Asma al-assad portrait


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Asma al-Assad: A “desert rose” crushed by Syria’s strife

Shopping while her country crumbles. We know the story of the emails uncovered by the Guardian that expose the gilded lifestyle of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his wife Asma.

The image of her spending tens of thousands of dollars in internet shopping sprees on handmade furniture from Chelsea boutiques, jewellery, chandeliers, expensive curtains and paintings while people are  slaughtered around her has forever tainted the woman once named “a desert rose”.

The Times of India says understanding Asma – a British-educated former investment banker – may prove vital to understanding the Assads and the future of Syria.

Writing in The World, journalist Gideon Rachman takes a different tack: “… while Mrs Assad clearly has a taste for fancy shoes, she does not come across as the Imelda Marcos of the Middle East. Certainly by the standards of other regional dictators, the Assads seem relatively sane.”

Rachman says while the Assads are unlikely to be giving the direct orders for torture, surely they must know what is happening in their name? “So maybe he and his wife, really are in denial about what is going on?”

“Yet, clearly, at the very least they must know that thousands are being killed and displaced by the Syrian army. So if the Assads are not psychopaths, how do they live with themselves?”

Good question.


Hugh Grant: ‘I love getting into a taxi and saying House of Lords instead of Soho – again’

This is the only newspaper interview Hugh Grant’s given in 16 years. And the only reason he’s doing it is because he wants to be nice to the Guardian, because as the exposers of the News of the World hacking scandal “I think they’ve been brilliant”.

That sounds like the leading actor we know of romantic comedy fame, but this is a different character… this is Grant the poster boy of the UK’s Hacked Off campaignagainst press criminality and corruption. His stand has cost him; the tabloids are relentlessly pursuing him and the mother of his young child and accused him of lying to the Leveson inquiry.

While not exactly forthcoming in this interview – writer Decca Aitkenhead says he looks excruciatingly uncomfortable – this is a fascinating look at an unlikely hero who’s standing up for what’s right. (And he does talk about becoming a dad for the first time).


Why Americans won’t do dirty jobs

In the US state of Alabama some 211,o00 people are unemployed. In this state the government has passed an immigration law that it said would free up jobs that immigrants had stolen from recession-battered Americans.

And it’s worked… the largely Guatemalan workforce has fled for other states, opening up these positions for locals. But the locals aren’t buying.

“… native Alabamians have not come running to fill these newly liberated positions,” says this feature in Bloomberg Businessweek. “At a moment when the country is relentlessly focused on unemployment, there are still jobs that often go unfilled. These are difficult, dirty, exhausting jobs that, for previous generations, were the first rickety step on the ladder to prosperity. They still are—just not for Americans.”

While the article looks specifically at the Alabama situation, it’s an interesting portrait of class, immigration and the American psyche, especially since as late as the 1940s, most farm labor in Alabama and elsewhere was done by Americans.


Still a Fast-Food Nation: Eric Schlosser Reflects on 10 Years Later

Anyone who has read Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation will probably admit to – at the very least – thinking twice about eating fast food again. The abuse both of animals and factory workers detailed in the book was horrifying, the “ingredients” used by fast food companies was nothing short of outrageous, and the level of food safety, or lack thereof, was alarming.

Now, 10 years since Fast Food Nation was released, Schlosser reflects in this The Daily Beast article on what has changed, and what has sadly stayed the same.

“I’d love to report that the book is out of date, that the many problems it describes have been solved, and that the Golden Arches are now the symbol of a fallen empire, like the pyramids at Giza,” he writes. “Sadly, that is not the case. Every day about 65 million people eat at a McDonald’s restaurant somewhere in the world, more than ever before.”

Still, despite the continuous failure of food safety legislation under George W Bush and dubious claims by big meat packing companies about working conditions and injuries, Schlosser’s tone remains hopeful. More and more people are buying local, organic and sustainable produce, and the possibilities for more change are endless.


Risen from the gutter, he whispers hope to Hollywood’s junkies

Bob Forrest is a former rocker known for his intoxicated rants and onstage antics as the lead singer of the post-punk band Thelonious Monster.

“He was one of the worst heroin junkies on the Hollywood club scene until he shocked everyone by getting sober in 1996,” says Ann O’Neill in this article on CNN. “He says he delivered cocaine, crystal meth and heroin to some of the most famous people in the world.”

These days he helps addicts stay sober, “a homegrown addict with a unique perspective on the deadly cocktail of addiction and fame”, and is Dr Drew Pinsky’s sidekick in the reality TV show Celebrity Rehab.

Roberts has an interesting take on the drug narrative around Hollywood stars, with particular insights into Michael Jackson and Heath Ledger.

“When Heath Ledger died, I thought people would be all over the prescription drug tsunami that is killing young people all over America,” he says. “But instead, within 72 hours it was all about how Heath Ledger couldn’t (move on) from ‘Batman.’ Where did that narrative come from? He couldn’t stop being Joker? Really? That’s why he choked on his own vomit? I hate to be so rude, but honesty is the only way we’re going to get some sanity about this enabling.”


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  • Reply March 23, 2012


    I love these editor’s best web reads – so much to read and so little time! Thanks very much for the column.

  • Reply March 24, 2012


    I enjoy reading these too!

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