The Syrian First Lady &The Sunday Times Interview

  “Peace is still an objective for us. Without it, no matter how much we prosper economically, we won’t be able to realise the future that we’re looking for.”


 Margarette Driscoll

 It doesn’t take much to cause ripples in a staid Arab society, so the impact on Syria of its British-born first lady, Asma Assad, has been nothing less than seismic. From the moment she married the country’s president, Bashar al-Assad, eight years ago, she threw away the rule book. The first thing she did, for instance, was to disappear from public view.

 When she surfaced, three months later, it turned out she’d been travelling around the country incognito – in T-shirt and jeans – wanting to assess Syria’s problems for herself and get to know people before they had any preconceived notions about her. “For me,” she says, “it was only logical – that was the way to start.”

 Back in Damascus she held a reception and astonished her husband’s ministers by mingling and introducing herself to everyone instead of gathering them around a long, formal dinner table with herself and her husband at the head.

 Her warm, informal style has persisted, despite the muttered disapproval of the old guard, formed under the rigid regime of Bashar’s father Hafez al-Assad. It was very much in evidence last week, on a visit to the Massar education centre in Lattakia, northern Syria – one of her pet projects – where she slipped quietly into the back of a room in which teenagers were discussing the internet (including their belief that their government blocked certain sites) and ended up in a spirited debate.

 Afterwards she stopped to talk to a group of little girls, shaking hands and kissing each one in turn. The parallels with Diana, Princess of Wales were inescapable: listening to one of the children play the piano, she told the entranced remainder that the music made her want to get up and dance. “They looked at me and said, ‘Me too, but we didn’t want to say’,” she laughs.  

The analogy with Diana does not run much further, though. Our golden girl was 19, naive and self-confessedly “thick as a plank” when she married the Prince of Wales. Assad, 33, the daughter of a prominent cardiologist, grew up in Acton, west London, left Queen’s college, an independent school in Harley Street, with four A-levels, including maths and economics, and got a first in computer science at King’s College London.

 She spent two years at Deutsche Bank, then joined JP Morgan – where she specialised in mergers and acquisitions – working for nine months in the bank’s Paris office and for 18 months in New York. She talks fluently of Syria’s economic situation and the overhaul of its education system.

  She has launched a number of initiatives to kick-start rural development and has been the driving force behind a host of cultural events staged as part of Damascus’s year as Arab capital of culture, including a recently opened exhibition of ceramics from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

 She and her husband’s family knew one another: her mother was first secretary at the Syrian embassy in London and the family moved in elevated diplomatic circles.

 She visited the family home in Homs, western Syria, every year and even in London they lived a very “Syrian” existence. She once joked that she was “about seven” before she realised her parents could speak English. “If you were to ask me what I miss most about London, it would probably be the rain,” she says.  

Still, for a woman who had known the freedom of growing up in Britain and having her own career, the prospect of marrying Assad must have been a daunting one, entailing constraints of protocol and security, even for a free spirit like herself.

 She says she decided she was not taking on a symbolic position, but a job. “Two weeks ago my husband and I went to see a play at the theatre. The following day, during a meeting, somebody new to Syria asked if that was normal. What’s abnormal about it? We’re married, we’re young, why wouldn’t we go to the theatre? He said, ‘Because heads of state just don’t do that’. That’s the difference between letting the position dictate who you are as a person or you determining who you are as an individual. The first lady is what I do, it is not who I am.”

 What she doesn’t say is that both she and the president were in jeans, had not booked tickets and, finding the stalls were full, sat upstairs in the gods. It has been the talk of Damascus for a fortnight.

In person she is perfectly groomed, willowy and model slim. This month’s French Elle rates her as the most stylish of international political ladies (above Carla Bruni-Sarkozy and Michelle Obama). At the mention of this she rolls her eyes. Being thought a style icon clearly amuses her, although her claim that she chooses clothes for comfort rather than fashion is ever so slightly undermined by the vertiginous heels – the scarlet soles betray them as Christian Louboutin – that she wears to visit the education centre.

