Feted Syrian child actor killed trying to leave Aleppo

BEIRUT: The sitcom is a little like “I Love Lucy,” starring a comic housewife who gets into shenanigans and bickers with her husband. Children play all the roles and the location is a historic stone house in the old city of Aleppo, besieged by government forces in one of the worst battlegrounds of Syria’s civil war.“Um Abdou the Aleppine” is a small curiosity of the 5-year-old war, the first sitcom produced out of rebel-held parts of Syria.

Aired in 2014 on a local Aleppo station, it was a lighthearted look at life in the war-ravaged city – finding comedy in residents dealing with everything from electricity and water outages to rebel factionalism, to bombardments and violence. With their spot-on mimicry of the characters of a traditional Aleppo neighborhood, the child actors provide a tone of innocence to the proceedings.

This month tragic reality intruded on that innocence.

Qusai Abtini, the 14-year-old boy who played the husband, was killed when a missile struck the car he was in as he tried to escape Aleppo. Fresh-faced with a toothy grin and thick black hair, Abtini had become a local celebrity.

His life and death underscored the suffering of Aleppines. Once the commercial center of Syria, with a thriving, unique culture, their city has now been torn to pieces by fighting, with whole neighborhoods ruined.

Tens of thousands in the city have been killed since the summer of 2012, when Aleppo split into rebel- and government-held districts and both sides turned on each other. In recent weeks, government forces have tightened their siege of rebel-held sectors, trying to cut off the last escape routes.

Days after Abtini’s death, several dozen men marched through his home district in a symbolic funeral, waving opposition flags and chanting “Qusai has gone to heaven. Bashar is the killer of my people.”

“Um Abdou the Aleppine” aired nearly 30 episodes, each about 10 minutes long, on the opposition-run Halab Today TV. It was filmed in Aleppo, even as it was subjected almost daily to bombardment. In one outtake, three girls performing a scene jump at the sound of an explosion, then go on with their lines.

Bashar Sakka, the director, said he cast kids because children are witnesses to “the massacres committed by Assad against childhood.”

Set in the stone alleyways of one of the city’s old neighborhoods, the show is steeped in the atmosphere of Aleppo, with the dialogue in the city’s distinct accent.

The title character, Um Abdou, was played by a young girl named Rasha. Abtini played her husband, Abu Abdou.

Both show a talent for comic timing, playing a stereotypical traditional husband and wife.

He’s domineering and patriarchal. She’s clever, ambitious and a bit ditzy, dealing with neighboring families living on top of each other in close quarters.

In one episode, the mother of a rebel fighter visits, looking to marry her son to Um Abdou’s daughter. Over tea, Um Abdou tells her all her daughters are married to members of the Free Syrian Army, the relatively secular rebel umbrella group. When she learns that the prospective groom is a “mujahid” – an Islamic fighter – she slyly demands a high dowry to intentionally foil the negotiations.

In another episode, Um Abdou decides with her girlfriends to form an all-female rebel faction.

Abu Abdou teases her, saying, “You want to go to the front lines when you’re afraid of cockroaches.”

Then he tells her there’s a mouse under the couch and laughs as she jumps up and screams.

Another scene has Abu Abdou going with rebels on a raid, but Um Abdou gossips about it to all her neighbors – and her husband comes back wounded from an ambush by government forces who learned of the planned attack.

“I wonder how everyone found out!” Um Abdou muses.

“Qusai was a very talented boy,” Sakka told the Associated Press from southern Turkey via Skype. “We were looking for an intelligent boy. We wanted him to be free with ideas, and without fear of Bashar Assad’s regime and its ruthlessness.”

Abtini was 10 years old when mass protests first erupted against the rule of President Bashar Assad erupted in March 2011. He became quickly entangled in the uprising, taking part in anti-Assad demonstrations, often sitting on his older brother’s shoulders. He spoke in opposition videos, criticizing Assad’s government and describing Aleppo’s destruction.

At the same time, he acted in school plays. Afraa Hashem, his school’s director, saw his talent and introduced him to Sakka.

“He was very ambitious,” she said from Aleppo via Skype.

“Once he moved from acting in plays to TV, his dreams broadened and [he] worked on transforming what he was living through” into his performances, she said.

After the TV series, Abtini had roles in local theater. Last summer, he played a rebel killed in fighting. As his mother weeps over his body, a man tells her, “Be happy for him. He wanted martyrdom and got it.”

During recent shelling, Abtini’s home was hit, leaving his father wheelchair-bound. On July 8, Abtini’s father decided to send his children out of Aleppo.

As the car Abtini was in made a run down the one road out of rebel-held parts of Aleppo, a missile struck it.

In a video of the symbolic funeral a few days later, his father in his wheelchair watches the marchers go by. He holds a placard reading, “Qusai, Abu Abdou the Aleppine. You are a little hero. You scared the regime with your giant acts so they killed you.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 02, 2016, on page 16.




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