TV star figures in Syria uprising and pays a price

Monday - 11/4/2013, 9:32am EST

JAMAL HALABY
Associated Press

AMMAN, Jordan (AP) -- As one of the earliest Syrian celebrities to speak out against Bashar Assad, Mai Skaf is a heroine of the rebel cause, and it's a role that has cost the film star dearly.

Sitting in the apartment in Jordan where she has lived in exile since making her government's enemies list, she recalls the rally she addressed in 2011, four months into Syria's chapter of the Arab Spring, and the pro-regime mob that arrived to break it up.

    "Down with Assad, the traitor!" she shouted, with 200 other demonstrators echoing her words.

The response came swiftly.

"They hurled big stones at us, showered us with raw eggs to make running away slippery. Then they came at us with batons, beat us on the head and body with the aim of inflicting injuries and breaking our spirits. Bloodstains were everywhere," she said.

Afterward, she says, she was repeatedly arrested, blindfolded, handcuffed and interrogated. Her phone was tapped, her home watched, and finally she was charged with treason for allegedly supporting and financing Assad's foes.

Warned by two senior government officials to flee or be killed, she chose flight, leaving behind her mother and 15-year-old son.

Skaf, a 44-year-old woman with dark brown hair and a stern, commanding screen presence, is a popular star of historical TV drama series in a country that until the uprising was making big strides in the Middle East's growing TV market.

About half the 1,600 actors, entertainers and production staff registered with the pro-government Syrian Artists Organization are out of work, some of them scattered across other Arab countries, according to an industry official who spoke by telephone from Damascus on condition of anonymity out of fear of government reprisal.

Many, like Skaf, have moved to neighboring Jordan, but the Jordan's movie industry is too small to absorb newcomers, says Sari Assad, a deputy chief of the 400-member Jordanian Syndicate of Artists.

"We are barely able to find jobs for Jordanian artists," he said.

Skaf is said by friends to have been one of Syria's best paid actresses. She herself will only say, her voice cracking, "I'm jobless now and I live off donations from friends." She lives alone in a modest fourth-floor studio apartment in Amman, the Jordanian capital.

While Egypt's film industry remains the strongest in the Arab world, Syria's had been making big strides until the region plunged into upheaval.

Apart from producing its own TV dramas and gaining large audiences at home and abroad, Syria had become a major supplier of voices for dubbing video into Arabic, particularly big-hit series from Turkey such as "Ottoman Land" and "Wives of the Sultan." These have generated tens of millions of dollars for the Syrian industry and Syrian artists, according to the official from the Syrian Artists Organizationr.

He said Syria's disarray is driving some of its film producers to the United Arab Emirates and Lebanon to maintain production.

Marwan al-Hakim, 58, acted in episodes of "Bab el-Hara" ("Gate of the Ghetto"), a drama about resistance to the French who ruled Syria from 1920 to 1946. For several years it has been the most popular series for Ramadan holiday viewing.

In January, al-Hakim fled to Jordan with his wife and three children.

"I just couldn't stand living in Syria under the current leadership," he said. "The government is a big liar. It blames the brave revolution on a foreign conspiracy led by Israel and the U.S. It describes the rebels as terrorists. It claims they are the ones killing the people, not Bashar's brutal war machine."

Now al-Hakim bakes Syrian-style pita bread at an Amman restaurant for $200 a month, augmented by U.N. rations and tips. Diners get to watch him bake pita, dressed in traditional Syrian garb of colorful vest, black pantaloons and a ceremonial dagger strapped to his waist.

"It is humiliating to be poor," he said, "but worse is to live in Syria now."

Anaheed Fayyad, a Syrian-Palestinian who also acted in "Bab el-Hara," left weeks after the uprising broke out, saying she had been critical of Assad in public and on Facebook and worried that her family would suffer.

"Although I've been unemployed and without any income for three years, I feel free to say what I please without fear," said Fayyad, 30. "So I say that I'm with the revolution wholeheartedly and that Assad is an illegitimate president, in the wrong place, and should be removed."


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