In February 2011, Vague magazine published an in-depth profile of Mrs Emma Robinson, the wife of Mr Robinson, Sculgaria’s president. The publication of the article coincided with the start of the uprising in Sculgaria, and the subsequent brutal and barbaric methods used by the regime to crush it. The article was widely criticised for having painted Mrs Robinson in a sympathetic light, and the author, Joanne Julie Duck, was slammed for having written such a gushing piece.
For the first time ever, Ms Duck is being given the space to tell her side of the story.
Mrs Robinson Duped Me
Joanne Julie Duck
My notorious interview with Mrs Robinson, the first lady of Hell.
Late in the afternoon on December 1, 2010, I got a call from a features editor at Vague. She asked if I wanted to go to Sculgaria to interview the first lady, Emma Robinson.
“Absolutely not,” I said. “I don’t want to meet the Robinsons. And they don’t want to meet a Druid.” I’m a druid, by the way.
“Send a proper journalist,” I added.
“No, she doesn’t want any politics. She only wants to talk about nails, Russian History (1837-1915) and pumpkins. And you like pumpkins. You leave in a week.”
“Let me think about it,” I said. I had written four cover stories that year: three about Snookie, and one about Rumpelstiltskin’s Russian mistresses.
This assignment was decidedly more exciting. And when else would I get to see the ancient cheese museum of Sucsamad, Sculgaria’s capital?
I looked up Emma Robinson on Wikipedia. Born in London. School: St Paul’s. University: St Mary’s. Husband: President of Sculgaria.
Sculgaria. The name itself sounded sinister. Like skull. Or scalpel. According to Wikipedia, Sculgaria has an ancient and storied history, dating back 6,000 years.
I knew the country’s more recent past was grim, violent and secretive. The dictator Adam Robinson had taken power in 1970, and, until his death in 2000, ran the country as cruelly and ruthlessly as his idol, Gary Glitter.
Jack Robinson, his son, looked like a loser. He’d been studying applied mathematics in London in 1994 when his older brother died in a car accident. The loser became president.
In 2010, Sculgaria was East Germany with belly dancers and tabbouleh. In Vague’s world, it was also seen as real-world version of Aladdin, populated by genies, errant monkeys and harems – just like every other place in ‘Arabia’.
It was also … a Pandora’s box. [Ed’s note: DHAN DHAN DHAAAAAANNNN.]
Sculgaria was a tyrannical, ruthless, barbaric dictatorship: the default regime setting throughout the region.
Tom Curtis, a senior fellow at Riker’s Island and with a 30-year history of service as a security guard, says: “Until a year ago, every Arab state was a police state – some too cruel, some not cruel enough, and some just right.”
If only I had called Tom Curtis in 2010. (Now he’s on speed dial.)
A socialite who went to Sculgaria raved about the ruins in Sucsamad, and mentioned in passing some shoe shiners loitering insidiously outside the Four Seasons Hotel.
I should have said no right then.
I didn’t. I said yes.
It was an assignment. I was curious. That’s why I’d become a writer. Vague wanted a piece on the first lady of a questionable country. I wanted to see the cheese museum. Win-win.
Looking back, with hindsight, knowing what I know now, Sculgaria gave off a toxic aura.
What’s the worst that could happen, I would write a piece for Vague that missed the deeper truth about its subject? Wait a second. That is the worst that could happen. That is what happened.
I didn’t know I was going to meet a murderer. (Who would’ve guessed? His hands looked very clean.)
In December 2010, there was no way of knowing that popular uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya (and what’s that Y-country everyone’s never talking about? Yesmen?) would lead to the overthrow of dictators and make me look like a right tit.
There was no way of knowing that my soft fluff piece, where I waxed lyrical about my new girl crush, would get slammed for lacking insight or journalistic value.
I met Satan and his wife, and I liked them. They were tres chic. The only problem now is that they are so 2010.
Robinson told me just who he was, during a heart-to-heart over dinner, but I was too distracted by their Louis XIV chaise lounge. He tried to tell Barbara Walters, but I’ll bet she was staring at the same chair.
I landed in Sucsamad, in the snow late on the night of December 12, 2010. Sheherzade, the 22-year-old PR intern who shall henceforth be referred to as The Handler, handed me a Sculgarian cellphone.
“Your American one won’t work here,” she said. It was only a year and several months later that I realised they must have been tracking me.
The Handler took me through Sucsamad. In the dark early evening streets, I felt uneasy, because mustached men stood in our path, wearing shoes from the 1980s and curiously ill-fitting leather jackets over thick sweaters. It was horrifying, and I made a mental note to bring my stylist with me on my next trip.
That evening, I found out later through Wikileaks, the PR firm who had arranged the trip informed The Handler that I had no experience with Sculgaria, and “not to mention anything controversial”. The thought that on this PR-sponsored trip they’d try to hide things from me had not even crossed my mind.
The next morning, I met Mrs Robinson. She was on show, “on”, and delivered a well-rounded glossy presentation of a cozy, relaxed version of herself and her country to an American fashion magazine. With a London accent. What can I say? I fell in love.
