“When the Syrian revolution started, I became like a newborn making her first steps, rediscovering herself and rediscovering her country,” Syrian actress May Scaff told me when we met in Paris on April 28 this year. “Like all Syrians who took to the street, I found my voice for the first time.”
May never contemplated the idea that she would breathe her last in a country other than Syria or in a city other than her native Damascus. Few things scared her more than the thought of dying outside the country with which she had fallen in love all over again after the uprising.
Though she had been living in the French capital for three years, Paris, for her, was a temporary exile. “Don’t say if we return to Syria or if the regime falls,” she implored her friends. “Say when – when we return to Syria and when the regime falls for this moment will come. It has to.”
If this moment does come, though, May will not be there to witness it. May, an actress, a revolutionary, and a single mother, was pronounced dead on July 23 at the age of 49. Paris, not Damascus, will be her final resting place. Detention, death threats, separation from her mother and sister, and permanent exile and alienation were the price she paid for speaking truth to power.
At a time when most of her colleagues sided with the Syrian regime to maintain their privileges or remained silent to avoid state reprisal, May chose not to make a compromise with her beliefs.
Over a month into the uprising, she was among the signatories to a petition calling on the Syrian government to lift the siege on Deraa and allow humanitarian aid into the city. Deraa had been sealed off by Syrian security forces and its residents subjected to collective punishment as anti-government protests continued to gather steam.
The artists and intellectuals who signed the statement were smeared on Syrian state television and even received death threats. Prominent Syrian director and current Member of Parliament Najdat Anzour demanded the expulsion of the signatories from the Syrian Actors’ Guild. Twenty-two production companies announced their boycott of the artists who signed the petition, accusing them of “siding with the terrorists,” and “offending the Syrian people and leadership.”
Far from yielding to the threats and smear campaigns, May continued her activism. She attended numerous protests in Damascus and its countryside and spoke up with remarkable courage in support of the detainees and peaceful protesters.
After her arrest during a protest in the Damascene neighbourhood of Midan in July 2011, her name was chanted by demonstrators in Homs and Eastern Ghouta. Her activism, involvement in humanitarian work, and her outspoken opposition to tyranny in a country long governed by the dictates of fear and intimidation, turned her into a target for constant persecution.
Her second arrest in 2012 forced her to think seriously, for the first time, about leaving Syria. “I am a coward,” she said in a short documentary filmed before she bade Damascus a final goodbye. May was not afraid of death, but she feared another arrest. She was deeply concerned that her position would ultimately put her mother and only son, Joud, in danger.
Defying a travel ban by the Syrian security forces, May fled Damascus to the Jordanian capital Amman in 2013 where she and her son stayed until 2015.
The transformation from a full-time artist into an activist completely dedicated to one cause was not easy for May, but she would often stress that her sacrifices paled in comparisons with other Syrians.
“I am often told that it would have been better for me and my family had I kept my mouth shut and stayed neutral,” May told me when we met in Jordan in December 2014. “I had a good career and decent income. But for me, joining people’s demands for justice, freedom and dignity was not a choice. It was a duty.”
As May recalled the friends she left behind in Syria, she added: “I don’t think I did anything extraordinary or heroic. You know who the real hero is? A woman like Umm Samih, a Palestinian refugee, who was imprisoned three times by the regime and never surrendered. Her son is forcibly disappeared, her life was turned upside down, and yet she is there in Eastern Ghouta, cooking for internally displaced families, volunteering, helping her community and waiting for her son. There are countless Umm Samihs in Syria.”
For those who knew May and followed her career before 2011, her transformation was not surprising.
Born in Damascus on 13 April 1969, May was influenced by the late Syrian playwright and pioneer Saadallah Wannous whom she considered a spiritual father. As a teenager, she adopted the Palestinian cause as her own, forming a strong emotional bond with Palestine. Her commitment to the Palestinian cause was all the more unwavering after the outbreak of the Syrian uprising as she repeatedly insisted that resisting the Syrian regime and resisting the Israeli occupation of Palestine and the Golan Heights were inseparable.
As a student of French literature in Damascus University, May displayed a great talent and passion for acting. She starred in various plays on the stage of the French Cultural Institute’s theatre, attracting the attention of film and television directors.
May’s breakthrough came in 1992 when she was cast in the popular Syrian TV series “Crime in Memory,” an adaptation of Agatha Christie’s crime novel, Sleeping Murder. Despite her limited screen time, May’s arresting charisma and ability to play a complex character at such a young age made her a fan favourite.
While May was never a prolific actress, her legacy as a unique artist was cemented thanks to the difficult roles directors often assigned to her. She played the rebellious woman who marched in protests in defiance of her conservative brother. She played the fearless warrior who refused to confess or defect despite torture in captivity. She played the single mother who independently raised her daughter and stood up to her abusive husband.
It was always clear that May’s ambition went far beyond the small screen. In 2004, she established Teatro, a space where performance arts were taught in an unorthodox way. She sought to provide young and aspiring artists with the platform to express themselves outside the rigidity and constraints of the Higher Institute for Dramatic Arts, the main college for actors and directors in Syria.
Teatro, May’s single most important project, was closed by Syrian security forces in 2011 in retaliation for her anti-government stance.
“I dream of reviving Teatro in Paris, of creating a small space for hope and creativity for Syrian refugees,” she said.
In her last post on Facebook, May wrote: “I will never lose hope, I will never lose hope. Because it is Great Syria, not Assad’s Syria.” May was the personification of hope and resilience both on social media and in real life.
But resilient women can also be fragile. May was a fighter, but she was also a woman shouldering many burdens. How can one person survive so many setbacks and stand on her feet while coping with grief, immeasurable loss, anxiety and defeat?
May dreamed of a more just, dignified, and humane future for all Syrians. Bleak as the present may appear, we owe May and her memory the debt to keep fighting for a better tomorrow for all.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.