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

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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.” Where will the journey end? Her ascendance in the court of the Assads is no longer just fodder for gossiping Syria watchers. Last year the American government described Asma as one of Syria’s “most notorious war profiteers”. There are now whispers that she could one day succeed her husband as president. Asma Assad has certainly come a long way from the pebble-dash, semi-detached house in London where she was raised. 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.

Freya Berry - Watson Little

Elena Ceausescu: Doctor Horroris. Youtube, 21 Aug. 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LSoxcc6ZPoI. 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.” He did have an eye for women, often dating his brother’s manicured discards. But the choice of wife wasn’t his alone. When Basil died in a car crash in 1994 (reportedly while racing to Damascus airport in his Mercedes), the fate of the Assad dynasty suddenly fell on Bashar’s shoulders. Berry quit the newsroom and travelled to eastern Europe for three months of research. She began in Romania and immediately found herself in the midst of a street protest with hundreds of thousands of people calling for the government’s resignation. In his inaugural speech, Bashar vowed to fight corruption and allow genuine multi-party elections. Soon after, he closed one of the country’s biggest prisons. In the cafés of Damascus, people cautiously began to discuss politics.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.” At one point in The Dictator’s Wife, Popa insists: “My clothes, my jewellery, they are my amulets. My protection.” The narrator adds: “Protection. Survival. She spoke the language of the hunted, yet who was her hunter?”

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

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.” In her heyday Popa, we are told, introduced an all-female staff to her factory long before “girl power” became a rallying cry. She palled around with Ronald Reagan, Paul Newman and Saddam Hussein, and was a particular favourite of the British queen. She is described as “a hypnotic blend of Joan of Arc and Imelda Marcos; both goddess and she-devil, princess and tyrant, martyr and uber-bitch”. This was a pivotal moment for the couple. Until now Asma, the foreign wife, had been relegated to the sidelines. Now she came to play a central role in Bashar’s international rehabilitation. “She was his ambassador to all the countries with whom he couldn’t mingle and mix,” says Abdel Nour, Bashar’s former adviser. Now 30 and based in London, Berry worked as a financial and political journalist at Reuters before becoming an author. She reported on the US presidential election in 2016 after joining the Mail Online, where her observations of the rise of Donald Trump with Melania Trump at his side planted the seed of the novel.Once Britain might have supported Asma’s aspirations, happy to add to the collection of Middle Eastern leaders with British ties. Despite voluble denunciation of the Assads, the British government never revoked Asma’s citizenship, as it did with Shamima Begum, the east Londoner who travelled to Syria to join Islamic State in 2015 when she was still a teenager.

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