Syrian actress Mai Skaf, outspoken critic of regime

Nicknamed “the heroine of difficult and complex roles,” Skaf was also known as “the icon of the Syrian revolution.”
Tuesday 31/07/2018
A 2017 file picture shows Syrian actress May Skaf delivering a speech in Montreuil, east of Paris. (AFP)
Defiant till the end. A 2017 file picture shows Syrian actress May Skaf delivering a speech in Montreuil, east of Paris. (AFP)

BEIRUT - She did not live to see what she has struggled and hoped for -- a free and democratically ruled Syria. Mai Skaf, the revolutionary-turned-actress, died July 23 in exile in Paris, away from home, family and many friends. She was 49.

A well-known Syrian actress and creative artist, Skaf was an outspoken critic of Bashar Assad’s regime. She was one of the first actors who showed uncompromising support to the Syrian uprising in 2011. She joined the nonviolent protests against the regime and was detained several times until she left Syria in 2013.

Born in Damascus in 1969, Skaf, who studied French literature at Damascus University, was considered by anti-regime pro-democracy activists as a popular voice for a united and democratic Syria.

She was known for her roles in “Damascus: The Smile of Sadness,” “Sahil al jihat” and “Mirage,” a short film during her time in Paris about a Syrian woman forced to leave the country during the civil war.

In 2004, she founded the Teatro Institute for theatrical performance art in Damascus.

Nicknamed “the heroine of difficult and complex roles,” Skaf was also known as “the icon of the Syrian revolution.”

Her determined and ambitious personality was best revealed when she said: “Artists should not stick to one kind of role, whether it is successful or not. They should rather test their full capacities to improve and experience novelties as a positive challenge.”

Skaf never lost hope even when living in exile. She spoke as though she belonged to the revolution. She cared about details and entered into deep conversations on her Facebook page discussing major and minor issues of the revolution. She often appeared on television programmes to talk about the revolution rather than about acting.

She spoke of her experience during the revolution and about the regime, which claims to protect minorities but only plants fear in them.

In one of her last TV appearances, she seemed nervous and tired but determined. She called on her fellow Syrian citizens to keep the hope and said they should establish working public institutions and fair laws that allow people to democratically elect their leaders.

In an interview with Saudi-owned broadcaster Al Arabiya in 2015, Skaf said she rejected the view that Assad was a defender of minorities and said that the rise of the Islamic State in Syria was a product of the regime attempting to remain in power.

In a video recorded in June 2013 before she fled Syria, Skaf talked about the beginning of the revolution, being detained and the tactics of fear used by the regime to maintain support among minorities.

The video, called “A Farewell to Damascus,” shows her receiving a call telling her the government will not let her leave Syria. Looking at the camera, she said: “I can’t go. I’m barred from travelling.” The camera cuts to her packed bag by the door.

The announcement of her death due to a heart attack triggered a flood of Facebook comments:

“She embraced the values she believed in and carried them against the odds around her and into the dark waters into which the Syrian uprising had sailed,” said one comment.

“With her defiant eyes and wild hair, Mai was exactly how I imagine a free human being: her personal and political choices were no other than hers,” said another.

In one of her last posts, Skaf said: “I will not lose hope… I will not lose hope… It is the great Syria, not Assad’s Syria.”