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The Tyrant’s Wife

As Syria’s first lady stands by her murderous husband, an Iranian activist remembers the Asma al-Assad she met on bike rides for peace

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Asma al-Assad during the 2007 Follow the Women bike trip. (All photos by Parvaneh Vahidmanesh)

Dear Asma,

It’s been five years since we last saw each other, but as your country has burned at the hands of your husband over the past year, I, along with the rest of the world, have wondered where you’ve been amid this madness. Then, late last week, I saw that you had finally broken your silence by emailing a British newspaper to express your support for your husband, Bashar al-Assad.

As your countrymen are being tortured and murdered by the regime that bears your last name, I imagine the trips we took together are far from your mind. But I am writing to remind you of the experiences we shared—and of the Asma I once knew—when we, along with 300 other women, came together to promote peace in the Middle East by biking across the region.

We first met in your palace in Damascus in 2005. You looked beautiful; as always, you were dressed in the most fashionable clothes. The last rays of the September sun streamed in from the balcony and onto your hair, perfectly styled, as you spoke to 300 women who were in Syria to “cycle for peace” on a trip run by a group called Follow the Women. The American, British, German, Spanish, Italian, Jordanian, Lebanese, Danish, Belgian, Turkish, and other women had signed up to cycle hundreds of miles across Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and the Palestinian territories, and the visit to your palace was our first stop.

I was the coordinator of Iran’s delegation. Even though our government forbade us from participating openly in such activities—especially from affiliating with any organization that mentioned peace between Palestine and Israel—we managed to coordinate everything underground to keep safe. We flew separately into Syria and didn’t speak about our plans with anyone.

You welcomed us to your homeland, Asma, and spoke of the necessity of peace. You emphasized that your aim was to spread a message of tolerance and spoke about the organizations that you established for women, children, and education. You reminded me of Farah Pahlavi, the last empress of Iran. She was the pioneer of social development in Iran in the 1970s while her husband, the shah, was too busy with politics and oppressing the opposition. I had heard so much about the Assad family’s brutality—especially your father-in-law Hafez al-Assad’s 1982 massacre in Hama. You seemed so different.

The next time we met, on another trip for peace in 2007, you were on your bike, cycling with us in a small village near the Syrian port city of Latakia. You wore light gray-and-white sports clothes and trendy sunglasses. For part of the route, we rode next to each other, and we started to chat. You expressed shock when I told you that I was participating in the event as an Iranian: After all, I wasn’t wearing a hijab, and I was biking “for peace” on behalf of a country whose regime wants to wipe Israel off the map. I spoke with you in Arabic, the language I learned in Damascus University in 2004, but you preferred to answer me in English, which you learned growing up in London.

We discussed the Iranian government and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. You wondered if Ahmadinejad, who had been in office for only a year, would be a reformer, perhaps by allowing Follow the Women to ride in Iran. I told you that such a change would be “impossible” as long as he was president. You tried to tell me that Syria was more developed and freer than Iran and asked me if I believed any change was coming to my country. I stared into your eyes and said in Arabic, “My land is yours, or your land is mine.” In Arabic, the phrase “My land is yours” is used as a sign of respect. By turning it around, I wanted Asma to understand that so long as dictators remained in power, there would be no change in either of our countries. You just smiled politely and biked ahead, joining some other riders.

At our first stop, you happily took pictures with the American delegation, eager to show them your open-minded attitude. At our second stop, in a small village, people came out to see you. Your security escort tried to scatter the people, but you asked them to leave you alone with the children. You kissed them, patted them on their heads, and talked with them. You inspired me with your kindness and humility. I took pictures to remember the moment—images that these days make me disgusted.

