Long ago and far away, when the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos fell in the Philippines, the dictator’s wife, Imelda, became an object of global ridicule for her extravagant wardrobe — especially her shoes. She had 2,700 pairs of shoes. When the Marcoses fled Manila for refuge in Hawaii, in February of 1986, Imelda left her shoes. They ended up on display in Malacanang Palace, symbols of the excess with which dictators live the high life while beggaring their people.
Back then, I was working for a newspaper out of Hong Kong, and during a trip to Manila I paid a visit to the Imelda shoe display. It was indeed staggering for its profligacy, but what also made an impression was Imelda’s gaudy taste. An ex-beauty queen, she went for the frothy, flashy, and overdone. A lot of it was the kind of stuff that wouldn’t have passed muster in the salons of the world’s intellectual and cultured jet set. One of the trophy exhibits in the collection was a pair of light-up disco heels. Critics perusing the collection did not spend time praising her taste. They focused on the ruinous rule behind the extravagance.
Which brings us to Syria, where today’s first lady, Asma al-Assad, has also become famous for her shoes. Her style, however, is very different from Imelda’s. Asma is cosmopolitan, born and schooled in London, a study in understated yet costly elegance. She’s young, she’s slender and for her footwear she favors shoes by French designer Christian Louboutin. Asma and her shoes turned up in 2009 in a Huffington Post spread on “Our favorite Asma looks.” The shoes were demurely hinted at in last month’s Vogue profile on “Asma al-Assad: A Rose in the Desert” — along with her simple necklace of Chanel agates, and her Louboutin silk handbag.
Plus, in at least four languages she’s capable of producing an endless stream of multicultural psychobabble about art, culture, politics, society, and her dedication to cultivating a sustainable future for Syrian youth. Look around on YouTube, and you can see her speaking in Paris, switching between English and French to discuss the role of the museum in the city; or tastefully dressed down for an outing in Syria among the common folk. On March 18, she was the patroness and keynote speaker at a conference in Damascus of the Harvard Arab Alumni Association. And it would appear she has anonymous fans so devoted that they maintain and neatly update a Facebook page for her, where someone has taken the trouble to ensure that the current carnage in Syria does not intrude on the posts — dedicated exclusively in recent days to such matters as water projects and honoring the mothers of Syria (though reality does seem to seeping in by way of some of the comments).
But please — given a choice between Imelda Marcos and Asma al-Assad, I’d take Imelda any day. Bad as it was, the Marcos dictatorship was a puny affair compared to the 40-year totalitarian depravities of Syria’s terror-sponsoring Assads. Asma al-Assad has chosen a form of excess that is all the more awful for masquerading as taste and class. It’s not simply the cost of those luxuriously simple outfits — though in Syria’s vat of repression and corruption, it’s worth asking where she thinks the money comes from for her Vogue lifestyle and well-clad patronage of all those common folk who live with none of the freedoms that would allow them to help themselves.
The real excess here is that of the Big Lie. This is the devil’s deal of providing a chic face for a regime of terror — the Syrian regime dolled up with fashion shoots, lectures in Paris, and a Facebook page. With her many languages, London education, continental travels, and modern tastes, does she ever go online to sift through the human rights reports on the atrocities and disappearances that are routine under her husband’s regime? Does she find it odd that in hallmark totalitarian style, Syrians are obliged to live among endless statues and pictures of her husband and his father? Did she find it peculiar that in 2007 her husband was “reelected” with an official 98% of the vote? Has she worked out a philosophy in which even the classiest of first ladies must sometimes put up with having a husband who butchers fellow citizens so that he and his family may continue enjoying his palace? As Syrians prepare for a Day of Rage on Friday, has Asma picked out just the right chunky Chanel necklace and pair of Louboutins for the occasion? What does a fashion-plate of the totalitarian world wear to the revolution?