 The Assads have two sons – Hafez, 7, and Kareem, 3 – plus a five-year-old daughter, Zein, and live in an apartment block on a hill overlooking Damascus. The day we met was Hafez’s birthday. They’d had a morning celebration at home before school but the main event would be a football party this weekend, which she would be forced to join in. “I’m the goalie!” she laughs.  

“He wants to be an astronaut, so we’re in a space mode at the moment. I don’t know much about space but I’m learning very quickly.”

 After dropping the children at school each day, she heads for her office, a cool, airy building overlooking the city. It’s there that we meet, although this is not entirely to her liking: “If I’d had it my way, I would have invited you out for a cup of coffee.”

 The president-to-be’s career in medicine came to an abrupt end in 1994 when Basil was killed in a car crash. Bashar assumed office when his father died in 2000 and his presidency (uncontested) was confirmed in a referendum in 2001.

 Great hopes rested on Bashar’s shoulders, both inside Syria and in the West – but his ascent to power coincided with the election of George Bush and the subsequent war in Iraq, which Syria bitterly opposed.

Old enmities became entrenched, although inside the country things did begin to change. The new president shut the notorious Mezze prison, linked to human rights abuses, and lowered the retirement age of the army, neutering a number of his father’s hardline colleagues.

 He has quietly liberalised what was a stolid, socialist economy, welcomed private banks and foreign investment and begun to open up the internet. Syria is suddenly being featured in travel supplements as a hip new destination.

 With the demise of the Bush presidency, it also finds itself in the novel position of being courted by the West, both as a trade partner and as a way of countering its closeness to Iran. President Sarkozy of France was first off the blocks, closely followed by our own foreign secretary David Miliband, who last month secured an agreement to share intelligence with Syria.

 “There seems to be more engagement with Syria in recent weeks, primarily because people have woken up to the fact that we need a new dialogue,” says Asma. “The days of one side hectoring the other or one side preaching to the other are over – we didn’t get anywhere, we didn’t achieve anything.

 “It’s only through interaction that we can begin to bring things together. The Miliband visit was a good, positive step in the right direction for both countries, but so much more needs to happen.”

 One would have thought she would be thrilled at the prospect of her two homelands being on the brink of a new understanding, but although her smile never falters, she is cool about the British overtures. “With other countries, even when the political situation was not positive and we didn’t see eye to eye, opportunities in other sectors were being explored and developed, cultural activity has not stopped, technical assistance has been continuing,” she says.

 “Even with the French, when politically we may have stalled, they have been helping us on economic reform and more recently on cultural institution-building. The Germans have been assisting us with infrastructure development and technical know-how.

“The Italians have been working with us on development projects, the Japanese government’s foreign aid agency is also very active in Syria. So countries have continued to engage with Syria in more than one area. Unfortunately with Britain, that hasn’t been the case. It seems that all your eggs may have been put into one basket.”

 By which she means an unhealthy closeness to America – one which may have done us a disservice, despite the sense of optimism around Miliband’s visit.

 “This region is based on relationships and the direct contact you have with people in both the good times and the bad,” she says.

“Unless you have those relationships on the ground, you can’t just come knocking when people are optimistic because it’s too late, there are other players on the dance floor and there’s just no more room for you.”

 She is more than aware, though, of the need to work together to combat terrorism. “A lot of people still ask me about growing up in the UK and how the way of life is different. The most striking difference for me – and it was only when I came back to Syria that you see it – is that the sense of peace in Europe is a reality. Growing up, I never thought about war or instability, and when you’re secure and stable you are free to dream, free to have ambition and think about the future in a much more dynamic way.

 “Peace is still an objective for us. Without it, no matter how much we prosper economically, we won’t be able to realise the future that we’re looking for.”

