Syrian actress Fadwa Suleiman says she was drawn to a life in drama because of its promise of freedom.
Disillusioned at the level of state control even in theatre and film, she joined protests last year against President Bashar al-Assad and now takes the stage at demonstrations in the city of Homs, center of resistance to his family's four-decade rule.
Cutting her hair short like a boy and moving from house to house to evade capture, Suleiman has become one of the most recognized faces of the 10-month uprising against Assad.
She played no part in the early demonstrations that broke out in March, but a deep-seated rebellious streak - which only increased when she joined the state-run High Conservatory for Theatre Arts - drew her towards the protests.
“I chose to study theatre because I thought theatre means freedom to think and to express oneself,” Suleiman told Reuters in a Skype interview from Homs.
Describing her time at the conservatory, which like most culture in Syria is controlled by the state, she said she slowly discovered that “my country wants to drain every culture and content from its citizens.”
“I became opposed to the way we work, to the humiliation, the degradation in human interaction. Everywhere you go, even a theatre or a film company, you feel you have entered a security branch,” she said.
“Authors write the worst scripts but they are chosen because they have links to security.”
Before the uprising, Suleiman was known for her roles in television, radio, cinema and theatre, playing an art teacher at an orphanage in “Small Hearts,” a television series that helped raise awareness about human organ trafficking and was broadcast by several Arab channels.
She also acted in an Arabic adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House” at the Qabbani theatre in Damascus.
When the uprising broke out Suleiman, who is in her 30s, became increasingly active as Syria's intelligentsia mobilized in support of the pro-democracy protesters.
She has appeared at rallies demanding Assad's removal, sharing the podium with soccer star Abdelbasset Sarout, one of a number of Syrian celebrities who have backed the revolt.
Veteran actresses Mona Wassef and May Skaf, singer Asala Masri, film director Nabil Maleh and composer Malek Jandali are among other Syrian figures who have supported the uprising.
She has also delivered impassioned monologues to camera, calling for peaceful protests to continue across the country until Assad is overthrown. In one video message in November, she said security forces were searching Homs neighborhoods for her and beating people to force them to reveal her hiding place.
Her life on the run resembles that of other activists wanted for their role in the uprising, except that Suleiman is a woman from Syria’s Alawite minority - the same sect as Assad - taking part in a mainly male and Sunni Muslim rebellion.
In the conservative bastion of Homs where Suleiman has made her stand, most women wear the headscarf and tensions between Sunnis and Alawites have exploded into sectarian violence.
Fearing a Sunni backlash, the Alawite community, a secretive and tightly knit sect which controls the army and makes up most of the security apparatus, has mostly sided with Assad, or remained silent as troops cracked down on protesters.
Many Alawites have disavowed Suleiman, including her brother Mahmoud, who appeared on a state-controlled satellite channel saying Syria’s unity was more important than his sister.
The actress insists Sunnis and Alawites can still live together despite the spiral of sectarian violence in Homs, pointing to conservative Sunni families who have opened their homes to shelter her from security forces.
“The regime portrays Homs as a hub for extreme Islam, but I walk in Sunni neighborhoods distributing flyers, and go like this, without a veil, into the homes of religious families and discuss politics and organizing the next protest,” she said.
A YouTube video showed Suleiman standing on a podium last month in the Sunni neighborhood of Khalidiya in Homs, chanting “One, one, one. Syrian people are one.”
The crowd, waving Syrian green and white flags from the era before Assad's Baath Party took power in a 1963 military coup, thunders after her “Khalidiya: free and proud.”
Opposite Khalidiya is the Alawite neighborhood of Nozha, where the bodies of 30 Sunni Muslims were dumped by army trucks in December, provoking an attack by armed Sunnis, according to an Alawite resident of the district.
At the rally, Suleiman appealed to the people of Nozha “to come and see reality, to see your brothers in blood peacefully demanding freedom.”
“Freedom cannot be against your beliefs, even if you’re pro-regime,” she said.
In the interview, Suleiman said that stopping the sectarian bloodshed in Homs had become the main priority, but that Assad must also be removed.
“We’re a civilized and peaceful nation. We cannot let the regime with a simple ploy make us slaughter each other to justify its existence,” she said.
At a rally earlier in the uprising, the actress sang a popular tune by Lebanese singer Marcel Khalifah, surrounded by youths from her home region in the Alawite mountains overlooking the Mediterranean.
“I chose you, my homeland. Lovingly, voluntarily,” she sang, in apparently wistful reference to her now estranged Alawite community. “Let the times disavow me, as long as you will remember me, my wonderful homeland.”