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Jul 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 forces? 

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?     


Because 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 about Asma:

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 photos?

(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.)


you mean besides the fact that she is totally hot?

it almost looks like an ill-fitted suit. the knot is too large.

he seems so relaxed, composed, reserved. as opposed to most of the photos of middle eastern men, angry or yelling, the "arab street" type.

My observation is that he's a young rich kid who's gotten stuck with a job he doesn't want, riding the tiger. It's hard to believe that the balance of power isn't held by former cronies of Hafez peré. For this reason, one must be very careful about attributing actions to "Syria" (e.g., the Hariri assassination) because it seems likely that there are a number of powerful factions not under control of any central power (ala the ISI in Pakistan).

He looks very nervous to me in both pictures, out of place.

One thinks of Kadaffi's children, who apparently also would far prefer to be jet-setting glitterati than follow in Dad's footsteps.

It seems as if the photos of Bashar are purposefully portraying him as a blank slate - a prim and proper gentleman if you will. Could this be a subtle attempt to keep people from automatically making the connection between Bashar and his father?

Black suit/slacks, a white shirt and no decorations on his apparal at all, not even a lapel pin. Actually, even the backgrounds of the two photos are bland - one a white wall and the other a supposed shot of Damascus, which looks like several other cities I've seen. Bashar doesn't really even look very Arab, especially in the portrait where he appears more Latin.

And what is he doing with his hands in the photo with his wife? Just the position they're in makes me think that he's either nervous or fidgety.

His wife seems like she's grown tired of the photo shoot at least. Her hand on her hip, she seems as if she's merely acting the part of loyal wife - something she resents given her background and apparent financial expertise.

Just looking into her eyes, she seems like someone who spends a lot of time thinking about herself.

Also, they don't seem very close in the photo. There's a definite space between them and she's got the arm closest to him on her hip while he fidgets with his hands.

I gotta admit though that they do look more like your average western couple...

She is an attractive woman and she knows it; she's comfortable with the camera, though perhaps a bit bored. He is less attractive, less comfortable with the camera; probably he's been told his neck is too long and his head is too small. What strikes me about their eyes is how little emotion they betray, at least by Western standards. Each of them seems to have mastered a sort of vacant stare, the next best thing to dark glasses for concealing what the eyes might otherwise give away.

He has long arms and seems unsure what to do with them; she knows exactly how to use hers. Unusual to see so many (presumably unintentional) highlights on a woman's face. Her make-up seems even. The shadow beneath her chin is very sharp; perhaps the artificial lights were actually too hot for the room. I'd guess that they were a bit off-guard for this picture, as if they hadn't specifically been told to smile ahead of time. Could be, from the angle of the shot and the direction she's looking, that this was taken with a different camera from the one they'd been posing for.

I doubt that very much can be inferred about their relationship. Despite their experience with Western ways, they are people of the Middle East, and are at home, where public displays of affection, even between man and wife, are subdued and infrequent.

The credit line on the photo is Taryn Simon, about whom I know nothing other than that the name might be Jewish. If so, that too might be part of what has to be considered here.

In fact, pictures frequently are analyzed without regard for who shot them, and how, and why. The photographer is the original beholder, through whose eyes and sensibilities and intentions the image is filtered. Needs to be taken into account.

They say: we are not unsuccessful. I remember someone telling me, a Syrian in fact, that Time magazine had a cover story about Bashar's father, in about 1985, titled: The Sphinx of Damascus (or Syria?). And now his son is an enigma. Things haven't changed much, at least with regard to the U.S. slant on Syria. If you think of Bashar and his wife as Lebanese, they instantly appear less enigmatic. Syria was not in Lebanon for nothing; after all, Lebanon was part of Syria for thousands of years until the fall of the Ottoman Empire when the French and British decided that something called Lebanon existed, i.e., a western (Christian?) outpost in the eastern Mediterranean. Someone remarked that Bashar doesn't look so much like the stereotypical Arab man: well maybe he isn't an Arab, which may also hold for his wife.

These pictures again bring to mind something I've thought for some time: that some foreign men look awful in western style suits. Put Asaad in a Kufeya, or a Japanese diplomat in a kimono, and they look a lot more dignified.

The photographer is the original beholder, through whose eyes and sensibilities and intentions the image is filtered.
To some extent. But in real life, the process is not "photographer carefully composes and takes a picture, magazine publishes it". The actual process for events (as opposed to posed images, like portraits) is that the photographer takes lots of pictures, many of them without a clear idea what it might look like later. (I am frequently surprised at what the camera captures that I didn't even see at the time). After the shoot, some group of people look through big piles of pictures and select one or two for publication. It is that group of people who have the most influence on what you, the public, sees.


I know all that, perhaps even as well as you do. My point was that photographer and subject react to each other, and the reaction influences the final product. This effect, frequently invisible or irrelevant in mass coverage of a news event, can be quite palpable in a more formalized portrait setting. This appears to have been more like portraiture.

No matter how many intervening editors are involved, no matter how many pictures are in the pile, the images originate with the photographer. It is not an accident of technology or a plot among editors that makes one photographer better or more frequently called-upon than another.

In the main picture the head does not want to be with the suit. It is trying to escape. The most striking part of the suit is that one central button. It looks as though it is holding the man together. Undo that button and the whole suit deflates. Maybe a blow-up president to steer the country until a real president comes along - like the auto pilot in the spoof film "Airplane"?

hmmm... perhaps something out of Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers : He gives her "class" ~ she gives him "sex appeal" ?

isolated, he's really, really stiff; has little if any visual sense -of- self; i think AOG nailed him really good. yeah, she may be "hot", and well-educated, yadda yadda...

