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Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Writer who profiled Asma al-Assad claims she was duped

Joan Juliet Buck was the author of the infamous profile of the Assad family that appeared in Vogue shortly before Bashar al-Assad started murdering his own people (the profile was flushed down the memory hole when the killing started). She claims she was duped.
I didn’t know I was going to meet a murderer.

There was no way of knowing that Assad, the meek ophthalmologist and computer-loving nerd, would kill more of his own people than his father had and torture tens of thousands more, many of them children.

In December 2010, there was no way of knowing that the Arab Spring was about to begin, and that it would take down the dictators of Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt.

There was no way of knowing, as I cheered the events in Tahrir Square, that I would be contaminated because I had written about the Assads. There was no way of knowing that this piece would cost me my livelihood and end the association I had had with Vogue since I was 23.

I met the devil and his wife, with full fashion-magazine access to their improbable fishbowl apartment where they lived out their daily lives on display to the eyes of thousands, like a Middle-Eastern version of The Truman Show. They showed off their fantasy lives for me.

Assad told me just who he was, but I didn’t use it; he repeated it a year later to Barbara Walters, but no one heard him.

The Assads’ PR firm, Brown Lloyd James, took care of my visa. In the offices, flat-screen televisions mounted on walls played only Al Jazeera—one of their clients, along with Gaddafi’s son Saif and the government of Qatar. Lloyd and James were absent, but Brown turned out to be Peter Brown, a bearded Englishman with a languorous voice who’d once managed the Beatles.

Asma al-Assad was about to sign an agreement with the Paris Louvre, about Syrian antiquities. We sat with Brown’s associate Mike Holtzman. I wanted to know about the ancient cities, Aleppo, Damascus. They brought in their intern, a 22-year-old named Sheherazade Ja’afari, the daughter of the Syrian ambassador to the United Nations. She and Holtzman would be in Damascus with me.


Asma unwittingly gave me a glimpse into the Assad way of thinking: “I told my kids yesterday there’s a journalist going to be writing about me,” she said, “and my eldest, Hafez, asked, ‘What’s she going to say?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know.’ And he asked, ‘How can you get her to write about you if you don’t know what she’s going to say?’?”


I was told there was no crime in Damascus. A few days later, on a pretext involving wooden spoons, I returned to the souk alone except for a driver I could not shake. I think I saw why there was no crime.

A mysterious metal box on wheels was parked outside the souk. It was about seven feet long, six feet high, with one barred window in the back. Its surface was dangerously unfinished, raw, full of metal splinters. It looked like a mobile prison. Later, I asked a local about the box. He said he’d never seen such a thing.


Back in my hotel room, I found the Ethernet cable ripped out of my laptop so violently that the plastic tab on the end had broken off.


I sat in the hotel bar with the French ambassador and asked what was really going on in Syria. He took the battery out of my Syrian cell phone and then did the same with his. This must have set off an alert, because suddenly Sheherazade materialized in front of us.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

“Aren’t you sick?” I asked. “Go back to bed.”


The next day Sheherazade took me to Ma’loula, the village where they still speak Aramaic, the language of the Bible.

She said: “We don’t want you to talk to the French ambassador.” “You can’t talk to me that way,” I said.

When I opened my laptop at the Vienna airport on the way back to New York, an icon on the screen announced itself as the server for someone named Ali.

I arrived in New York on Dec. 21, 2010, and quarantined the compromised laptop.


I handed in the piece on Jan. 14, the day President Ben Ali fled Tunisia. “The Arab Spring is spreading,” I told Vogue on Jan. 21. “You might want to hold the piece.”

They didn’t think the Arab Spring was going anywhere, and the piece was needed for the March “Power Issue.”

I got an expert to clean Ali out of the laptop. “They weren’t very skilled, but they were thorough,” he said.


On Feb. 11, Hosni Mubarak was overthrown in Egypt. I cheered, inspired and touched by Tahrir Square. There were protests in Yemen, Sudan, Iraq, Bahrain, then, unbelievably, in Libya.

I asked Vogue’s managing editor if we could meet to discuss how to handle the Assad piece. A meeting was held, without me. I was asked not to speak to the press.

On Feb. 25, as Libyan protesters demanded an end to Gaddafi, my piece on Asma al-Assad went online at Vogue.com. They had excruciatingly titled it “A Rose in the Desert.”

I was attacked as soon as it went up. How dare I write about Asma al-Assad? By describing Syria’s first lady in Vogue, I had anointed her.

Syria stayed quiet until the middle of March, when a small incident set off the horrifying massacres that have now gone on for 17 months. In a town called Daraa at the end of February, 15 children broke the country’s silence. I don’t know if it was the euphoria of the Arab Spring or if they had been empowered by the Green Team from Massar.

The boys, ages 9 to 15, wrote, “The people want to topple the regime” on the walls of their school.

The police arrested them. When they had not been released after two weeks, their families staged a protest on March 15.

At a second protest, on March 18, Syrian forces fired on the crowd and killed four people.

The boys were released from prison. Their families saw that they had been tortured and took to the streets. On March 23, a grenade was hurled into a crowd of protesters in the Daraa mosque.

Assad’s forces began to kill Syrians every day. They fired on mourners at funerals, men gathered in mosques, women and children in the street.

They arrested more children. They tortured more children.

On April 29, a chubby 13-year-old boy named Hamza Ali al-Khateeb was arrested during a protest in Saida, near Daraa.

On May 24, Hamza’s mutilated body was returned to his parents. The report by Al Jazeera said: “The child had spent nearly a month in the custody of Syrian security, and when they finally returned the corpse, it bore the scars of brutal torture: lacerations, bruises and burns to his feet, elbows, face, and knees. Hamza’s eyes were swollen and black and there were identical bullet wounds where he had apparently been shot through both arms, the bullets tearing a hole in his sides and lodging in his belly. On Hamza’s chest was a deep, dark burn mark. His neck was broken and his penis cut off.”

Asma al-Assad had said that “Massar” meant destiny.

Bashar al-Assad blamed the uprising of the Syrian people on terrorists from both al Qaeda and the United States.

Through 2011, I wondered about Asma al-Assad, the woman who cared so much about the youth of Syria. How could she not know what was happening? How could she stand by and do nothing while the Syrian regime ate its young?

In May of 2011, Vogue took the piece off its website. I kept my word and did not speak to the press. At the end of the year my contract was not renewed.

I was now free to react to the Syrian carnage with the only medium I had: Twitter.
Read it all.

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At 4:00 PM, Blogger Empress Trudy said...

It raises an interesting point. Not since the prosecution of Veit Harlan has a propagandist for genocidal maniacs been called to answer for their crimes, willing or unwilling as they may be. It's time to resurrect that prosecute her for her role in these massacres and for Vogue in publishing them. Then the Guardian and the BBC need to be called to the bar for their role in fomenting antisemitic pogroms across the world.

At 5:50 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A duped dope. Who could ever have imagined?!

At 7:10 AM, Blogger Captain.H said...

"I didn’t know I was going to meet a murderer."

Oh, please. Even Vogue "journalists" aren't that dumb and uninformed. Of course, saying she didn't know makes her look like a fool. But acknowledging she did know and went ahead with the interview makes her look like an amoral slug, a "journalist" interested only in getting hot stories that have resume- and career-advancement potential. Certainly, that wouldn't apply to any Western MSM "journalists", right? /sarc


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