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Tuesday, March 8, 2011

I ripped out this small Reuters item from the New York Times on February 15, as a reminder that freedom of speech isn’t to be taken for granted:

Syria: Teenage Blogger Sentenced to 5 Years

A teenage blogger, brought into court chained and blindfolded, was sentenced Monday to five years in jail on charges of revealing information to a foreign country, rights defenders said. The blogger, Tal al-Molouhi, a high school student who has been under arrest since 2009 and is now 19, had written articles saying she yearned for a role in shaping the future of Syria and supporting the Palestinian cause. Lawyers said the judge gave no evidence or details as to why she had been charged.
Around the same time, I got the March issue of Vogue with Lady Gaga on the cover.

Love this.

I immediately admired the Gaga editorial, then put the magazine aside so I could read it at my leisure later. Various newspapers and paperwork and books quickly piled up on top of the magazine and I never got back to it.  I had to dig pretty deep to find it after reading yesterday’s Wall Street Journal op-ed piece, “The Dictator’s Wife Wears Louboutins.” Sure enough, as you can see from the cover image above, there is a story about Syria’s first lady, Asma al-Assad. She is very beautiful.

Asma al-Assad. Image from Vogue via Facebook.

But the situation in Syria is not so beautiful. Just ask Tal al-Molouhi or 80-year-old human-rights attorney Haitham Al-Maleh, who was imprisoned last year for weakening national morale (and is now expected to be pardoned on account of his age).

If you have read this blog for any period of time, you know I love trouble-making, crazy and even murderous ruling ladies. But I like them dead and buried for 500 or 1,000 years or so. As I’ve written before, I read history because it sheds light on current events, and I read biography because I agree with Ralph Waldo Emerson, who said, “There is properly no history; only biography.”  I think my royal ladies are fascinating representatives of past eras and cultures. They’re certainly colorful enough to inspire lots of jewelry designs. But I don’t recommend that you emulate 7th-century Chinese ruler Empress Wu and kill a lot of people.

The Wall Street Journal op-ed criticizes Vogue for writing about Assad’s “energetic grace,” Louboutin shoes and sunglasses. I cringed over the first paragraph of the magazine story, in which Vogue calls Assad “…a rare combination: a thin, long-limbed beauty with a trained analytic mind who dresses with cunning understatement.” (Maybe I’m just bitter because I’m short-limbed and dress with stupid overstatement.) At least the second paragraph describes Syria a bit more strongly than some critics of the piece acknowledge, noting that the State Department’s web site warns Syria’s government “conducts intense physical and electronic surveillance of both Syrian citizens and foreign visitors.” Vogue goes on to say Syria’s “…shadow zones are deep and dark. Asma’s husband, Bashar al-Assad, was elected president in 2000, after the death of his father, Hafez al-Assad, with a startling 97 percent of the vote. In Syria, power is hereditary. The country’s alliances are murky. How close are they to Iran, Hamas, and Hezbollah?” But it also points out that the U.S. has just posted its first ambassador in Syria since 2005, and later in the story reports that Angelina Jolie was impressed by the first lady’s efforts on behalf of refugees during a 2009 visit. The main thrust of the article is enthusiastic enough to make that second paragraph seem like a “to be sure” paragraph — a way to fend off challenges to a story with a perfunctory acknowledgment of counter-arguments.

Vogue senior editor Chris Knutsen told The Atlantic, “We felt that a personal interview with Syria’s first lady would hold strong interest for our readers. We thought we could open up that very closed world a very little bit.” He went on to say, “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.”

If you were a magazine editor or writer, what kind of story would you write if you got access to the attractive, stylish first lady of a dictator? Do you think pretty is as pretty does? Or is it interesting enough to have long limbs and a “household … run on wildly democratic principles” where the kids get to vote on what kind of dining-room chandelier to get, as Asma’s did?

UPDATED TO ADD: I published this on the Huffington Post and here at the same time.

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40 Responses to “Syria Is in Vogue, Teen Blogger Is in Jail”

  1. Susan Tiner says:

    I’m deep into the Last Lion, Manchester’s very well written biography of Churchill from birth to 1940. So I’m still trying to understand the WWI -> WWII situation.

    It’s a tortured landscape!

    • WendyB says:

      I’ll have to put that on my reading list.

