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Wednesday, 31 October, 2001, 12:31 GMT
The road to Damascus (all the way from Acton)
Syrian President Bashar Assad and wife Asma
Syrian President Bashar Assad and wife Asma
Her husband may rule a Middle Eastern country suspected by the West of state terrorism, but Syria's First Lady was born and brought up in a leafy and low-key London suburb.

Asma Assad is not your run of the mill Syrian First Lady. Her predecessor in the role, Aniseh, wife to the late president Hafez Assad, was rarely seen in public during her husband's 29-year reign.

The spouses of Hafez Assad's forerunners have been all but forgotten.

But as Tony Blair becomes the first British prime minister to visit Damascus, 26-year-old Mrs Assad is showing a new face to a country that has long been linked with state terrorism.

Crowds mourn Hafez Assad
Hafez Assad's wife Aniseh was rarely seen
Observers say her marriage to Syria's president Bashar Assad, who took over after his father died in June last year, is an indication of his intention to steer the country along a more liberal path.

Before giving up work to marry Bashar Assad at the start of the year, Asma Akhras appeared to be just another young professional forging a career in the City of London.

Of Syrian descent, she grew up in the low-key London suburb of West Acton and, despite being a Muslim, attended a local Church of England school.

Miss Akhras progressed to an independent school, where her friends called her Emma. She then attended King's College London, where she studied computer science.

'Outgoing'

Described by a former professor as "very bright and outgoing" and "very Westernised, not in the least bit traditional", she went on to work as an analyst for Deutsche Bank and JP Morgan.

Goals and achievements
Qualified as computer scientist
Worked as financial analyst
Thought to be interested in helping the poor and destitute
How she came to know her future husband is unclear. Some reports suggest they met while Mr Assad, a qualified eye surgeon, was studying in London.

It is noted however that Mrs Assad's father, a cardiologist in London's Harley Street, descends from a prominent family in the Syrian city of Homs.

After the secretive marriage her profile has grown gradually, as she has accompanied her husband on state duties. Observers have keenly noted her penchant for appearing in public without a veil and wearing above-the-knee skirts.

Such small details are seen as a key indicator of sentiment in this predominantly Muslim country.

See also:

31 Oct 01 | Middle East
Blair welcomes Syrian support
17 Oct 01 | Middle East
War on terror: Syria's mixed reaction
31 Oct 01 | Middle East
Blair's road to Damascus
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