Sunday, May 1, 2011

Portrait of a Despot

by Gary L. Ackerman

New York Times

April 30, 2011

I sat across from President Hafez al-Assad of Syria in his newest palace overlooking Damascus, on a hill at the end of a gently twisting road.

“You know, Mr. President,” I said, “on the road from the airport and throughout the capital, I couldn’t help but notice posters with your portrait everywhere, in all of the shops, in every window of every bus, every pole and lamppost, the back of the windshields of all the cars. It is quite remarkable.”

“Yes,” he replied, managing to sound even more sincere than I did. “I protest, but the people hold me in such affection, it’s almost embarrassing. Sometimes I feel like going out after dark, just quietly taking them down.”

The New York wise guy in me couldn’t resist. “Well, Mr. President, if one night you can’t fight that urge, do call me,” I said. “I’d love to take a picture of you climbing up a pole ripping down your posters.” The laughter all around seemed genuine.