“When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping” has long been the mantra of hard-core fashionistas.
But one of the most appalling practitioners of acquisition therapy is Asma al-Assad, the 36-year-old wife of Syrian President — and instigator of a bloody crackdown on protesters — Bashar al-Assad.
The Guardian has published what it called a “trove” of e-mails from the couple’s private accounts under the headline “Gilded lifestyle continued for Assad coterie as conflict raged in Syria.”
Reportedly obtained from anti-government sources, the e-mails appear to detail the first lady’s five-figure Internet shopping sprees for “handmade furniture from Chelsea boutiques. Tens of thousands more were lavished on gold and gem-encrusted jewelry, chandeliers, expensive curtains and paintings to be shipped to the Middle East. While the country was rocked by Assad’s crackdown on dissent, his inner circle was concerned about the possibility of getting hold of a copy of ‘Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II’ or a new chocolate fondue set.”
And let us not overlook the crystal-encrusted Christian Louboutin stilettos Asma purchased for an eye-popping $6,000. Eat your heart out, Imelda Marcos.
In yet another twist in the escalating Marie Antoinette-ifying of Syria’s first lady, Vogue magazine has removed from its Web site last year’s highly flattering — and controversial — profile that hailed Asma as a conspicuously under-accessorized modern woman.
Titled “A Rose in the Desert,” the piece celebrated the British-born-and-educated onetime investment banker as a stylish, smart, canny wife and mother who lives in a “wildly democratic household,” while working tirelessly to give her expatriate parents’ homeland a sophisticated “brand essence” for its culture and alleged religious harmony.
The fawning 2011 Vogue purple-prose-and-photo spread was orchestrated by Brown Lloyd James, an international public relations firm, which was paid $5,000 a month by the Syrian government for its image-shaping efforts, reports The Hill, which noted, “The piece has been criticized heavily due to its publication in Vogue’s March issue, which coincided with the Syrian government’s crackdown on anti-regime protesters.”
At the time, Vogue senior editor Chris Knutsen, defended the magazine’s uncritical treatment of Bashar al-Assad, who he conceded in an interview with TheAtlantic.com was, well, yes, an “autocrat.”
“We thought we could open up that very closed world a very little bit…The piece was not meant in any way to be a referendum on the al-Assad regime. It was a profile of the first lady,” he said. Knutsen also cited the country’s tight media restrictions and touted the article’s passing reference to “shadow zones,” saying, “We strived within those limitations to provide a balanced view of the first lady and her self-defined role as Syria's cultural ambassador.”
On Friday came second thoughts. Using language worthy of debate-challenged Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Vogue took down the story from its Web site. “OOPS! The page you are looking for cannot be found,” announced a tastefully art-directed error notice.
Well, Vogue may have bailed, but in an act of public service journalism, TheAtlantic.com posted the original story, which it traced back to a pro-Assad Web site.
“Asma al-Assad is glamorous, young, and very chic — the freshest and most magnetic of first ladies. Her style is not the couture-and-bling dazzle of Middle Eastern power but a deliberate lack of adornment,” wrote Joan Juliet Buck. “She’s a rare combination: a thin, long-limbed beauty with a trained analytic mind who dresses with cunning understatement. Paris Match calls her ‘the element of light in a country full of shadow zones.’ ”
Compare that with a Guardian e-mail attributed to the first lady and written several months after the Vogue piece ran. “On 19 July 2011, Asma al-Assad could be found placing orders with her cousin Amal for jewelry made by a small Paris workshop. She requested four necklaces: ‘1 turquoise with yellow gold diamonds and a small pave on side’ as well as a cornaline, ‘full black onyx’ and ‘amethyst with white gold diamonds’ of similar design.”
Meanwhile, European Union foreign ministers meeting in Brussels just froze whatever assets Asma, her mother, her mother-in-law and sister-in-law may have in the E.U.
Sanctions were also imposed on other members of the president’s inner circle in the hopes of ending a year of violence against Syrian insurgents. The United Nations estimates more than 8,000 people have been killed since the start of the uprising against the family that has ruled Syria for 40 years.
“Their behavior continues to be murdering and totally unacceptable in the eyes of the world,” said British Foreign Secretary William Hague.
Meanwhile, back at Vogue’s “Rose in the Desert,” we learn that Asma’s “central mission is to change the mind-set of six million Syrians under 18, 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.”
Now, about those $6,000 stilettos with the blood-red soles . . .
Annie Groer is a former Washington Post and PoliticsDaily.com writer whose work has appeared in More, Town & Country and the New York Times. She is at work on a memoir.