonderland on her father’s iMac. Asma’s iMac faced a side window.

The entire back half of the apartment was glass, rising from the lower level through the main reception floor above, and perhaps even farther up. Other residential buildings with hundreds of windows had an unobstructed view of the Assads’ doings. The apartment was like a custom-built habitat in which a rich first family could go about its domestic life in front of a large audience.

I wondered how this meshed with the secrecy Asma seemed to prize. I wondered who lived behind all those windows out there, and who they worked for.

Nosy neighbors, Asma said, had commented on their orange seating area.“This curiosity is good,” said the president. “Even if you want to be secure, you have to choose between being secure and being … psychotic.”

The kitchen, at the opposite end from the windows, was the only place that wasn’t exposed to public view.

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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