It may have been the worst-timed, and most tin-eared, magazine article in decades.
“Asma al-Assad is glamorous, young, and very chic — the freshest and most magnetic of first ladies,” writer Joan Juliet Buck began her profile of Syria’s first lady in Vogue last year. Amid descriptions of Assad’s “energetic grace” and Christian Louboutin shoes, Buck wrote: “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.’ ”
Well, perhaps. But just as Buck’s profile appeared, Assad’s husband, Bashar al-Assad, began a bloody crackdown on his opponents. Since then, about 9,000 Syrians have been slaughtered by security forces loyal to Assad, Syria’s hereditary president.
Meanwhile, rather than the progressive, arts-loving, British-educated banker of Buck’s telling, Asma al-Assad has emerged as the Marie Antoinette of the Arab Spring. E-mails leaked by Syrian opposition groups last month showed that she was involved in shopping online for jewelry, chandeliers and designer shoes in boutiques in Paris and London while her government’s violent repression was underway.
Buck’s article, in the March 2011 issue of Vogue, drew widespread surprise and ridicule, especially among Washington’s foreign-policy community, which had long regarded Syria as a regional troublemaker and leading violator of human rights. It contained little hint of the Assad family’s history of repression, offering only that Syria is “a country full of shadow zones.”
And then the story disappeared.
The 3,200-word article apparently proved so embarrassing to the magazine that it scrubbed it from its Web site, an almost-unheard-of step for a mainstream media organization and a generally acknowledged violation of digital etiquette.
Today it’s impossible to find the article, “A Rose in the Desert,” on Vogue’s Web site. Links to it lead to a notice on Vogue.com reading, “Oops. The page you’re looking for can not be found,” next to a photo of a fashion model looking sternly into the camera.
Buck’s story is still available on the subscribers-only Nexis database, which archives published articles and broadcast transcripts. According to the Atlantic magazine, the only freely available copy of “A Rose in the Desert” is on a Web site maintained by a Syrian journalist
(Presidentassad.net, which calls Bashar al-Assad “the President of a Just & Comprehensive Peace”). The site is based in Syria, which places it beyond the reach of Vogue’s owner, Conde Nast.
Vogue’s editors aren’t eager to talk about the story or their efforts to make it disappear. Editor Anna Wintour’s office and Vogue.com’s managing editor,
Alexandra Macon, both referred calls to the magazine’s spokeswoman, Megan Salt, who didn’t respond to calls and e-mails requesting comment. Buck also did not reply.
Although the Vogue piece didn’t mention it, the photos that accompanied the article — of Asma al-Assad, her husband and two of their children at home in Damascus — were facilitated by an American public-relations firm working for the Syrian government. The firm, Brown Lloyd James, was paid $25,000 to set up a photo session with James Nachtwey, the famed war photographer who shot the pictures for Vogue.
“Our firm’s role was limited to liaising between the two sides to schedule logistics for the piece in November 2010,” the company said in a statement Wednesday. It said it began working for the Syrian government “during a thaw” in relations with the United States and during a period when “the international community was encouraging increased engagement with Syria.”
Asma al-Assad was briefly in the news again last week when the wives of the British and German ambassadors to the United Nations released a video and online petition calling on her to use her influence with her husband to end the bloodshed in Syria. The video mixes glamorous photos and footage of the Syrian first lady — including one of Nachtwey’s photos from Vogue — with clips of dead and injured Syrian children. “Stand up for peace, Asma,” says the voiceover. “. . . Stop being a bystander.”
Asma al-Assad has not replied.
Buck, the story’s author, suggested in an interview with NPR last week that the children who appeared in the Vogue photos probably weren’t the Assads’ real children, but decoys planted for security purposes. Buck said it was “horrifying” to have been near the Assads. Her biggest regret: that Vogue chose to call her profile “A Rose in the Desert.”