~ Posted by Robert Butler, July 31st 2012
The journalist Joan Juliet Buck has written an article for Newsweek which attempts to explain the circumstances behind the egregious one she wrote about Asma al-Assad, wife of President Bashar al-Assad, which appeared in Vogue under the headline "A Rose in the Desert". Early on in this follow-up article, Buck writes, "Syria. The name itself sounded sinister, like syringe, or hiss."
This set off a lively hashtag on Twitter over the last day or two called #countriesbyvoguewriters:
Germany—the name itself sounds infectious
New Zealand—because the old Zealand is so last season
Romania—a country whose name suggested crazy romances
Iran—but you can also walk there, or get a plane
The Globe and Mail's European Bureau Chief tweeted that Newsweek had given Buck: "3,000 words of rope. She used every inch." Her piece turns out to be a prime example of the unreliable narrator, where we come away with a different impression from the one that's presented to us. Buck wouldn't want us to think that she took the assignment without thinking hard about it first, so she points out that her research included reading a "long" article about Damascus in British Condé Nast Traveller which described the city's "increased hipness"; she also spoke to a documentary maker who made a film about Idi Amin, "someone who had a house in Aleppo", and an aesthete who "raved" about the ruins at Palmyra.
There's a good deal of repositioning going on, as Buck acknowledges the appalling events that have taken place both since her visit and since her article was published in late February 2011. (Vogue was disconcertingly slow to take the article offline—not doing so till May. It's still online on President Assad's website.)
Buck had written for Vogue since she was 23, and no longer does, but even in this week's piece there are little Vogue touches that keep surfacing. She writes that on her trip she had to sit through long meetings "unfed"; in the street, men with mustaches wore "ill-fitting leather jackets", some of the boys she saw had "bad haircuts" and "a poor grasp of personal space". In her original piece, she writes, she had described Damascus "too subtly, as a Mediterranean hill town in an Eastern-bloc country." Too much subtlety was not the problem.
But the most striking exchange comes in the opening section. A features editor from Vogue rings to suggest the interview. Buck doesn't want to do it. She says, "Send a political journalist". The editor replies, "We don't want any politics, none at all, and she only wants to talk about culture ..."
This is an interview with the wife of a dictator. The event is organised by a PR firm, Brown Lloyd James, who employed the daughter of a Syrian ambassador to the UN as an intern. Everything here is politics. Putting a gloss on a dictator and his wife is pure politics because at this level all culture is politics. There's rarely been a magazine article that demonstrates the point so unwittingly.
Robert Butler is online editor of Intelligent Life