I came across this old footage of Syria’s First Lady, Asma al-Assad, and found the content of her talk here striking: and also somewhat poignant, given when it was made and what has happened since.
Given the current situation and escalating tensions, I thought this was well worth sharing. In this talk, from way back in 2008, London-born Asma al-Assad (or ‘Emma’ from Acton) is addressing an international charity and talking about Syria in particular and the Middle East in general and her experiences.
In doing so, she touches on the popular international misconceptions about the region, as well as refugees, and the right of the Syrian people to live in peace and with dignity.
Asma al-Assad, a British citizen and of Sunni parentage, was celebrated internationally as a modernising figure in Syria, who was instrumental in helping the more moderate and Westernised Bashar Assad take a more reformist path than his less-moderate father.
The marriage of the Alawite Assad to the Sunni Asma was also seen by many as symbolically important in terms of Syria’s status and future as a secular, non-sectarian state. To some, both inside and outside of the country, she was regarded as a key part of what appeared to then be a more forward-looking, optimistic Syrian society than it had been in previous decades.
However, once the war broke out in Syria in 2011, she was entirely denounced and condemned by international commentators and her former supporters in the West – virtually overnight.
What’s extraordinary is that this speech was in 2008 – three years before the conflict broke out in Syria. And yet much of what she says has a prophetic quality to it and reads like she might be saying it right now. Particularly when she speaks of ‘Families destroyed, lives shattered, dreams buried, too many from afar… that’s the story of the Middle East, an area and a region dogged by violence, sadness, grief and constant killings; a place where we can switch on and off with the flicker of a remote control. But let me tell you, reality is very different…’
She talks too about the refugee crisis that already existed then, even though it was nothing like the scale of refugee crisis that now exists.
The main cause back then of the refugee problem was the destabilisation of Syria’s neighbour, Iraq, from the illegal US-led invasion of 2003. ‘There are over two million refugees living in Syria today,’ she says, ‘1.4 million Iraqis, over 500,000 Palestinians – that’s in Syria alone. Four thousand innocent lives have been killed in the first four months of 2008, mostly women and children, all completely innocent. That’s the reality, that’s a stark reality of region that that we live in. It’s only when we look beyond the numbers, dig amongst the rubble and overcome the grief that we’re able to see what that reality looks like.’
Speaking of a Syria that was, at that time, in a state of relative peace and stability, she concludes in a way that seems strangely prophetic of the horrors and indignities that would, in a few years time, be visited on Syria and its population.
‘We all deserve the same thing; we should all be able to live in peace, stability and with our dignities. Doesn’t matter what color we are, what religion we believe in or what region of the world we live in. It’s a simple, basic human right. So, when you go home, go back to your families, go back to your lives, your jobs, your communities, please carry that message forward. Because that’s the message that we carry and we would like to deliver from Syria…’