I left Iran two years after our last bike trip. In 2009, I was investigated by the Iranian intelligence ministry for a book I had been working on about Iranian Jews after the 1979 revolution. The ministry told me that they had evidence that I was working for an Israeli organization and that I was publishing propaganda for the Jews. Under Iranian law, such a crime is punishable by execution. So, I left my country and my family with no idea of when I would return. Now I am living in exile. But when I hear the stories of those fleeing Syria, Asma, I realize I am lucky. Over the past year, more than 8,000 Syrians have fled to Turkey because of your husband’s brutality.

You are not the same woman who once spoke to me about the plight of children in Palestine and elsewhere. A river of blood, including that of children, runs through your country. It’s hard for me imagine your hands blood-soaked, but your family is behind this ongoing massacre.

Asma, you are a mother, so how can you stand by a man who gives the orders to execute entire families in their homes? How can you sing lullabies to your daughter and son when so many Syrian mothers, especially in Homs, now have no one to sing to? How can you sleep in a bed with a man who has mastered the dark arts of torture and murder?

Awaiting your reply,
Parvaneh

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Parvaneh–Do you really think that she, or any of the Arab leaders (Including the Palestinian leaders) care about “the children of Palestine”. If they cared about them they would have urged the Palestinians to accept the state that has been offered to them 3 times over the past 20 years. What primarily interests them (and apparently the Palestinians also) is that the Jews be exterminated from the middle east.

Cynical realist says:

The author is shocked – shocked! – that someone who married into the Assad family doesn’t really care about peace or innocent children.

I don’t know which is more dangerous – the Assads of the region or the naive fools who believe the lies they spout.

This article indicates that an email was used to show support. anyone can log on as someone else and “put words in their mouth”. there is no guarentee that the wife actually wrote of support for her husband.

Geoff M says:

Marie is right. Just use “12345” as Asma’s password. It should work.

It’s a tremendously moving letter. With respect to Asma al-Assad’s post to the newspaper, I think the question of authenticity is irrelevant. Under the best of circumstances, it’s difficult to fathom the intentions of an autocrat or his inner circle, surrounded as they are by layers of gatekeepers who insulate them from the outside world while providing at best secondhand reports of their communications. For all anyone knows, al-Assad may be a prisoner in her own home. If her husband had any honor, he’d negotiate safe passage out of the country for her and their children in case his regime falls.

By the way, it’s wonderful seeing Iranian-born writers contributing to Tablet, Jewish and non-Jewish alike. With the prevailing tension between Israel and Iran right now, it might be a valuable exercise to feature similar contributions that highlight the historic bonds between Jews and Persians, with an eye to working toward a more hopeful future.

mordecai ham says:

Me, Albert Einstein, and noble Norman Finklestein might ask the same question of Netanyahu’s loud, stylish wife, or Sheldon Adelson’s toxic mate, or Newt Gingrich’s long time mistress. All are women who loudly declare the Palestinian’s are not a real, but an “invented people.” The nation with the 200-300 stolen nukes is the pot calling the kettle black. Non so blind…

Phil N says:

Unfortunately, if we are to believe what is said in Arabic, peace to the arabs is the first step towards the destruction of Israe. Many of those taking bicycle rides are tools of those seeking the destruction of Israel. The Assad family has ruled Syria in a brutal fashion fro decades, a fact well known to Asma al-Assad. While she might ride a bike with naive fools for “peace” with Israel, she of course supports her husbands brutality. The author has clearly shown herself to be a folll and a tool.

I don’t think that is the case, Phil N. The entire tone of the piece is one of disillusionment, a process invariably accompanied by feelings of regret. More important, she reviles the bloodshed in Syria, so can hardly be accused of buying into the Syrian regime’s propaganda.

Bill Pearlman says:

Eva Braun liked to dance I believe.

Eva Braun ended up in a bunker committing suicide with a German Shepherd and history’s worst murderer. The punishment will come, sooner or later.

he is a ruthless tyrant and muslim who cares not for his people or his homeland only for his power and she is powerless to do or say anything she should but my guess is if she did she might be in serious danger very serious danger

Justicegirl says:

Interesting piece. Shortly before all hell started breaking loose in Syria, Vogue did a piece on Syria’s first lady depicting her as not only a fashionable beauty, but as a role model for all women care deeply for humanity and the state of the world today. Gotta love the media …

Parvaneh,
Your letter has moved me deeply. Your call to peace and away from the river of blood that flows through Asma’s country is powerful.

