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Syria in Vogue

April 26, 2011

“Her style is not the couture-and-bling dazzle of Middle Eastern power but a deliberate lack of adornment.”

This article has stirred a good deal of outrage among Cairo-based bloggers, who are closely watching the situation in Syria right now. The notion of the ‘Arab Spring’ has become slightly overwrought in recent months. But there is a strong sense of solidarity among those with the social media savvy to share it. Asma al-Assad has been a prime target when voicing dissent against the Arab Regime as we know it. When we speak of the Arab Regime, I mean to say the Mubaraks, the Assads, the Salehs, the Gulf states. Make no mistake, they’re have been dozens of articles like this, so I don’t want to single Vogue out, documenting Syrian President Assad’s wife, her work, her clothing, her children and the general glamor of being first lady. She is an icon. She may be a good human being.

People look at her and see a distinct contradiction between the poverty in which many Syrians live, the oppressive police state, the lack of freedoms, and then they see Asma al-Assad, with her wealth, carefree life and Western sensibilities. It’s true, the contradiction exists, but the extent to which she is aware of it is questionable. Moreover, the extent to which we, as Americans, or Europeans, are, or want to be aware of it, is also dubious. The object of articles like this seems to be to strike up empathy and congruence. She lived in London, worked at JP Morgan. She dresses like we do. She’s not some wild Bedouin woman, nor does she wear the hijab. No, she has been educated, and her father was a doctor, after all. She sends her children to a Montessori. How can Syria possibly have problems when the president is married to a man like her, like us?

Because she’s not like us. And even though the article is quick to point out that she doesn’t dress in the gaudy or flamboyant ways of other wealthy Middle Easterners, looks can be deceiving. La creme de la creme in Cairo will be seen with the new gadgets, clothed in Armani, driven by personal drivers in BMWs. Wealthy Gulf Arabs will flood Harrods in August, shelling out big money for big designer things. They will also visit Cairo, in fact, for relief from the heat, where some will take children as prostitutes for the summer. These are well-documented phenomena. Wealth in the Middle East can take varied forms. She may have toured Syria before marriage, seeing its villages, seeing its people. She may have started at NGO. She may genuinely care. But she has lived a life carefully planned. One carefully free of challenges. One in which the Syrian people have been shaped and manipulated in a certain way.

In one passage, perhaps the most revealing, is her “central mission.”

The 35-year-old first lady’s central mission is to change the mind-set of six million Syrians under eighteen, encourage them to engage in what she calls “active citizenship.” “It’s about everyone taking shared responsibility in moving this country forward, about empowerment in a civil society. We all have a stake in this country; it will be what we make it.”

What precisely is “active citizenship?” Is it currently lacking? How can there be empowerment in civil society when the press and government lack proper freedoms? When, as we see now, active citizenship and empowerment simply cannot include protests? How does this work? Am I imposing a Western model, as they’d say? Or is there more to this? The line “it will be what we make it” is chilling. Fatalistic, nearly. Are the people in power, or are the Assads in power? Who will kill whom fastest? Who will kill whom the most? 

Sort of like the whole article.

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