Writer Joan Juliet Buck has expressed discomfort with that ill-timed glowing profile of Syrian First Lady Asma al-Assad she wrote for Vogue last year, pointing out publicly that al-Assad is “extremely thin and very well-dressed and therefore, qualified to be in the Vogue,” even if she was tied to an oppressive regime. And now that Buck no longer works for the fashion bible, she’s written a lengthy piece for Newsweek called “Mrs. Assad Duped Me” to give her take on how that piece really came about and her experience in Syria.
Buck writes that she initially had no interest in doing the profile and suggested Vogue send a political writer. Vogue‘s response, according to Buck:
We don’t want any politics, none at all,” said the editor, “and she only wants to talk about culture, antiquities, and museums. You like museums. You like culture. She wants to talk to you. You’d leave in a week.
A political writer Buck is not, as she admits. She lets us in on her thought process when deciding to write the piece: “When else would I get to see the ruins of Palmyra?” And, “Syria. The name itself sounded sinister, like syringe, or hiss.” (This quote has already inspired the hilarious Twitter hashtag #countriesbyvoguewriters. Example: “Turkey – the name itself sounded fattening.”)
Despite what we’d call some pretty big red flags, like the fact that she’d been told by someone who’d recently been to Syria that some men were seen being hanged outside of a Four Seasons, she, for some reason, decides to do it anyway:
It was an assignment. I was curious. That’s why I’d become a writer. Vogue wanted a description of the good-looking first lady of a questionable country; I wanted to see the cradle of civilization. Syria gave off a toxic aura. But what was the worst that could happen? I would write a piece for Vogue that missed the deeper truth about its subject. I had learned long ago that the only person I could ever be truthful about was myself.
She then goes into what may be the Vogue piece she wished she’d written, mentioning some of the not so glamorous things she witnessed there, like museums that were “sparse” and “dusty” and a box she saw that looked like a mobile prison.
She also says that her laptop was tampered with in her hotel room and had to use a phone that was given to her.
Still, the story made it to print. She says that after her trip, as the Arab Spring unfolded, she didn’t want to write the piece but always finishes what she starts. “The Arab Spring is spreading,” she told Vogue. “You might want to hold the piece.” She alleges when she asked for a meeting about how the piece should be handled, a meeting was held without her and she was just told not to talk to the press.
Earlier in the piece, Buck acknowledges the fact that this piece is why her contract with Vogue ended after so many years, saying, “There was no way of knowing that this piece would cost me my livelihood and end the association I had had with Vogue since I was 23.”
In the piece, Buck focuses more on showing how mislead she was by Assad and the image that was shown to her of Syria, and less on attacking Vogue for publishing the piece and letting her take the fall. However, the latter was clearly something she wanted to get across.
You can read the full seven-page article here. Who do you think is to blame for the controversial piece: Buck or Vogue?