Making dictatorships pretty

Something sinister lurks inside the dazzle and shine of Vogue magazine’s print version of the March 2011 ‘Power Issue’. Among features on iconic performer Lady Gaga and Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, past the Miu Miu heels and the sample strip of Jimmy Choo’s new perfume, a few good pages are spent glossing the ego of Asma al-Assad, the wife of Syria’s dictator. The article, “A Rose in the Desert” (Vogue, March 2011, p. 529), written by Joan Juliet Buck and photographed by James Nachtwey, is an exercise in the surreal alternating with the dangerously fantasist.
Fawning over the “glamorous, young, and very chic” Assad, the writer repeats a Paris Match quote calling her “the element of light in a country full of shadow zones” – then blandly informs readers: “In Syria, power is hereditary.”

Conspicuously neglecting to call up, say, Human Rights Watch for their views on the magically hereditary nature of Syrian power, Vogue’s intrepid Buck zips alongside Assad in her SUV, portraying “Syria’s first lady” on a mission “to change the mind-set of six million Syrians under eighteen…to engage in what she calls “active citizenship”; later, visiting their home, she quotes President Bashar (off-duty, wearing jeans) happily explaining that he studied eye surgery “because…there is very little blood.” [That last ellipsis inserted to allow time to stifle my scream of bone-chilling terror – RK].

To the American fashion enthusiast all this rich editorial fudge might seem merely sweet, if hard to chew, had it been published before February 2011. But in the wake of the exhilarating Egyptian Revolution, from whose peaceful example Syrian protesters have begun to draw the courage to claim their own freedoms after almost fifty years and two generations under the violently repressive Assad regime, this puff piece ought to rankle – yes, even among Vogue readers. Why should they consent to cast their eyeballs over the Ikea-catalogue-ready image of Asma and Bashar in sock feet on their living room floor, fondly indulging their offspring with Lego? Aren’t American rubbish heaps full of last year’s Ikea catalogues?

More seriously, exactly how far, and with what threats or inducements, does Asma al-Assad’s publicity machine reach? What can her candy-coated “citizen empowerment” rhetoric possibly mean from the regime that tortured Maher Arar in compliance with the US policy of extraordinary rendition? What about Syria’s secret police abuses against its own people, detentions without warrant, routine suppression of free speech and assembly, blackouts on social media, enforced disappearances, and torture with impunity? Even Miuccia Prada knows that after a revolution like Egypt’s, fashion can’t do much to polish up the woman with a dictator on her arm. Surely the formidable Anna Wintour knows it too?
Rahat Kurd lives in Vancouver, British Columbia. She was a devoted reader of Sassy Magazine in its prime. This piece was originally published at Goatmilk.

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