Just as the Arab Spring was taking off in February 2011, a month before the uprising began in Syria, Vogue magazine did a profile on Syria’s first lady.
The profile put forth an almost angelic depiction of Asma al Assad and her family, and oozed with Orientalist depictions of the country. The journalist who wrote the story, Joan Juliet Buck and Vogue came under fire almost immediately after its publication just as the Syrian uprising began, and it became clear just how far the Assad family was willing to go to keep power.
Now that nearly three years have passed since that Vogue profile, let's see just how out of touch Vogue really was.
In the original profile, Buck stated: "Syria is known as the safest country in the Middle East, possibly because, as the State Department’s Web site says, 'the Syrian government conducts intense physical and electronic surveillance of both Syrian citizens and foreign visitors.'"
I never knew that “intense” surveillance was an indicator of safety, but sure let’s say it is.
Considering about one-tenth of the population since 2011 has fled the country and that over 100,000 people are believed to be dead from the war, I think it lost the safest country title. Interesting that Buck also didn’t consider how many disappearances were happening under Assad regime, and she also seemed to not know about the thousands of Syrians that were killed under the previous leader, and Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad within a mere few weeks during the Hama massacre of 1982. I guess it didn’t occur to Buck that such surveillance is a sign of a heavily autocratic police state.
"The household is run on wildly democratic principles. 'We all vote on what we want, and where,' she says. The chandelier over the dining table is made of cut-up comic books. 'They outvoted us three to two on that.'"
The Assads do indeed “run on wildly democratic principles.” We can see photos the family carefully listening to their citizen’s concerns, and actively engaging with them. Note, their citizens, ie. their supporters. This map shows exactly where they retain control in Syria, and where the regime's army has been carrying out their attacks. For the entirety of their rule, the Assads have continually suppressed any group or faction that has questioned or rebelled against them.
It seems like Buck was doing her research purely from the Assads' propaganda, if she had infact done any research. But I digress.
They are shown actively engaging with Syrian citizens. On their Instagram account, not one photo of the horrific violence we’ve seen over the last two years is posted. Instead, they are photographed on what appear to be humanitarian missions, as if the war was over and they are paving the road to recover. They continue to have the support of a considerable number of Syrians, who may believe that he is leading the fight against terrorism in their country. Wildly democratic? Probably not.
"It’s a secular country where women earn as much as men and the Muslim veil is forbidden in universities, a place without bombings, unrest, or kidnappings, but its shadow zones are deep and dark."
Sure the country may still be secular (if laws are still being enforced, that is), but to give you an idea of how everyday life is, areas in Syria that are not under Assad’s control are under constant threat of bombings. Most recently at a school, napalm was dropped by a jet believed to be from Assad’s army. Despite constant threat, many Syrians are looking to live normal lives. At any time however, the sound of explosions, or fly debris from a nearby explosion, has become part of their daily routine.
A place without unrest or kidnappings. Since lawlessness has overtaken the country in the last two years, kidnappings have skyrocketed. Among those kidnapped were many notable Christian clergymen. Because the economy has gotten so bad there have been several reported kidnappings for money. Many of these kidnappings are believed to be from members of the opposition.
The Assad regime itself is also responsible for several abductions. Jane Mayer in her book, The Dark Side, cites Syria’s prisons as one of the most horrific, in which those who would so much as arouse suspicion of the regime, would be taken to be tortured. She also cites the CIA sent several terror suspects of their own to be interrogated in Syria’s prisons, one particular prison they used was nicknamed: “The Grave.”
A place without bombings. We all know how that changed in the last two years.
Those shadow zones certainly still exist though. Though I’m pretty sure Syrians may argue the “shadow zones” they see are much darker now.
“For us it’s about the accumulation of cultures, traditions, values, customs. It’s the difference between hardware and software: the artifacts are the hardware, but the software makes all the difference — the customs and the spirit of openness. We have to make sure that we don’t lose that ....” – Asma al-Assad in Vogue
It’s hard to find anyone who wouldn’t agree that Syria’s cultural heritage is a rich one and that great lengths need to be taken to preserve it. As grandiose as Asma’s words were two years ago, we are now seeing so much of Syria’s monuments destroyed. UNESCO sites in Syria are either damaged or destroyed. The most significant ones that have been destroyed are Aleppo’s historic souk, which was once the world’s largest active historic markets, teeming with people and shops, now just a pile of rubbles. The “Dead Cities,” which are archeological villages of northern Syria that date back to the first century were also reduced to rubble. So far there have been dozens more sites that have been either significantly damaged or destroyed.
Nonetheless, the Assads’ continue on their delusional humanitarian effort campaign while thousands of their countrymen continue to suffer immensely over the violence they caused.