As It Happens

Remembering Mai Skaf, the Syrian actress who stood up to the Assad regime

The Syrian actress and activist, who risked her career and her life to speak out against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, died suddenly on July 23 in Paris. She was 49.

'She was always the rebel who told us not to give up,' says colleague Jay Abdo

Syrian actress Mai Skaf has died at the age of 49. (Rainer Jensen/AFP/Getty Images)

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The last words Mai Skaf wrote on Facebook before she died were: "I will not lose hope. It's the great Syria, not Assad's Syria."

The Syrian actress and activist, who risked her career and her life to speak out against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, died suddenly on July 23 in Paris. She was 49.

Skaf was arrested several times accused of treason after she took to the streets of Damascus July 2011 to protest a government crackdown on Arab Spring dissidents. Facing death threats and fearing further retaliation, she fled Syria by way of Jordan in 2013. 

Jay Abdo, a Syrian actor who fled the Assad regime for the U.S, worked with Skaf on several Syrian TV shows. He spoke to As It Happens  guest host Piya Chattopadhyay about his colleague's legacy.

Here is part of their conversation. 

Many Syrians will be familiar with the name Mai Skaf. But to the rest of the world, how would you describe her?

A free spirit, activist [and] artist who grew up in a very healthy environment.

Her mother and her older sister were ladies of the, if I can say, intellectual community in Syria, who [were] persecuted by the Assad regime. They were always controlled and, you know, watched by the Assad regime.

Why were they watched, do you think, by the Assad regime?

It was injustice in Syria, and Mai used to always sympathize with the poor people.

As an actress, as a star in Syria, she would always have her lunch with the crew, not with the stars,

She would always prefer to sit with the electricians, with the technicians, with the sound technicians, with the lighting technicians — and not with the director and producer table.

So she was always a rebel in her attitude and her everyday behaviour.

Skaf delivers a speech during the funeral of her friend, Syrian actress and activist Fadwa Suleimane (also written Soliman), in Montreuil, east of Paris, on Aug. 23, 2017. (Zakaria Abelkafi/AFP/Getty Images)

She was known to play characters and roles on screen — strong women, rebellious women fighting for women's rights. How much of a parallel was her onscreen character to her off screen?

Identical. She was true and honest in both,

In life she was a very, very, very strong and stubborn activist.

That's why she gave this impression to all the producers and directors. They loved her from an early age, when she was like 14, you know, talking to men, talking to other women, encouraging men, encouraging little girls to be confident in this life and to endorse their identity and to become equal to men.

Syrian actor Jay Abdo says Skaf was an inspiration to him. (Valerie Macon/AFP/Getty Images)

When you learned that your colleague and your friend had had died at just 49 years old, what were you thinking?

I had the chance to see her the last time last year at a house of our mutual friend for a gathering.

It was very rewarding to meet with her because she always encouraged me to speak out and to raise my voice, because sometimes we are very scared to do that.

We were always scared because we still have family, we still have siblings inside.

And she was always the rebel who told us not to give up: There are more people in detention, every day more, and they are voiceless and we are their voices. We have to keep fighting and we have to spread the word and we have to stop this farce of politics around the world stigmatizing the people of Syria. And we need to defend our rights and to stand up for our rights every day.

She was not only a prominent voice, but she was also one of the first artistic voices to really speak out against Bashar al-Assad when the Syrian revolution started back in 2011. And for doing that, speaking out, what kinds of consequences did she face?

First of all, marginalization. Nobody wanted to hire her. And then she kept her fight.

When she was arrested the first time, she was tortured for three or four days then released to give the lesson to other people — like, if you dare, we are torturing even women, we are torturing even stars, actresses.

In this Oct. 27, 2013, photo, Skaf, tells Associated Press reporters stories about her arrests by the Syrian government. (Mohammad Hannon/Associated Press)

Why did you and  Mai Skaf and other prominent actors in Syria at the time feel it was so important to speak out in 2011 and the years that followed?

We need always strong voices to remind the people ... not to give up.

And she was the one who always shouted for them, chanted and shouted in the streets of Paris: Do not give up. Don't let the regime win. They are weak. We are the strong. I believe in Syria. Syria belongs to the great people of Syria, not to the Assad family.

What does the loss of Mai Skaf, do you think, mean to to Syrians?

Her death, her tragic death, is a big sign that makes us reunite again and start another phase of activism to end this dictatorship in Syria.

Because we now live in a free world where we can speak up and spread the word.

This is what she demanded. And we are following her demand. 

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Produced by Jeanne Armstrong. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 

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