Thursday, February 2, 2023
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Thursday, February 2, 2023

Tribute | Mai Skaf: ‘It is Great Syria, not Assad’s Syria’

Those of us who have always lived in the west are accustomed to seeing celebrities take advantage of their status in their activism for political and humanitarian causes. George Clooney and his wife Amal, along with Angelina Jolie, became well known for their efforts to help Syrian refugees after the Assad regime’s violence against their own people forced millions to flee the country. Although they had their fair share of critics, none of our celebrity activists experienced the vilification and brutal retaliation that Syrian actress Mai Skaf was subjected to after aligning herself with peaceful activists calling for democracy and an end to the brutality and corruption that had been a hallmark of the Assad family’s control of Syria since she had been a one-year-old baby.

Mai Skaf sketch; Credit: Marc Nelson

Born to a Muslim father and a Christian mother in Damascus on April 15, 1969, Skaf was a university student majoring in French Literature when she began acting in French plays in the theater of the French Cultural Institute in Paris and drew the attention of Syrian TV and film directors. From an early age, she found injustice to be abhorrent and as a teenager had become an activist for Christians in Syria and Palestinians, championing the rights of minorities and the oppressed.

Skaf had become one of Syria’s most beloved tv and film stars with 20 years of starring in popular television shows and movies under her belt

Ruthanne Sikora

By the time the Arab Spring uprisings inspired Syrians to break their silence and stand up to the brutality of the self-serving Assad regime, Skaf had become one of Syria’s most beloved tv and film stars with 20 years of starring in popular television shows and movies under her belt.

Skaf had said that the birth of the Syrian revolution had caused her to fall in love with her homeland all over again and she became the first of approximately 30 Syrian celebrities, entertainers, artists, and intellectuals, who enthusiastically joined their voices with the peaceful activists who filled the streets calling for freedom, dignity, and an end to the corruption of Bashar Assad’s dictatorial regime.

Skaf found herself immediately blacklisted by the majority of Syria’s production companies and labeled a “terrorist” according to the propaganda being pumped out by the regime

Ruthanne Sikora

While the majority of Syria’s celebrities chose to remain silent and hang on to the privileges that aligning themselves with the regime afforded, Skaf found herself immediately blacklisted by the majority of Syria’s production companies and labeled a “terrorist” according to the propaganda being pumped out by the regime in order to make their systematic detainment, torture, and killing of unarmed civilian opposition members appear justified.

Skaf was arrested for the first time a few months later in July 2011 after signing a petition calling for Assad to step down from power and speaking at a rally calling for the same demand. Her transition from actress to real-time activist appeared to come naturally to her as it was in keeping with many of the “strong rebellious woman” and “fearless warrior for women’s rights” roles that had comprised most of her acting career.

It wasn’t until she was arrested several more times that she finally decided to defy the regime’s no-travel order and secretly cross the border into Jordan with her teenage son in 2013

Ruthanne Sikora

Hoping that the revolution would be successful in toppling Assad and bringing democracy to Syria, Skaf was initially reluctant to leave her beloved homeland in spite of the harsh blowback she was experiencing, including multiple death threats, in response to her activism. It wasn’t until she was arrested several more times that she finally decided to defy the regime’s no-travel order and secretly cross the border into Jordan with her teenage son in 2013.

In what in hindsight appears to be a foreshadowing of her own life, Skaf had once played the role of a single mother who stood up to her abusive ex-husband, for her own sake as well as that of her only child. After leaving the country she recalled how one of her interrogators after being arrested in Syria had demanded to know the reason for her actions. “What do you want? Freedom?”, he asked. “I want my son not to be ruled by Bashar Assad!” was her defiant response.

Syrian actress Mai Skaf in an anti-Assad protest in 2018 in Paris, France; Credit: Zakaria ABDELKAFI/AFP

In another turn of events that seemed to bring her full circle back to the city where she was first discovered by Syrian tv and movie directors, Skaf and her son Jude were granted asylum in France in 2015 where she died on July 23, 2018 of a cerebral aneurysm while living in Dourdan, a town located in the metropolitan area of southwest Paris.

the courageous actress and single mother was successful in saving her son from Syria’s mandatory military service under the brutal dictator that she despised

Ruthanne Sikora

Skaf had repeatedly said that she would never give up hope that Syria would eventually be freed of the authoritarian grip of the Assad family which would allow her homeland to be her final resting place, but it was not to be. Her son Jude was 20 years old when his mother was buried in the cemetery in Dourdan but the sacrifices she had made were not in vain. In fleeing the country when she did, the courageous actress and single mother was successful in saving her son from Syria’s mandatory military service under the brutal dictator that she despised.

Mai skaf gravesite painted with mosaics by the Syrians of Kafr Nubl, Idlib countryside under the supervision of the artist Muhammad Al-Dani, cutting and installing the painting: Ahmed Al-Hassan, Marwan Al-Aqidi, Abdel-Salam Qadri; Credit: Social media

Since her death, Syrian artists in France have turned Mai Skaf’s gravesite into a beautiful memorial to their beloved actress who had come to be known in life as “the icon of the revolution.”

Ruthanne Sikora
Ruthanne Sikora
Ruthanne Sikora is a full-time caregiver for her differently-abled daughter Lauren, human rights activist, Global Studies student, part-time writer and English editor.

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