I today pray as I am moved by God. I am looking for signs that Asma may hear or see and I find your letter to be warm, touching, and thought-provoking, a loving and gentle reminder from a woman who saw the spirit Asma has struggled to voice in recent months. I am crying out to God that she may know His heart deeply. I know this woman’s spirit to be in great turmoil over events of the last year. I pray without ceasing that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob will provoke her to move in the strength with which the Living God has bestowed upon her life. That she will be impressed and humbled by Jesus Christ who saves and that through her faith in Him, God will be glorified in her life in this very moment. The Living God is longing so deeply for her to turn her eyes on Him and find her strength, her protection, her security in His loving arms. It is a Love like no other she has known.

Dear Parvaneh,

She knows who was her husband and what kind of regime ruled Syria and was married to.. Believe as a Lebanese i can assure that all what she did, presenting her self as highly caring and thoughtful lady, was a charade..

We were surprised by falling for her charms and praising her… She married for power and money…

I remember when Mrs Assad spoke about Israel’s “barbarism” in Gaza.

What her husband and his relatives are doing is 100 x worse. Syria purposefully target their own civilians. And she keeps silent.

    Ryan Robart says:

    What is worse killing people quickly and suddenly…or killing people’s spirit, starving them, and humiliating the people for decades. I wonder if Israel hasn’t destroyed hundreds of thousands more people than assad has.

Lawdan Bazargan says:

Thank you for writing this article.
You compared Asma to Farah Pahlavi and said” You reminded me of Farah Pahlavi, the last empress of Iran. She was the pioneer of social development in Iran in the 1970s while her husband, the shah, was too busy with politics and oppressing the opposition.” I think the problem relies in these sentences. Both of them married men that did not believed in democracy and freedom, and they tried to justify the brutality of their husbands with small acts of kindness. Asma is the same person you met back then. She wants to be in charge and show people that she is kind and have a big heart, while she closes her eyes to the brutality, oppression, and crimes of her husband’s regime. Bashar Asad did not start killing people and oppressing them in 2011, this was an on going trend since 40 years ago. I have no respect for women like her that with little acts of kindness try to make a terrible situation, look a little more human.

ZISSA RAMANI says:

MY THOUGHTS FOR YEARS SYRIA WAS A BEAUTIFUL COUNTRY ENRICHED WITH LOVELY HOUSING FOOD GOOD ROADS AND EVERYTHING POSSIBLE. NOW IT IS BEING BLOWN UP TORN APART BY INSURGENTS DESTROYING THE NATION FOR HATE AND HUMAN SUFFERING.

QUESTION for you?

If insurgents came in USA blowing it up murdering our people causing suffering and pain. Do you think our Armed Forces would attack back?——-You bet they would?

This is not stand by your man—–but stand by your nation. Propaganda is easy to declare for those who did not know Syria when it was not a blown up country done by out siders for a pay check for proxies Israel racist activities?—to keep Americans working like tax slaves to send them our hard working money to support there citizens while was suffer and our veterans in USA.

    Ryan Robart says:

    I cant help but agree with this comment. I had no idea of the descrimination imposed by the jews in Israel and palestine until I spoke with an older imigrant from jeruselum. He said he left palestine because the jews made it so difficult to live, raise a family and get a job. We don’t here about the oppresion that israel is putting on people in that part of the world we only here about how horrible the haulocaust was and oppressed the jews are. Well after talking to this old christian I have my doubts about what the real story is.

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The Tyrant’s Wife

As Syria’s first lady stands by her murderous husband, an Iranian activist remembers the Asma al-Assad she met on bike rides for peace

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