Friday, June 8, 2012

Messages in a battle

Now and then a deliciously embarrassing story surfaces to expose the dubious transactions at the heart of human ambition. This week it was the revelation in The Daily Telegraph that American journalist Barbara Walters had done favors for someone who had helped land her an interview last December with President Bashar al-Assad.   

That someone is Sheherazad Jaafari, the daughter of Bashar Jaafari, Syria’s ambassador to the United Nations. Not long after interviewing Assad, Walters sought to give Sheherazad an obliging push so that she could enter Columbia University. She contacted one Professor Richard Wald to see if he could be of assistance, writing of her protégé: “She is brilliant, beautiful, speaks five languages. Anything you can do to help?” Walters also sent Sheherazad’s résumé to Piers Morgan’s staff at CNN to see if she could be hired as an intern.

Walters acknowledged that there was a conflict of interest after the Telegraph published her email with Sheherazad. These were allegedly handed to the paper by a Syrian opposition group. Recall that Sheherazad Jaafari’s name first popped up in an earlier round of leaked emails published by Al-Arabiya and The Guardian in March. She was one of two young United States-based women with whom the Syrian president apparently maintained close contact.

In the grander scheme of things, Walters’ behavior was not overly egregious. True, it didn’t say much about her distress when it comes to Syrian suffering, but her career, like that of most interviewers, has surely been built on Olympian doses of back-scratching. It is equally possible that Walters did what she did because she felt guilty about conducting a tough interview with Assad, for which Sheherazad was ultimately held responsible. “I am in so much trouble here,” Sheherazad wrote on December 8, 2011, a detail that evidently troubled Walters. 

More disconcerting when one reads the emails is Sheherazad’s personality, above all her straightforward mercenary instincts. The girl is shameless, willing to say anything to propel her career forward. In preparing Assad for the Walters interview, for instance, she observed that the “American psyche can be easily manipulated when they hear that there are ‘mistakes’ done and now we are ‘fixing it.’’’

Sheherazad went on to advise the Syrian president to mention “what is happening now in Wall Street and the way the demonstrations are been suppressed by police men, police dogs and beatings.” And in a sentence remarkable for its cynicism and dishonesty, she recommends that he argue that “Syria doesn’t have a policy to torture people, unlike the US. We can use Abu Ghraib in Iraq as an example.”

And this from a mere 22-year-old. Of course, Sheherazad has someone to inspire her. Her father has been the most public face of the Syrian regime in the West. To say that he has not uttered a single truthful word on events in Syria during the past year, while defending the barbarously indefensible, would be to understate his offenses.

Going through Sheherazad’s correspondence with Walters, one finds much at which to wince: Her calculating reference to the ABC interviewer as a mother to “your adopted child (me)”; her efficient dispensation of niceties to cut to the matters preoccupying her, namely ensuring that Walters would get her the Piers Morgan job and extract a positive response from Columbia (“If there is any way you think you can give my application a push I would really really appreciate it. You did mention that you know a professor there.”); and her affected earnestness when explaining, “I really want to start building my future here [in the United States],” again as a way of prodding Walters to pick up that damned phone on her behalf. 

What is the larger message here? Is there one? Perhaps not, but no less that the correspondence between Bashar al-Assad and his wife Asma released earlier this year, the latest missives show members of a Syrian ruling class profoundly out of touch with their own people. It goes beyond Asma al-Assad’s passion for Christian Louboutin shoes or Bashar’s iTunes choices; it’s about a group of insular, self-centered, pampered individuals living a succession of unadulterated lies, straddling cultural worlds and behaving deceitfully in each.

Absent from the gamut of emails is any sense of the carnage in Syria, or empathy for an impoverished, humiliated and insulted population that has, additionally, been made to suffer from the depravities of Bashar al-Assad’s death squads. It is strange how intensely contemptuous are the senior members of the Syrian ruling elite of those hailing from poor, rural origins—origins once their own. Here we have the upshot of the Baath revolution, and it is fitting that the revolt broke out when those rural communities, understanding how closed were their horizons, decided that enough was enough. 
They won’t soon be applying to Columbia or looking to join Piers Morgan’s staff, but I would wager that they will be the ones inheriting Syria before long. And when that happens, their resentment will be uncontainable.

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