July 12, 2005
Your Turn: Enigma of Damascus
Whether the subject is Bush or Rummy, Santorum or Abbas, portraits are often the most interesting political images to deconstruct.
Because of the conventional wisdom that Bashar al-Assad is a lightweight, I initially took the title of this week’s NYT Magazine cover story ("The Enigma of Damascus" – link) for granted. The beginning of James Bennet’s article — following the 39 year-old Assad and his 29 year-old wife to the opera — seemed to also perpetuate the stereotype.
President Assad wore a black suit and a charcoal shirt without a tie; Mrs. Assad, a sea-foam green sweater over a sheer top and a white skirt. Her long, honey-colored hair was uncovered. Together they made a kind of visual rhyme with the building: tall, slender and young, they seemed the essence of secular Western-Arab fusion, the elegant doctor-turned-president out on the town with his dazzling British-born Syrian wife, the former J. P. Morgan banker whom Syrians call their Princess Diana.
Once outside the hall, the couple stopped to shake hands and chat. Scores of audience members clustered by the president’s Audi sedan. Some held high their cellular telephones — legalized by Assad only three years ago — to snap digital photographs.
If you know the basic story line, it had always been intended that Bashar’s brother would replace their dictator father as ruler of Syria. However, Basil was killed in a car accident in 1994 so Bashar was yanked home from London where he was pursuing his training as an opthamologist. He was placed in the army, and then began his elevation.
As the article progresses however, Bennet begins to paints a rather, well, enigmatic picture. As he interviews Assad, as well as various proponents, dissidents and international academics, Assad seems to become less and less understandable.
Is Assad a weak figurehead controlled by the military old guard and
totalitarian agents left over from his father’s dictatorship?
Is Syria’s leader the "murderous proxy warrior" that some
Administration figures suggest, surreptitiously supporting regional
mayhem, instability and brutality?
Is Bashar just a young and inexperienced figure (that many academics
nonetheless are coming to observe as leadership material) trying to
protect a secular agenda in a region being pulled apart by sectarian
Is Assad actually an adept but cautious progressive who — having just
recently consolidated his power at the Baath Party Congress — now
intends to create an Arab-style democracy with a free-market economy?
Or, is Hafez al-Asad’s youngest son essentially a young rich guy from
the ruling class who never wanted to be a politician but had no choice,
and is clever enough to keep most people off his back?
I’m going with two images, one of Bashar and the other of he and his
wife, I also offer you this gossipy bio-paragraph from the article
The daughter of a Syrian cardiologist,
Asma al-Akhras grew up in London and graduated from the University of
London. She did stints as a banker in New York, first with Deutsche
Bank and then with J.P. Morgan, where she worked in mergers and
acquisitions. She loved New York, and while she lived in a corporate
apartment uptown, she wants it to be understood that she preferred to
hang out downtown. She also worked in Paris, and she speaks French and
Spanish. She has relatives in Houston.
She had been
accepted to Harvard’s M.B.A. program when she chose to return to Syria
and marry Assad, less than a year after he succeeded his father. The
couple have two boys and a girl; the eldest, Hafez, is 3 1/2. The
Assads had just begun speaking English with Hafez, having focused on
his Arabic first. They have no professional day care and rely instead
on the extended family. Asma al-Assad is 29 years old, 10 years younger
than her husband.
Because the way a person
presents himself is typically a window on his character, the question
for BAG readers is what can be made of Mr. (and Mrs.) Assad from these
(For a larger view of the couple photo, go to the article and enlarge the image.)
(images: Taryn Simon for The New York Times. July 10, 2005. NYT Magazine.)