...but she's hardly noble / gracious material, by continental european standards, at any rate. her image says (to me) that she's not genuine glitterati; more like the stretch limo kinda glitterati that Americans think of as "celebrity". iow, european women of a certain class simply don't have that kind of posture, or presence.

these images DO reveal a lot! my overall impression is that neither of these characters has any business being head -of- state; and, as mentioned by others, in terms of realpolitik ~ they probably aren't.

The pictures of this man and this woman seem only to irritate most commenters. Isn't there anything to be said in their favor? Place them beside pictures of other political leaders and see what you get, try some of that continental and, more appositely, island aristocratic stuff . What's getting your goat: the politics or the cash? It can't really be only their appearance. 'Women of a certain class': who might they be?

In the first photo, Bashar seems to be suffering the Dubya syndrome--suit too big, somewhat ill-fitted, uncomfortable/perhaps not up to the role he is placed into. In short too stiff, contrived--this is what a leader is supposed to look like. On the other hand, the second photo is more casual, spur of the moment (maybe), paparazzi induced. This could be anyone of the thousands of "candid" shots from People magazine--(can't you see Bennifer II in that pose...?) To me they look like a young Parisian couple just home from work getting ready to take the kids to the park.... Their looks seem more like "who are you and why are you still photographing us......? She seems rather bored/tired of the attention, while he is has an expression that says "what?". I do find it interesting that he is looking at the camera and she is looking off in the distance. hmmn? maybe a secret coded message to agents in Lebanon.............! All in all, they do seem to have the disposition and demeanor of a typical young, urban, privileged couple in NYC, Paris, Berlin, Geneva, etc.--more interested in their own lives than with their obligations.

hmmm... i guess they're irritating many of us on a number of levels, Quentin.

they are themselves, ill -at- ease, apparent ~ and that/their feeling transfers to some viewers.

they don't look like "leaders", they look like "celebrities", or wannabee celebrities, at any rate.

they reflect nothing from their own culture. even as celebrities, they celebrate nothing Syrian...

...they're self-absorbed. as de facto "royals", there is little grandeur or, i daresay, dignity of State here. they don't even appear especially urban/urbane: in fact they look sub-urban; MidCentury Modern; nouveau riche; iow, yuppie like.

no glamour, Quentin; no graciousness; yet, aloof; un-inviting ~ perhaps even arrogant (on her part) sometimes when i look at him, i get that deer -in- headlights feeling; why me? Help!

"of a certain class"... oh, come now, sweetie ~ tell me you really don't know what that means ;-) fwiw, most Ladies born and raised into it are comfortable in that skin: they exhibit neither arrogance nor impatience, rather: serenity.

What's the source of the sharp, negative reactions to these two people? That's what has turned out to be the most interesting side of these pictures: the reactions.

Monseiur Gonzo,

I guess you must be referring to women who are fictions of their own societal inhibitions.

did i mention she was really hot?

In the portrait, he looks like a complete dork. Like Mr. Bean. In the shot of the couple, it looks like she's been photoshopped into the picture. Looks like the photo of her was taken at another place and time (perhaps outdoors - note her windblown looking hair); she doesn't seem remotely aware of his existence)

Well he lived this long so he must have some smarts.

He's a torpedo.

You don't see him coming until-'WHAM'!!!
(....bububub Bashr it wasn't me-it was... Remember when I helped you...? I'm INNOCENT!!!!)
Lets not forget Syria for a while was doing subcontracting work for CIA. Bet Damascus was on the Rendition flight schedule)
Syria is a s#ithole as far as rights and skinny here is on top of that heap.

The photo shows nothing and shows everything. He looks like a nothing-but he is head of Syria-hardly a democracy.
He is a Strongman-he's smart and doesn't show it.
His brother died in a 'car accident'. As I recall from some TIME magazine article eons ago. The departed brother had a reputaion of wearing designer military uniforms, a playboy, threw his weight around as heir-apparent.
Tragic accident- a young life cut short. Terrible.

Maybe it was an accident.

Nothing to be gained being flashy. Even Saddam had to pay cronies and pay bribes to keep things in check.
Being dictator isn't all about gassing villages and making people disappear in the night and fog. You got to share the power down the lines of communication.
Or you get 'inertia'-things just don't happen the way they are suppose to.
24/7 job being a Strongman. Long hours. Always checking your 6. Always.
Best to be an enigma. His physical looks are an asset in that regard. I'd kiss his ring if I lived there.

The Mark II model is an improvement.

Wife looks bored. Who cares?
Bet Bashr has a mistress(s)
and wifey had to show up for the photo op to make nice. Without the 'torpedo' -she's nothing. And she knows it. And she isn't going anywhere and they both know it.
You buy the ticket-you take the ride.

Mr. and Mrs. Strongman

'It's a tough racket'
-Alec Baldwin
Glen Garry Glenn Ross

Whats up with every one attacking the way the Assads look?
Let me ask everyone on this site, who makes a better looking couple Bush & wife or Assad & wife?
I really like to hear an honest opinion.

Whats up with every one attacking the way the Assads look?
Let me ask everyone on this site, who makes a better looking couple Bush & wife or Assad & wife?
I really like to hear an honest opinion.

Sorry, I ment to reply to that statement above. Well, tough question. But all I know that Assma is an elegant attractive woman.

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