How Asma al-Assad’s Vogue profiler duped herself
In December 2010, then Vogue writer Joan Juliet Buck was having lunch with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, his wife, Asma, and their kids in their apartment in the upscale Malki neighborhood of Damascus, when Buck was reminded that one of the kids had just turned 6 the day before.
Buck, who went on to write the infamous Asma al-Assad: A Rose in the Desert piece in Vogue, wanted to give the kid “something that could pass as a birthday present”. So she rummaged through her handbag and settled on her Star Wars flash drive.
That’s when a surreal tableau of journalistic ineptness starts to unfold.
President Assad asks Buck if she wants to clean up the drive before handing it over to Assad junior.
The 64-year-old fashion and lifestyle journalist agrees it’s a good idea.
So the Syrian strongman leads the American fluff feature-writer to his wife's iMac.
As Buck plugs in the flash drive, a Word document pops up on the screen.
She sits there, staring at the screen until Assad helps her out.
“The president suggested I might want to put the document in the trash. I pulled it to the trash,” writes Buck in her unwittingly hilarious mea culpa for the notorious Vogue piece.
Buck’s riposte, titled, Mrs. Assad Duped Me, was published in this week’s Newsweek magazine, and I call on journalism professors to print out the story and discuss it in classes across the world so we don’t have to go through such scenes again.
But let’s get back to the frozen Buck gawking at her Word document. At her side, is the man at the pinnacle of a military intelligence network so vast, so shadowy, so omnipresent, and so terrifying, it’s referred to simply – in hushed tones – as “mukhabarat”.
Thanks to the Syrian president's foresight, the deleted document now sits in the Assad’s iMac trash bin.
Once more, the president pipes in with a helpful, “Empty it”. He then goes on to do just that.
Lesson for future journalists: When reporting in autocratic states, flash drives and camera chips must be backed up and then stored in remote pockets in your handbag or clothes, never to be aired unless security-intelligence goons succeed in fishing them out. As for spontaneously proffering a flash drive to the president of a repressive state…WRONG!
But just pause for a second to imagine what went through Assad’s head during this "driving the flash drive to trash" incident. Call off the mukhabarat goons and the minders around Madame Buck, he must have thought, this woman is so stupid, we’re wasting our resources keeping tabs on her.
Enter Sexy Sherry – Who Made a Fool of Everyone
Where do I even begin to enumerate the blunders Buck committed on that ill-fated reporting mission?
How about the meeting with the French ambassador to Syria at a Damascus hotel bar, when Ambassador Eric Chevalier reaches for Buck’s cell phone and takes out the battery before doing the same with his?
Sound journalist practice, you say, in a country ruled by a regime implicated in the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, much of which involved the use of cell phones, as UN investigators have noted.
But try beating this: Buck’s Syrian cell phone was handed to her – handed to her!!! - by the daughter of Syria’s ambassador to the UN, a certain Sheherazade Jaafari.
She’s the same sexy “Sherry” who embroiled ABC’s Barbara Walters in a “presidential interview for a recommendation” scandal. Sexy Sherry also popped up during the Assad emails scandals earlier this year.
So Buck unquestioningly accepts that Syrian cell phone. But she seems shocked when Sexy Sherry miraculously materializes minutes after M. Chevalier takes out the cell phone battery and chastizes poor Buck for meeting Monsieur l'Ambassadeur.
She never mentioned this little detail in her Vogue story.
Nor did she mention what looked like a mobile prison sinisterly parked at a souk.
Before she sets off for Syria, “an aesthete who went to Syria” mentions “in passing” that “some men were seen hanged outside the Four Seasons Hotel”.
Pass on that passing mention. I don’t know what she was smoking during that interview.
Pass on her bugged computer at her hotel. No mention of that trifling detail in the original piece either.
Pass on every damn thing besides inane descriptions of sartorial styles on Damascus streets. At one point, Buck describes “mustached men…wearing shoes from the 1980s and curiously ill-fitting leather jackets over thick sweaters”.
Whaaa...?! This is what happens when you send fashion writers to Syria.
Can someone please tighten the definition of the word ‘journalist’? If you’re a fashion, travel, celebrity or lifestyle feature writer, well then you’re a fashion, travel, celebrity or lifestyle feature writer, you’re not a journalist. If you’re covering the latest twist in Angelina Jolie’s exploits with Brad Pitt, you’re a…I don’t know…a sell-out may be, but you’re not a journalist. If you’re tapping phones to know what Hugh Grant is up to, you’re a bloody idiot wasting your education.
Buck’s original Vogue piece chalked up 3,200 words. Her Newsweek mea culpa - which was written after Vogue failed to renew her contract - is 3,000 words.
Three thousands words to save her skin and amazingly, Buck manages to rip that delicate, celebrity-profiling skin to shreds - herself. As the Guardian said, “somehow the mea culpa is almost as disastrous as the initial interview.”
Writing for the Guardian, Homa Khaleeli notes that there’s very little evidence that Mrs. Assad duped Buck. The duping, it must be said, was self-imposed.
The Name Itself Sounded Like…
My favourite though is Buck’s measured ruminations on the state of Syria.
I quote: “Syria. The name itself sounded sinister, like syringe, or hiss.
That sparked a trending topic on Twitter, #countriesbyvoguewriters. Tweets on this tag included, “Chad. The name itself sounded like my Lehman Bothers ex-boyfriend” and “Canada. The name itself sounded like ginger ale, except less dry”.
CNN’s Hala Gorani, whose parents hail from Aleppo, tweeted, “Turkey - the name itself sounded fattening”.
Poor Buck. The name itself sounded like my favorite word, which begins with an “F”. The buck, my dear Joan Juliet Buck, starts and stops at your curiously un-1980s, Christian Louboutin-encased feet.