Thursday, April 12, 2012

'I am not like you': an open letter from 'Shahrazad' to to Asma al-Assad

An Arab woman author, journalist, conceptual artist and editor has, under the name Shahrazad, written this eloquent open letter in poster form to Asma al-Assad, wife of the Syrian president.

No one has ever called me “a rose in the desert”. I was never considered the It Girl of Middle Eastern ruling wives. I haven’t posed with world leaders or royalty, or ever worn Chanel or Christian Louboutin. For Arab womanhood to be acceptable, it should be uncovered, aristocratic and groomed, never tempestuous – like Salome or Leila Khaled. It should exude first class cool. It was not only your designer wardrobe that impressed, your IQ was described by a Vogue journalist as “killer”[1]. Cultured, articulate you were the product of a Harley Street cardiologist and a former diplomat, a childhood in Acton, private school education and college degrees in computer science and French literature, a pedigree tailor-made for an illustrious career in banking and hedge funds. I wonder if JP Morgan or Deutsche Bank prepared you for the current crisis. As for myself, I’ve never studied finance or considered applying to Harvard Business School.

In the early years of your marriage, you must have felt a higher calling: the liberalisation of Syrian banks and modernising the Internet. Your WiFi caravan for rural women toured the countryside. You appeared angel-like to poor children, promising them a decent life and better education, against the odds and in apparent defiance of your in-laws whose greed has stripped the nation bare. In the Old City, a photographer spoke in a low whisper, looking around to make sure no one was listening: ‘Our country is rich, but it doesn’t belong to us.’ A heavy brocade curtain parted slightly. A daughter of political dissidents told me about her parents in jail, and hints from popular culture kept corroborating their experiences. First time was a political cartoon by Ali Farzat: a dismembered prisoner hangs in a cell, while the jailer sitting on the floor, sharp implements at hand, sobs over a television soap opera. Then there was Rafik Schami’s novel, The Darker Side of Love, about generational violence and vendetta, and the systematic use of efficient torture after the blond German-speaking Stasi officers arrived. A BBC journalist reporting in the region recently admitted to me, there is a PhD thesis to be written about the special relationship between the communist secret police (Russia’s and the GDR’s) and Syria’s mukhabarat.

For those of us who grew up in loving Arab households, violence like this is inconceivable. If your immigrant father is like mine, your bedtime stories were filled with scenes from the old country. Once we started travelling there by ourselves, as young women, we became infatuated with a people and culture. When the US invaded Iraq or Gaza suffered, we talked obsessively about how to make some noise, effect change. Political and social transformation has always driven my ideas about the Middle East and it seemed you felt the same way. You told Vogue that it was your mission to empower the six million Syrians under eighteen, to give them “a stake” in their country so they felt it belonged to them. Mistakenly I thought I had witnessed your engagement first hand for myself on an annual bike ride for peace as women from all around the world cycled down dusty Syrian roads beside you (unlike Queen Rania who refused to ride with the hoi polloi). At rest stops, you disarmed all of us with your laughter and charm. We could have been more than friends; we could have been sisters. But you are a sister no longer, and each and every one of us feels played like a sucker.

My father believes the Arabs are caught in a cycle of never-ending historic violence. The revenge for the massacre of Karbala of 680ad is taking place today in Homs, Hama and Idlib to be followed by yet another killing field. My aunt, a Syrian Orthodox Christian, justifies the murderous actions of the regime because she fears the consequences of the old adage: ‘Alawites to the grave, Christians to Beirut.’ After eleven months of silence, a “stand by my man” email was issued from your office. The wording was stiff as though written by someone in a cult – ‘The president is the President of Syria, not a faction of Syrians, and the First Lady supports him in that role.’ Perhaps it was your inexperience – Arab daughters are often too sheltered and make notoriously bad decisions when it comes to men. But there is a glaring difference between sexual misconduct and the wanton killing of civilians.

Meanwhile the bloodletting continues unabated. But this time it is not a hairdresser like Mrs Ben Ali propping up a regime but a westerneducated, British born, First Lady, a former banker with populist pretentions and Chanel agates around her neck, whose Sunni family ironically originates from Homs, the very worst of Syria’s current killing fields. I am not like you.

When the violence is spent, don’t whine about what was beyond your control; how you were somehow the victim. At times like this, semper paratus should be your guide. Pack the Louis Vuittons, ready the abayah and familiarise yourself with the polite language of political exile in case an unscheduled flight whisks you off to Tehran or the malls of Doha. The grinds at the bottom of the Turkish coffee cup foretell only one future: you are no longer an innocent bystander. Mutilated honour – the very thing our women have always been killed for – spreads like a deep red stain across your husband’s silken bed sheets.

1. Joan Juliet Buck, “A Rose in the Desert”, Vogue (US), February 2011, an article that was withdrawn from the Vogue website and only available online from

Edition of 2000.

Available for free from

Written by Shahrazad

Picture credit: Louai Beshara / AFP / Getty Images

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