On February 25, 2011, when the Arab Spring was shaking the Middle East, had toppled Mubarak, Ben-Ali and Ghadafi and begun to tickle the nose of Syrian President Bashar Assad, American fashion magazine Vogue published an profile of Asma Assad on its website. The headline crowned the Syrian first lady as "Rose of the Desert," and referred to the couple as modern, family-oriented and democratic. At the same time, the Assad regime had begun operations against Syrian citizens including children. It wasn't long before reports of massacres began to surface.
Vogue and the writer, Joan Juliet Buck, were heavily criticized for publishing an image-improving article at such a crucial time, which whitewashed reports of the regimes' crimes with talk of fashion and archeology. After a few weeks, the magazine's senior staffers, who originally had stood behind the article, had it removed from the Vogue website. At the year's end, the magazine did not renew the contract of Buck, who had been on its staff for many years.
Now Buck has told Newsweek the story behind the article which cost her job and her reputation. She blames the Assads, the Vogue editors and especially Brown Lloyd James, the public relations firm that received $5,000 a month to polish the Assads' image around the world. And also public opinion, whose warm image of Syria deteriorated in the months between the start of work on the article and its publication.
"I met the devil and his wife, with full fashion-magazine access to their improbable fishbowl apartment where they lived out their daily lives on display to the eyes of thousands, like a Middle-Eastern version of The Truman Show. They showed off their fantasy lives for me," Buck says.
Buck's attempts to clarify the situation in Syria, in December 2010, during the short time Vogue gave her for preparation, produced only fragments of information.
In 2010 Syria’s status oscillated between untrustworthy rogue state and new cool place. A long 2008 piece on Damascus in the British Condé Nast Traveller described its increasing hipness. It was the Soviet Union with hummus and water pipes. In the world view 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, Buck wrote.
"It was an assignment. I was curious. That’s why I’d become a writer. Vogue wanted a description of the good-looking first lady of a questionable country; I wanted to see the cradle of civilization. Syria gave off a toxic aura. But what was the worst that could happen? I would write a piece for Vogue that missed the deeper truth about its subject. I had learned long ago that the only person I could ever be truthful about was myself," wrote Buck.
"I didn't know I was going to meet a murderer," Buck said of her encounters with Asma's husband. "There was no way of knowing that Assad, the meek ophthalmologist and computer-loving nerd, would kill more of his own people than his father had and torture tens of thousands more, many of them
From the beginning, Buck knew that a PR firm was involved.The Vogue editor who commissioned the article told her so in their first conversation, and from her description it appears that papering by PR firms and their clients was part of her job description. But from the Newsweek article it appears that the PR firm laid it on thick with Mike Holtzman, one of the firm's partners, telling employee Sheherazade Ja’afari, to show Buck "100 percent positive things." Ja'afari turned out to be the daughter of the Syrian ambassador to the UN. Buck relates that Ja'afari dissuaded her from speaking to the French ambassador to Syria, who she had encountered during her visit to the country.
On another occasion, when Holtzman and Ja'afari took her to the Umayyad Mosque, Buck said she felt uneasy." Mustached men stood in our path, wearing shoes from the 1980s and curiously ill-fitting leather jackets over thick sweaters." Most of the time, Buck said, was spent in the company of the first couple in their private residence, preparing fondue for a visiting American journalist, like something out of a Middle Eastern fairytale. He had become an opthamologist, Assad explained, because there were never medical emergencies, and because "there is very little blood."
During their first meeting Asma Assad was "informal and cheery. A good-looking woman of 35, she wore a pale blue jacket and dark trousers. Her curly chin-length hair was sprayed into place, her eyebrows delineated in the Syrian manner. She was as brisk as a prefect, as on-message as a banker, as friendly as a new acquaintance at a friend’s cocktail party."
Buck added: "She was on show, and delivered a well-rounded and glossy presentation of a cozy, modern, relaxed version of herself, her family, and her country to an American fashion magazine. With a London accent."
After the visit, Buck returned to New York. And on December 21, 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi, who set himself on fire in protest against the Tunisian regime, died. Buck says that she watched al-Jazeera as she transcribed parts of her interviews with the Assads, and turned in the article on February 14, the day President Ben-Ali fled Tunisia. Noting that the Arab Spring was starting, Buck says she suggested delaying publication of the article, but the Vogue editors thought the movement for change was headed nowhere.
But the Arab Spring caught on in January and February. Egypt's Mubarak was forced out, Buck sought a meeting with the Vogue director to discuss how the Assad article should be handled. The meeting was held, but without Buck, who was asked not to speak to the press. (Buck says she honored that request till her contract ran out, and she was no longer obligated as a Vogue employee). The Assad article was published on February 25, as demonstrators in Libya sought to bring an end to the Gadhafi regime. The article was headlined "Rose of the Desert."
"I as attacked as soon as it went up. How dare I write about Asma Assad? By describing Syria’s first lady in Vogue, I had anointed her."
Syria stayed quiet until the middle of March, when a small incident set off the horrifying massacres that have now gone on for 17 months. In a town called Daraa at the end of February, 15 children broke the country’s silence, writing "topple the regime" on the walls of their school. Over the ensuing months stories of atrocities, particularly against children, surfaced in the West. Buck recalled what Asma Assad had told her about Syria's children and her hope for their future.
"Through 2011, I wondered about Asma Assad, the woman who cared so much about the youth of Syria. How could she not know what was happening? How could she stand by and do nothing while the Syrian regime ate its young?" she says, adding that she'll never know how much "the first lady of this Hell" was aware of what was going on in her country."
Anna Wintor, the Vogue editor, responded to Newsweek's article. "At the time," she said, "we were hopeful that the Assad regime would be open to a more progressive society. Subsequent to our interview, as the terrible events of the past year and a half unfolded in Syria, it became clear that its priorities and values were completely at odds with those of Vogue. The escalating atrocities in Syria are unconscionable and we deplore the actions of the Assad regime in the strongest possible terms."
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