A faux pas in the desert

A faux pas in the desert

Asma al-Assad vs. Joan Juliet Buck

While there doesn't seem to be any positive news coming out of Syria lately, the controversy surrounding the country's first lady, Asma al-Assad and Vogue fashion writer, Joan Juliet Buck, borders on comical. Sort of. 

If you don't know the details, read on.


Asma al-Assad        vs.      Joan Juliet Buck

In December 2010, Vogue sent veteran reporter Joan Juliet Buck to Damascus to interview the first lady of Syria. The 35 year-old British born Asma al-Assad was viewed as part of the fresh leadership that her husband would to bring to the country after decades of his father's brutal dictatorship. It didn't hurt that Asma is beautiful, thin, and wears designer clothes. 

Buck spent several weeks in Syria with the Assads and, upon returning to New York, wrote a glowing piece about the first lady, crowning it with the unfortunate title, A Rose in the Desert. Among other things, Buck wrote that Asma al-Assad is "glamorous, young, and very chic--the freshest and most magnetic of first ladies," and a "wildly democratic" woman in "the safest country in the Middle East." 

At the same time that Buck was typing up praise for Asma al-Assad, protests across the Middle East were bringing down dictatorships in Egypt and Tunisia. When Buck submitted her article to Vogue, uprisings were beginning in Syria. The iconic fashion magazine printed the piece just as images of murdered Syrian civilians and slaughtered Syrian children were appearing on CNN. The culprit? The government of Syria, headed by Asma al-Assad's husband, Bashar al-Assad.

Vogue readers were infuriated with Buck's article, especially when it was revealed that as Syria burned, the "glamorous" and "chic" Asma was spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on art, furniture, and haute couture. 

"A Rose in the Desert" : Asma al-Assad in the ill-timed Vogue article 

As more images of murdered protestors began to pour out of Syria, backlash began to mount from Vogue readers. Deciding that an article praising the wife a baby-killer just wasn't in line with Vogue's ideals, Anna Wintour, the magazine's editor, finally pulled "A Rose in the Desert" from the company web site and released a statement condemning the al-Assads. Wintour then went on to fire Joan Juliet Buck, the article's author. 

In what appears to be an attempt to save her reputation and salvage whatever is left of her journalistic integrity, Buck wrote a 3,000 word mea culpa for The Daily Beast explaining what "really happened" in Syria. Always one for great titles, Buck's newest article is called "Mrs. Assad Duped Me." Although there are interesting aspects to this new piece (i.e., Buck describes Asma al-Assad making a group of children cry just for fun), it does little to redeem Buck. In fact, Britain's The Guardian noted that Buck's "mea culpa is almost as disastrous as the initial interview." 

Perhaps the most amusing line of Buck's mea culpa is her reflection upon her initial anxieties about traveling to Damascus. "Syria," she writes. "The name itself sounded sinister, like syringe or hiss." That sentence sparked its own Twitter hashtag, #countriesbyvoguewriters, where users tweeted their own versions of the line: "Chad. The name itself sounded like my Lehman Brothers ex-boyfriend," "Turkey. The name itself sounded fattening," and "Czech Republic. The name itself sounded like what I should have done before I wrote that Vogue article." 

The rest of the piece is a denouncement of sorts of the al-Assads, mixed in with awkwardly-placed fashion observations. For example, Buck notes that her minders in Syria wore "shoes from the 1980s and curiously ill-fitting leather jackets over thick sweaters," though she didn't seem bothered by the fact that they were tracking her every move in Damascus. 

And now?

No one is quite sure what's happened to Asma al-Assad now that fighting in Syria has worsened. Because she's a British national, she could easily return home to England, but she hasn't done that. She's rumored to have taken her children and fled to Moscow, but the Russian government denies that she's there. 

Unfortunately, her situation is such that she may go the way of other first ladies married to dictators, namely Marie Antoinette or Elena Causecscu. Let's hope not.

Buck, on the other hand, is spending her time doing damage control wherever she can, from CNN to NPR

Perhaps next time Vogue will think a little more before sending a fashion journalist to a dictatorship on the brink of civil war. Just don't hold your breath.