      • Susan Tiner says:

        I’m listening to it via audible.com on the iPod while working out. The reader of the first volume 1874-1932 is really good. The reader of the 2nd vol 1932-1940 takes a little getting used to, especially after the wonderful first one. Anyway, it sure does fill in important background re: the modern Middle East.

      • WendyB says:

        Hmmm. Maybe I should listen to it. Because it’s hard to drag myself away, book-wise, from more ancient history. But I don’t read that stuff while working out. I’ve never really tried the “books on tape” thing before. Maybe I’ll love it.

  2. Mary Panjari says:

    Fuck her!

  3. Cameron says:

    I’d be nervous about interviewing the wife of any dictator, especially if I did so on their turf and «especially» if, after doing a bit of fluff, I decided to try to get her opinion on, ohhh, I don’t know, her husband launching air strikes against his own people because they were tired of his tiger blood-fueled lunacy.

    Thus, I would take my anti-spam word’s cue and interview Carla Bruni about why her husband’s government would hand down a six-month jail sentence to some bigoted fashion designer for his words–actions are another matter–and yet also take issue with the 2,000 or so women who wear a full-body garment that also happens to conceal their faces because the garment has somehow become a symbol of a larger problem with the country’s tenuous relationship with the 3.7 million (give or take) Muslims who reside within their borders.

    At which point Joann Pailey’s disembodied head would ask what any of that had to do with fashion and bury the article or some other nonsense. *shrugs*

    • WendyB says:

      The world is a crazy place. BTW, I agree on Galliano…not a believer in sending people to prison for their words, no matter how hateful those words are.

  4. Wow… the article about the teen blogger and Syria is an eye opener. I never knew the situation was this bad..

  5. stacy says:

    I just hope that’s all her kids get to vote on! 😉

    • Of course that’s all they get to vote on! Although not to worry about the lack of democracy in the country – those kids might not get to vote, but they’ll be running the place once they engineer a coup and kill their dad.

  6. Man, sort of makes you appreciate the fact we all live in places where we can speak our minds freely, whether we’re informed, misinformed or downright dumb. Imprisoning a 17 year old girl (now 19) for merely expressing opinions is ludicrous. If you did that in the west, well. There’d be no 17 year old girls left.:)

    In other news, I’m so happy the first lady’s kids got to vote on her chandeliers, I’d hate to witness the destruction and devastation if they’d had to suffer lighting devoid of their opinion. What a harsh world that would be.

  7. I just posted on the same subject.

  8. That’s a hard thingto do–interview a dictator’s wife, although it’s been done here in my country. When a documentary on Imelda Marcos was made a few years ago, she was asked about her 3000 pairs of shoes and why she was intent on beautifying herself when there was so much poverty in the country. She answered that leaders, especially her, must inspire the masses. To wear expensive clothes, jewelry and shoes, that’s part of the job. When they see how beautiful she is, the poor will aspire to be like her and work harder to get out of their shit hole.

    It sounds callous and ridiculous unless you know that Imelda was once very poor herself and that it was her admiration of rich and powerful people that made her determined to be someone important. So you’re right about the history/biography part, WendyB. History will always judge Mrs. Macros harshly but based on her biography, wouldn’t you see that she makes a valid point?

    I think i’d ask the same question to Mrs. Assad.

    P.S. I bought two animal-print dresses that look amazing on me! Or I look amazing in! Why did I ever avoid animal print?! Thanks to your leopard-print posts, I am now a convert!

    • WendyB says:

      You silly girl, I’m glad you’ve seen the light when it comes to animal prints. Don’t forget the red lipstick.

      Interesting point re the Marcos bio. Reminiscent of Eva Peron, no?

  9. I don’t think I would be much good as an editor. I would much rather stick to the safer and easier interview options.

  10. mystyle says:

    Hi my dear-a very riveting post and what a poor situation for the teen blogger, very sad and unfortunate-so much for freedom of speech.

  11. It is a minefield and Vogue isn’t a current affairs magazine. It has always been ‘kind’ to the powerful & wealthy so I’m not surprised. Don’t buy it is my advice or send it back.

