Syrian actor defects to opposition

Famous film star leaves for Paris via Jordan, pledging to enlist in anti-Assad struggle from abroad.

“Are you a student?” I asked a Syrian man near the border with Jordan, where thousands have fled to escape the escape the violence in their home country.

“I’m an actor,” he said.

I didn’t recognize him but many Arab film-goers would. It was Saad Lostan – the star of “After the Rain” and TV series “My Heart is With You” – waiting for Jordanian authorities to let him begin life in exile.

Lostan told me he’d left his apartment in Damascus after being in hiding for more than a month. He had helped organize anti-government demonstrations in the Syrian capital and said secret police had twice raided his home and sent word that they were looking for him.

“I don’t think I’m very dangerous,” he said with a weary smile.

Al-Ramtha, near one of Jordan’s two border crossings with Syria, is full of those who have fled their government’s brutal crackdown against the uprising that began in March. The Syrian government says the unrest is fueled by terrorists and funded with foreign money.

Many of those who have sought refuge in Jordan are families or young men with stories of relatives being arrested or killed when security services opened fire on peaceful demonstrations in Daraa. Many of them are just one step ahead of the secret police.

Lostan, in his jeans and light-green polo shirt, didn’t exactly blend into the desolate border town. He brought nothing with him but a cell phone and a visa to France, where he said he planned to work for the opposition.

By phone on a stop-over en route to Paris, Lostan told us that Syrian authorities had sent him messages saying that they could find him but preferred he give himself up. They said if he cooperated, nothing would happen to him – but he didn’t believe them.

“Never being released is a big possibility, especially when we see activists with their throats cut out and people we never hear from anymore,” Lostan said.

The decades of repression seem particularly ingrained in Damascus. Unlike Deraa, near the Jordanian border, where tribal ties are strong and the uprising began, Syrians in the capital have been much more reticent about open opposition.

“Sometimes when I’m stopped at a red light and I see the security forces, I become afraid that they’re able to read my thoughts,” said another man from Damascus who travels between the two countries.

Lostan said he participated in demonstrations in disguise – but knew that if he weren’t arrested, he would be blacklisted from working in theatre or television.

“My face is well known … I’d wear sunglasses, a hat, a scarf, but there comes a time when secret work isn’t worth it,” he said.

“This is a battle for rights and freedoms, it’s not a battle for power. It’s peaceful, civil and political. We’ve moved from the stage of not speaking out to speaking out and the beginning will be hard.”