 Like everyone else, she watched the events unfolding in Mumbai with horror – and a sense of foreboding. “When you live in a region that is dogged by violence and instability, you can’t tune out or switch off as you would your TV and go about your normal life,” she says. “Countries that have achieved peace cannot imagine life without it. For us the reality is very different. What we saw in Mumbai was extremely saddening, because it means more turmoil and instability.”  

She is adamant, however, that Islam has been unfairly demonised. “When we associate extremism with religion, we’re being too narrow,” she says. “It can exist everywhere, in politics, in society and in attitudes. But what does religion actually teach us? All three monolithic religions teach us about the dignity of the human being, respect for others, openness and the value of human life. To disfigure religion and associate it with violence and terror is just not humane. It’s not the religion that’s wrong; it’s those people who are using religion as an excuse.”

 Such reflections have given an urgency to her drive to tackle poverty in Syria. “There is no time to waste,” she says.

 In a recent speech in Italy, she said: “Take a second to ask yourself . . . Where would the extremist preach if poverty did not provide the audience? Where would a terrorist recruit if poverty did not line up those in despair?”

 “We tend to assume poverty only exists in the Third World, but you find even in the US and Europe there are pockets of extreme hardship and that’s not something that people pay enough attention to,” she adds now. “The reason why it is so important is because it affects us all. When people are poor they have no hope and when they have no hope, they become desperate and desperation can breed some bad, bad things . . .”

 Poverty is an issue in Syria, too, with a per capita income of about $1,915 (£1,300). She is particularly concerned that Syria’s economic progress – and last year its economy grew by about 6.1% – is not unfairly skewed towards the cities. Her largest undertaking, Firdos, the Fund for Integrated Rural Development of Syria, focuses on micro-finance for small businesses, scholarships for bright pupils and teaching IT skills.

 Progress generally has been hampered by the influx of 1.4m refugees from Iraq. “To put it into perspective, that’s a 10% increase in our population in 18 months. And for a country with the limited resources Syria has, the burden on the infrastructure has been phenomenal,” she says. “For us, though, there was no choice – where else would they go?”

 Some 33,000 Iraqi children are being educated in Syria as a result, in schools that are full to overflowing. About 60% of the 20m population are under 25, with 40% of the total under 15. That’s a daunting number of young people to provide jobs and homes for. “They represent today’s reality and tomorrow’s promise,” Asma says. “The work that I am involved in is to ensure that their promise becomes our reality.”

 Despite the challenges, she believes that Syria’s unique nature as an incubator of both Islam and Christianity means extremism could not take hold there. Damascus is the world’s oldest continually inhabited city and its ancient streets are testament to its many cultural influences. Last week several stalls in the souk leading to the Umayyad mosque, one of greatest in the Islamic world, were bedecked with Christmas decorations. Inside the mosque is a shrine containing what are claimed to be the remains of John the Baptist.

 “A tourist was saying to me he was shocked when he went into the ministry of tourism’s website, where it says Syria is the birthplace of Christianity. I asked why and he said, ‘Well, you’re a Muslim state. How could you be the birthplace of Christianity?’ I said, ‘No, we’re a secular state and, for Syrians, the fact that we were able to protect St Paul and make sure that he got off safely to Rome . . . we’re taught that through him Christianity spread, and we’re proud of that’.”

 Our form of multiculturalism, in her view, is no more than skin-deep – in Syria, it’s part of what you are.

 “I lived in Britain and I saw how much coexistence there is and how tolerant people are, but when you come to Syria you discover a whole new and unique perspective. For me, being Syrian, Straight Street [the road through Damascus built by the Romans] is a part of who I am; St Paul is part of who I am, the Umayyad mosque is part of who I am, Aramaic [the ancient language of Christianity, still spoken in parts of Syria] is a part of who I am.

 “When the president prays in the Umayyad mosque, he sits right beside the tomb of St John the Baptist. That unity and harmony doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world.”

 From The Sunday Times, December 7, 2008

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