Fadwa Suleiman, a Syrian actress who rose to the world stage with a campaign of protest against President Bashar al-Assad, risking her life to decry his regime’s atrocities and to promote unity among the divided Syrian people, died Aug. 17 in Paris.
She had cancer, according to the Agence France-Presse. Ms. Suleiman was widely reported to be in her mid-40s, but her exact age could not immediately be confirmed.
In the Syrian civil war that has taken 400,000 lives since it began in 2011, Ms. Suleiman was an eloquent and unrelenting voice of peaceful resistance — a rare female front-line dissident who attracted international attention for her activism.
“We’re a civilized and peaceful nation,” she told Reuters in 2012. “We cannot let the regime with a simple ploy make us slaughter each other to justify its existence.”
Like Assad, she belonged to the Alawite Shiite sect. Their shared religious identity amplified the poignancy of her appeals when she denounced Assad for pitting Shiites against Sunnis, attempting to malign the resistance as a group of rogue Islamists.
“Everyone was saying that salafist Sunnis were going to attack the Alawites,” she told the AFP in 2012. “I, an Alawite woman, got up on the stage and declared that we were all united against the regime.”
She traced her anger at Assad to his government’s repression of artistic freedoms, once remarking that “everywhere you go, even a theater or a film company, you feel you have entered a security branch.” In 2011, she traveled to the insurgent stronghold of Homs, where she appeared in an anti-Assad demonstration aired on television by Al Jazeera. Her family disowned her.
She had come to the city knowing, she said, that from that point forward, she was destined either for prison or for execution.
“I don’t care what happens to me,” the Australian newspaper quoted her as saying. “Freedom has its price and we all have to chip in.”
Ms. Suleiman evaded arrest by going into hiding, while continuing to distribute her calls for peace. She was a haunting presence on YouTube and remained a powerful moral voice for her cause, although followers could no longer see her in person.
The National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces, which announced her death, described her as “one of the symbols of the Syrian revolution,” having led “the protests and sit-ins against the Assad regime” and chanted “the first slogans for freedom.”
By 2012, Ms. Suleiman concluded that she could no longer safely remain in Syria. She reportedly escaped by foot to Jordan before traveling to Paris, where she lived in exile until her death. She was immediately recognizable for her shorn hair, an outward sign of her protest and, perhaps, everything she and her country had lost.
She said she could not abide the violent direction the uprising had taken, telling the AFP that she was “bitter to see a peaceful revolution turn into a civil war.” Assad, who is backed by Russia, remains in power.
Ms. Suleiman was born in Aleppo. She told Reuters that she studied theater because she saw it as a guarantor of the “freedom to think and to express oneself.”
After attending the Higher Institute for Dramatic Arts in Damascus, she acted on stage and television, displaying early on a social conscience. Her credits included a stage production in Damascus of Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House” and the Syrian television show “Small Hearts,” in which she played an orphanage teacher.
A complete list of survivors was not immediately available.
In exile, Ms. Suleiman wrote a book of poetry, “When We Reach the Moon.” A war correspondent, Janine di Giovanni, interviewed her at a cafe in Paris and found her in a state of melancholy.
“The life of someone in exile is always hard, more so when your country is in the midst of war and you are outside it, watching through a frosted-glass window,” di Giovanni wrote in the book “The Morning They Came for Us: Dispatches from Syria”.
“Running her fingers through the hair she had willingly and somehow symbolically cut off,” di Giovanni wrote, Ms. Suleiman said she would not go home “until Syria was a country she once again could recognize.”