When You Wish Upon Bashar

And now, for all of you well-heeled, well-educated Slate readers out there who think that the only worthy foreign-policy stories are to be found in the pages of Foreign Affairs or the New York Times—and for all of you downhearted, gloomy Slate readers who think that all news from the Middle East is bound to be bad news—here is a small, cheerful exclusive, courtesy of the Mail on Sunday, a newspaper that cognoscenti will recognize as a “mid-market tabloid.” For the non-cognoscenti, this means it is a British tabloid that lawyers, doctors, and Cabinet ministers read when they think nobody is watching what they’re reading, and that is usually what they are reading when they are supposed to be reading the Financial Times.

In any case, the Mailon Sunday—sorry, it isn’t highbrow enough to have a Web site—not long ago discovered and printed a photograph of Asma Akhras, the new wife of Bashar Assad, son of the late and unmourned Syrian dictator, Hafez Assad (click here to read why we shouldn’t be sorry he’s gone), and now dictator himself. OK, this story was reported in the London Times as well, but the Mailon Sunday is the only newspaper I can find that appears to get why this is important. Titled—what else?—”The Girl from Acton who found love on the road to Damascus,” it explains that Bashar’s new wife is a “high-flying banker,” a former employee of J.P. Morgan, the daughter of Syrian immigrants to Britain, “brought up in a suburban semi.” For those unfamiliar with British tabloidese, this is a not very fancy semi-detached house in a not very fashionable neighborhood. Writes the Mail, “a close friend revealed last night how she had recently turned down the chance to study for an MBA at Harvard University in America.” Adds the same friend, “she has even lived and worked in New York.”

Concludes the Mail, “Asma’s friends in Britain believe that she can play her part in helping her country on the road to democracy.”

And maybe she can. Not that I want to sound naive, or to underestimate the power of Syria’s many security police, or the nasty things which Bashar will have to do—and is no doubt already doing—in order to keep them in check and himself in power. Syria’s jails are still stocked with political prisoners. Syria’s press is still censored. Until now, Syria has been one of the most closed societies in a closed part of the world, in many senses of the words: Bashar’s mother appears to have spent almost her entire life inside the presidential residences.

Still, the choice of Asma tells us a few positive things about the about the little-known Bashar, his openness to the West, and the younger generation of Arab politicians. Besides, it is tiresome to always be the bearer of bad news. I am marking down Bashar’s decision to marry a self-made investment banker—even one who “turned down the chance to study for an MBA at Harvard University in America”—as a good omen.