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Style leaders: no. 13

Souks you madam


The first lady of Syria, Asma al-Assad, has pushed for economic liberation in her country and encouraged women to go out to work. Her modern sensibilities extend to her European-style dress and love of western fashion brands.

Syria has been teetering on the edge of reform ever since Bashar al-Assad took over as president from his dying father, the unyielding Hafez al-Assad, in 2000. Despite its poor international reputation, some believe Syria is set to make a slow comeback on the international stage, citing its recent secret peace talks with Israel and its prominent participation in the Mediterranean summit this summer.

The regime’s most potent symbol for change, however, is not the 43-year-old president but his wife, Asma al-Assad. Growing up in the UK, Asma worked as an investment banker for JP Morgan. Since she became the first lady, she has broken with the traditional secrecy ­surrounding Syrian first ladies (who ­remembers Hafez’s wife Aniseh?).

“If you had to decide which country qualifies for EU membership based on first ladies’ outfits, then Syria would have a better chance of getting in than Turkey,” says a French journalist who covered the Mediterranean summit in Paris. “Asma’s look was flawless and bound to please the French: Christian Louboutin shoes, Jimmy Choo sunglasses, and no headscarf,” says one ­photographer at the event.

“She’s quite sporty,” says a Syrian lawyer close to the first lady. “When she visits a charity or a school, she might even wear jeans. Her style is very European.” At official events, she opts for ­elegant suits by western brands such as Chanel, and accessories from Balenciaga and Bottega Veneta. “Asma always looks great,” agrees a French journalist, “but the Assads still leave me with a bitter taste.”

1. Hair – Mrs Assad, who comes from a prominent Sunni family, recently cut her long locks and does not wear a hijab. 2. Suit – This outfit shows off Asma’s western and classic approach to fashion. 3. Watch – Chanel Mademoiselle watch, with five strands of pearls. 4. Bag – Here she carries a Chanel bag. There are no Chanel boutiques in Syria, so the first lady probably does her shopping on private trips to London. 5. Shoes – To match up to her husband’s 1m 90cm, she wears high heels on official visits.

Back to school — 05

Know thine enemy


More than 100 Palestinian students at Al-Quds University in east Jerusalem have enrolled on a two year masters degree in Israeli Studies. Enrolment has risen 10 per cent, year on year, since 2005.

The course was set up to provide the Palestinian Authority with a corps of trained civil servants, with an in-depth knowledge of Israel. Its growing popularity dovetails with an increasing interest in Israel in the Arab world. Even some of the Jewish state’s bitterest foes admit they are fascinated by Israel’s achievements. Earlier this year Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, leader of Hezbollah in Lebanon, praised Israel’s enquiry into the war it fought with the Jewish state in summer 2006. “When the enemy acts honestly and sincerely you cannot but respect it,” he said.

An elephant bouquet

South Africa

A wine industry-funded scheme, Project Laduma, is to teach 2,010 people from South Africa’s poorest communities to be wine stewards in time for the 2010 World Cup.

Students will learn by association, comparing a cabernet grape, for example, to an elephant, for its thick skin and big structure. Though many have never come across fine wine before, this “bush logic” method creates a real understanding, says Fasie Malherbe, who is running the project.

Big spenders

Botswana and Lesotho

Little Botswana and Lesotho are splashing out on education. They spend 10.7 per cent and 13.4 per cent of GDP respectively.

Tight teachers

Equatorial Guinea

Equatorial Guinea spends less on teaching than any other country (0.6 per cent of GDP, according to Unesco).

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