    I also don’t think you can confuse Syria with EU law! French law is clear on anti-Semitic words and actions. It is a strong secular society which prides it self on promoting a secular approach and way of life. It is determined to retain it’s republican heritage and asserts that those who are French are French citizens and live accordingly. Of course this is in complete contradiction to its colonial hey day when plundering other lands seemed fair enough! And of course it is the French who gave the US the Vietnam war.

    But I digress and that is the wonderful thing about history it is a chain of events all inter related in some way.

    And I am thankful I have the freedom to debate and write this with no fear.

  12. Sister Wolf says:

    It has long been my secret dream to write a book about the wives of dictators. They are a fascinating breed. Many of them are monsters, and feared even more than their husbands. I don’t know where Asma stands in this pantheon, but her shoes are a hint.

  13. Mardel says:

    I did look at that article when I first received the March Vogue, admittedly with great discomfort even then, as, despite the miniscule disclaimer, the article comes off as rather over enthusiastic white-washing. I too went back to it after yesterdays WSJ piece.

    I love biography, but even so it is best savored at some distance from the actual life. Interesting how, in many ways, the world never changes. And despicable as Galliano’s words were, they were still only words as were the words of the teenage blogger. The gray areas seem to grow more gray.

    Such a fabulous post

  14. Alice Olive says:

    I was also struck by her beauty and assumed it was no coincidence. I don’t really expect Vogue to be hard-hitting. I’m sure Anna doesn’t think it is, either.

    And as more and more goes on about Galliano, I am becoming more paranoid about people taking iPhone shots (or whatever) on the subway or in restaurants. Anonymity is under-valued.

    • WendyB says:

      Actually, in the same issue they have serious articles on a woman’s lifelong struggle with an eating disorder. Another woman wrote about her life growing up in a cult. Interesting.

  15. Lara says:

    I haven’t read the article so I can only base my opinion on what you’ve said. We love to glamorize even the worst people so, it doesn’t surprise me that Vogue, being a fashion magazine, would focus on the fluff, especially if the interview was done in her home. They had a small chance and they took what they could get. I think I would do the same, since I don’t want to get jailed for 5 years.

    And I agree… Galliano does not deserve jail time.

  16. Rosie says:

    I haven’t read the article, so I can’t really comment, but from what you’re saying it sounds like they really missed a chance to get a very interesting point of view on an important issue.

  17. Lynette says:

    Well, I haven’t any idea which dictator’s wife I might want to interview, but I am very proud of the fact that I got to interview by telephone Medgar Evers’ widow Myrlie Evers-Williams upon the release of the book “The Autobiography of Medgar Evers: A Hero’s Life and Legacy Revealed Through His Writings, Letters, and Speeches.” What a rare privilege it was to speak with her about her husband, about being a widow, about the kinship we realized we shared in going on after the death of a beloved husband to raise our children as he would have wanted.

    Thanks for stopping by, WendyB, to see the sticker on Duncan’s head and my sweet little Mama on yesterday’s post.

  18. Wendy..what an eyeopener indeed….I haven’t read the article….after reading your post? Im going to as soon as I get home…

  19. Vix says:

    That poor young blogger, we Westeners really don’t know how lucky we are.
    Vogue’s not on my reading list and I wouldn’t seriously expect them to tackle anything hard-hitting. It would be interesting to hear Anna Wintour’s brother, the chief political editor of my beloved left-leaning Guardian newspaper’s thoughts on the matter. xxx

  20. drollgirl says:

    i like looking at fashion mags, but i cannot stand reading the articles that appear in them. i just cannot do it. i know that does not reflect well on me, but in some ways i feel more justified in my stance after reading this post.

    and it is awful that the blogger mentioned above was imprisoned. WTF. some things in this world are STILL SO FUCKING BACKWARDS. i just can’t even believe it.

  21. eric says:

    I would ask about the ability to conduct more archaeology in Syria. They have some of the greatest cultural ruins there.

    Too bad she isn’t more like Queen Noor.

  22. Suzanne says:

    I was shocked to hear about the teen blogger in jail. how awful!

  23. KIRAFASHION says:

    great cover with Gaga, wendy!!!!

  24. Gawd that is terrible about that blogger. T_T I haven’t read that article yet. Must!

  25. You never cease to amaze me. Loved reading this post and now I must read the article. And what’s wrong with ‘overstatement?’