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The Dictator's Wife: The gripping BBC Two Between the Covers book club pick

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For the most part, Western diplomats in Damascus gladly supported Asma’s trust. She charmed the European Union, the UN, the World Bank and Qatar, yielding millions of dollars to finance her vision. A flurry of newspaper articles celebrated Damascus’s “cultural renaissance”, as Asma called it. “This is how you fight extremism – through art,” Bashar said. Asma’s mergers and acquisitions continue apace. Syria’s second-biggest mobile-phone firm has also gone into receivership; last month Asma’s cronies were appointed to its board. Emmatel – the phone company with her name – now has branches countrywide (even in areas her husband doesn’t control). When her hair fell out she was photographed wearing chic headscarves, projecting both vulnerability and strength, an irresistible metaphor for her husband’s own struggle against the insurgency. “Congratulations on your victory over cancer,” began one TV interviewer. “Thank you,” replied Asma. “And I hope we will soon celebrate Syria’s victory.”

Velvet gloves to iron fists: how complicit are the wives of

Berry read about another striking example in the Middle East: Asma al-Assad, wife of Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad, now widely considered a war criminal. In 2011 she was featured on the cover of Vogue magazine with the headline “A Rose in the Desert”, and a fawning profile that began: “Asma al-Assad is glamorous, young and very chic – the freshest and most magnetic of first ladies.” The author has created an imaginative Eastern European country, and has set the novel in the early 1990s, under the shadow of the fall of communism and the raising of the Iron Curtain. The fictious country of Yanussia was formerly a part of the USSR and now that the doors have been flung open, its populace are gunning for justice against the corruption of the past…or are they? Mary Jordan, a biographer of Melania Trump, found her more ambitious and knowing – more like Donald Trump – than is often assumed. Berry comments: “She’s very good at disappearing, even when she’s right there, behind her sunglasses.” Former associates say Bashar is pleased at his wife’s financial success and grateful for her help: he is tired after a decade-long war – and economics was never his strong suit. Asma has become his “chief economic adviser”, according to a lobbyist for the Assads in Europe.The end of Elena In only a matter of days, Elena transformed from one of the most prestigious scientists in Europe to a state criminal facing a firing squad. Bashar had never needed his allies more: his British wife might help placate Western governments. He promised Asma that he would muzzle the in-laws and agreed to designate her “First Lady” (Syria’s state media started using the term only after Anisa died in 2016). Asma had finally won a seat at the table. She was also effective. “It was surprising how many times she said ‘I’d like something to happen’, and it happened,” said someone who worked for her in Damascus for six years. Her staff kept to the punishing schedule she’d grown accustomed to at J.P. Morgan: the office opened at 6am and work continued into the evening. Officials knew to consult Asma, not the culture minister, on major questions.

Dictators From Around the World - TheClever Women Who Married Dictators From Around the World - TheClever

Her interest in chemistry arose when she was briefly employed in a laboratory. In her free time, she attended meetings of the Youth Communists' League, where she met her soon-to-be husband Nicolae. She failed nearly every subject that was taught in Romanian schools. It is an intriguing prism through which to consider Melania Knauss, a Slovenian model who came to America married Donald Trump in 2005. With his election a decade later, she became only the second foreign-born first lady in American history – and one of the most divisive. If you want to look at the influence of a first lady’s style, look no further than Vogue, says Berry, , pointing to the image-making moment of Jill Biden’s first cover on the high fashion magazine. The 70-year-old is seen smiling, wearing a floral-patterned blue dress, leaning against a White House balcony – a wholesome contrast to Melania Trump’s opulent couture.


Hafez was dead by the time Asma moved to Damascus at the end of 2000, but his legacy was ubiquitous, from the Soviet-style architecture to adulatory billboards bearing his face. His support for terrorist organisations across the region had cut off Syria from the West. Bashar’s ascendance was an opportunity to reset relations. It’s the personality cults versus the quite brutish figures that they actually were,” Berry remarks. “Elena liked to present herself as a scientist but couldn’t recognise basic chemistry formulas. That didn’t stop her getting an honorary doctorate from the Royal Society of Chemistry; there’s a campaign at the moment to get her stripped of them.” Assad appears to have almost a cast a spell on the profile writer, Berry observes. “Personal magnetism and charm is very hard to fight against. You look over here and you don’t look at the extrajudicial killings over there.” Many Syrians were intoxicated by what they saw, but fear inhibited most from coming onto the streets. Then, one night in February in a drab agricultural town called Deraa, south of Damascus, a group of schoolchildren sprayed graffiti on a wall: “It’s your turn next, doctor.” Institute of Organic Chemistry (Romanian Academy) in Bucharest built in the 1970s. Source: socialistmodernism.com

Elena Ceausescu: Greatest Scientist Ever — except she was a Elena Ceausescu: Greatest Scientist Ever — except she was a

In 2018 Asma was diagnosed with breast cancer. The illness didn’t stop her from carefully managing her public image, or making sure that everyone knew she’d stayed in Syria for her treatment. Her struggle was documented in detail by state media and on the presidency’s social-media channels. She was even filmed being wheeled into the operating theatre. Nevertheless, on December 8, 1967, she obtained a PhD in chemistry after defending her thesis on the "Stereospecific Polymerization of Isoprene on the Stabilization of Synthetic Rubbers on Copolymerization." Romanian law decreed that doctoral candidates had to publicly defend their theses. To avoid the public defense of a thesis that she likely did not write, the law was changed so that she only needed to submit a written defense. This is a brilliant novel, in my opinion, and anyone who has an interest in reading novels about the Cold War, post Cold War, and life in Eastern Europe when it was part of the USSR, should seek this one out. The author may have used a fictious country as her setting, but the experiences and circumstances have been based on actual former Eastern Bloc countries and the people who lived there. Outstanding. Asma hired PR firms in Britain and America to buff her image. They flew in parliamentarians from around the world to admire her good deeds. Celebrities came to Damascus, including Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, Sting and Damon Albarn. The grand mufti invited Syrian Jews who had fled persecution decades earlier. Brown Lloyd James, an American PR company, arranged a cover story in Vogue in March 2011, which portrayed Asma as “a rose in the desert” who was determined to make Syria into a “brand”. The charm offensive worked. Just months after Hariri’s assassination, the New York Times asked whether they represented “the essence of secular Western-Arab fusion”. “I was enchanted,” says a Syrian diplomat now in exile, who organised a European tour for the pair. “She’s lovable the moment you meet her. He’s different to other dictators in the Middle East. He looks modern and sophisticated. That’s what makes him so dangerous.”Donald and Melania Trump at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland on 20 January 2021. Photograph: Stefani Reynolds/EPA Die Traumkarriere Der Elena Ceausescu.” Mdr.De, 5 Mar. 2018, https://www.mdr.de/geschichte/elena-ceausescu-100.html. That seed was watered by a Saturday Night Live sketch, not about Melania Trump but Donald Trump’s daughter Ivanka. It was a parody perfume advert for “Complicit: the fragrance for the woman who could stop all this – but won’t”. Reportedly stung by the bit, which starred Scarlett Johansson, Ivanka Trump told CBS News: “If being complicit is wanting to be a force for good and to make a positive impact then I’m complicit.” In 1975, she was awarded Doctor Honoris Causa at both the University of Tehran and Jordan University in Amman. Later, the University of Manila awarded Elena with an honorary doctorate thanks to a large donation that the Ceausescus made during a trip to the Philippines. Elena never admitted to any research malpractice and insisted that institutions really wanted to grant her recognition for her scholarly work.

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