Forget the tens of thousands of people who've died since Bashar al-Assad started slaughtering opponents of his regime in March 2011. The real victim of the ongoing Syrian massacre is Joan Juliet Buck, the writer whose Vogue article on Assad's glamorous wife, Asma, cost her "my livelihood and end[ed] the association I had had with Vogue since I was 23." Bummer. In a new essay, Buck describes how the disastrous "Rose in the Desert" profile like, totally wasn't her fault.
In the lengthy Newsweek piece, Buck recounts what happened when she met the Assads, starting with the first call she got from her editor telling her to go to Syria.
The editor explained that the first lady was young, good-looking, and had never given an interview. Vogue had been trying to get to her for two years. Now she'd hired a PR firm, and they must have pushed her to agree.
"Send a political journalist," I said.
"We don't want any politics, none at all," said the editor, "and she only wants to talk about culture, antiquities, and museums. You like museums. You like culture. She wants to talk to you. You'd leave in a week."
Buck said she'd think about it, and proceeded to have some very deep thoughts about Syria. For example: "Syria. The name itself sounded sinister, like syringe, or hiss." (The horrific quote has already spawned a hilarious Twitter hashtag, #countriesbyvoguewriters. A favorite: "Czech Republic. The name itself sounded like what I should have done before writing that Vogue article.")
Despite her onomatopoeia-related fears, Buck decided to go for it because she'd get to see some ruins. It's not like she didn't do any research; she called some "experts" (one person who had a house in Aleppo, and an "aesthete") who told her that Asma was bright and energetic and that the Assads "really care about their people." But the real reason Buck took the assignment is that she wanted an adventure:
It was an assignment. I was curious. That's why I'd become a writer. Vogue wanted a description of the good-looking first lady of a questionable country; I wanted to see the cradle of civilization. Syria gave off a toxic aura. But what was the worst that could happen? I would write a piece for Vogue that missed the deeper truth about its subject. I had learned long ago that the only person I could ever be truthful about was myself.
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It's okay in my book for a writer to admit she took an assignment because she was curious. But Buck's curiosity seems rather specific; she was curious enough to go to Syria, but not enough to think twice about some of the more ominous incidents that took place during her stay. "I didn't know I was going to meet a murderer," she says. "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."
Yet, Buck spends much of the Newsweek place remembering creepy details foreshadowing horrors to come. And we don't just mean the "Mustached men [who] stood in our path, wearing shoes from the 1980s and curiously ill-fitting leather jackets over thick sweaters." (How "curious," right?) Buck describes eerily empty museums, a mysterious metal prison on wheels, her blatantly hacked laptop, and a bizarre situation in which Asma basically fucked with a bunch of kids at a youth center by telling them there was no more money to keep the center open and then saying, "Just kidding!" (Really.) Buck could tell that her hosts were hiding things from her. As she recalls:
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 [an intern/the daughter of the Syrian ambassador to the United Nations] materialized in front of us.
"What are you doing?" she asked.
"Aren't you sick?" I asked. "Go back to bed."
The ambassador drew maps of Syria's shifting boundaries, with dates.
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.
Buck seems to want her readers to think that she had no idea what she was getting herself into — that she couldn't possibly have known that the Arab Spring was about to begin, or that Assad would start mass murdering his people — but that she also was hesitant about writing the story. "I watched Al Jazeera constantly [when I returned home]," she says. "I didn't want to write this piece. But I always finished what I started." She says she asked her Vogue editors to hold the story or at least discuss how to handle it once things started to heat up in the Middle East, but that a meeting was held without her and she was asked not to speak to the press. Her piece went up in the middle of Libyan protests, received heavy criticism, and was finally taken down a year later. Buck's writing contract was not renewed.
But Buck can't have it both ways, and it's kind of ridiculous to pretend she couldn't have known it was inappropriate to cover Asma's "thin, long-limbed" beauty without touching upon Syria's political strife, even if she wasn't a political journalist and had never visited the country. In one of the first pieces denouncing Buck's profile, The Atlantic's Max Fisher recounted some of the reasons why the glowing article was disturbing:
November and December of 2010 were busy months for Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. He rebuffed international nuclear inspectors, rejected U.S. attempts at diplomatic engagement, stretched out peace talks with Israel (Israeli foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman accused him of undermining peace, calling Syria "the center of world terror"), ducked fallout from WikiLeaks revelations that he had attempted to arm Hezbollah with Scud missiles, and celebrated his tenth anniversary with first lady Asma al-Assad, whom he married only a few months after succeeding his father's 30-year rule and who herself spent those two final months of 2010 hosting a reporter from Vogue magazine, which on Friday published a glowing profile of her.
The article's fawning treatment of the Assad family and its portrayal of the regime as tolerant and peaceful has generated surprise and outrage in much of the Washington foreign policy community, which for years has viewed Syria as one of the most dangerous and oppressive rogue states in a region full of them, with the Bush administration dubbing it the fourth member of its "axis of evil." Bashar's Syria has invaded Lebanon, allied itself with Iran, aided such groups as Hamas and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, and, for years, ferried insurgents and terrorists into Iraq, where they kill U.S. troops and Iraqi civilians. But the worst behavior may be inside Syria's borders, where a half-century-old "emergency law" outlaws unofficial gatherings and abets the regular practice of beating, imprisoning, torturing, or killing political dissidents, human rights workers, and minorities.
It's odd (and embarrassing) that Buck didn't do more research before going to Syria, but it's unexplainable why she wouldn't have learned more about the country's politics after she returned, given her uneasy experience there. When you're a journalist, "finishing what you started" doesn't mean gritting your teeth and describing "the freshest and most magnetic of first ladies" even if you have a suspicion something's up. It means interviewing real experts, doing extensive research and, most importantly (and obviously), thinking critically about your profile subject — especially if your profile subject's husband is a known dictator. Buck isn't a scapegoat, and she deserves all of the criticism she's received.
Joan Juliet Buck: Mrs. Assad Duped Me [Newsweek]