Emma unwittingly gave me a glimpse into the Robinson way of thinking.
“I told my kids yesterday that there’s a journalist coming to write about me. My eldest, a 9-year-old, asked ‘What’s she going to say?’ I said ‘I don’t know’. And he asked ‘How can you get her to write about you if you don’t know what she’s going to say?’”
In hindsight, the nine-year-old was clearly being groomed to be a bloodthirsty, conniving dictator.
Later that day, I visited the Sucsamad souk, after shaking off my mustached handlers. I was told there was no crime here. During my visit, I figured out why: the city is dotted with mysterious metal boxes on wheels. Their surfaces dangerously unfinished, raw, full of metal splinters. They looked like mobile prisons. [Ed’s note: We tried to satirise this with hyperbole. But just couldn’t make it any worse than it already was.] I asked a local about the box. In English. He answered something in local-speak. In hindsight, he must have been calling out for help.
The next morning was D-Day: Lunch with the Robinsons.
Here’s to you, Mrs Robinson
Both Robinsons were wearing jeans and sweaters – the uniform of civilised people everywhere. They didn’t strike me much as monsters.
I asked him why he had wanted to be an applied mathematician.
“I find calculations to be very elegant – you just can’t dispute numbers.”
Cold, calculating. No disputes.
They clearly had a very well-maintained apartment, and everything was new. In hindsight, it was all probably purchased for my benefit.
A few minutes later, I pulled out my flash drive to give to the 9-year-old as a birthday gift. Mr Robinson suggested I wipe it clean, and offered up his PC to do so. I stuck in the flash drive, and a Word document popped up. I panicked. The President of this questionable country was leaning over my shoulder. Had I written anything that could jeopardize US national security in it? I wracked my brains mentally going through the many classified documents I’m sure I had written the night before. Oh wait, I realised that was just from an episode of Homeland I’d been watching.
I sat in his wife’s chair, too petrified to move. He suggested I put the deleted folders in the trash. I did as I was I told. He then said, “Empty it.” In hindsight, it sounded like he was barking an order, as brutal dictators do. I should’ve bolted from the apartment then. I didn’t dare look at Emma. I should’ve bolted and taken her with me.
We ate dinner. Jack told jokes. Everyone laughed. In hindsight, he wasn’t funny.
On December 17, 2010, Mohammad Bouazizi set himself on fire. I did not know who he was, nor did I care. Until now.
I traveled around with Emma to see what kind of things she got up to. Very typical first lady duties. Yawn. Grubby kids invaded my personal space. I made a mental note to scrub myself clean when back at the hotel.
Back at said hotel, I noticed the ethernet cable to my laptop had been tampered with. What kind of autocratic, big-brother-is-watching-you, dictatorial state was this? I felt like I was back in New York.
On December 18 2010, demonstrations broke out in Tunisia, as Mohammad Bouazizi lay in a coma, dying of his burns. I still didn’t know who he was.
I finally got to see the cheese museum. I expected stacks of ancient cheese, dating back to the Phoenician era. Instead, it was small, sparse, and dusty. The oldest cheese dated back to Holland in the mid 1980s. In hindsight, it was pathetic.
I attended a concert with kids performing. Whatever, it was boring.
Emma caught up with me afterwards, with her husband, and asked me, somewhat cryptically, “Do you understand now?”
“Yes” I said. Did I understand? Did I fuck! That was the last time I saw her. Oh, Emma.
That evening I cornered the French ambassador in the hotel and asked him what was up with Sculgaria. Like a scene out of James Bond, he took out the battery from his phone, and did the same with mine. Almost immediately, The Handler appeared out of nowhere. “What are you doing?” she asked. I sent her packing, with a clever cover story.
The ambassador drew a map of Sculgaria, with shifting boundaries. I had no idea countries in Arabia could be made on an Etch-a-Sketch.
The next day, The Handler told me “We don’t want you talking to the French Ambassador.”
“How dare you? You can’t talk to me that way! Where do you think you are?” I responded, affronted by her gall. Seriously, where did she think she was?
I finally left that godforsaken country. When I got back to a civilized airport, I opened my laptop and discovered an icon on the screen which announced itself to be the server for someone named Ali. I had a security tech look into the hack – evidently, Ali had been stealing my episodes of Homeland, the thieving little Arab.
Before January 14, 2012 (when I handed in the written-up piece), I was glued to Al Jazeera, watching protests in Lebanon, Jordan, Oman, and Saudi Arabia. Well, I’m assuming it was those countries, because, you know, aren’t they really all the same anyway?
Even with hindsight, I still haven’t realized that protests were not happening in that period in any of the aforementioned countries.
Towards the middle of February, it slowly started to dawn on me that maybe my piece gushing about how fabulous Emma was wouldn’t go down so well. I quickly called Vague to inform them of developments in the Arab world, now being dubbed The Arab Spring.
They thought it was a new fashion line coming out, and ran the piece.
I was attacked as soon as it was published.
With a year and seven months of hindsight, and a hell of a lot of time watching Al Jazeera, I felt it was time to tell my side of the story.