Syrian ex-radio star struggles with exile, her country’s fate

08/22/2012 5:00 AM

08/22/2012 11:31 PM

Never, ever say the word “revolution.” Protesters are to be called “terrorists” at all times. When a listener calls in to praise the president, you must agree in flowery terms. When suffering civilians beg you to describe their plight, you ignore them.

Those are just a few of the rules imposed on Honey al Sayed in the final weeks before she abandoned her nationally broadcast radio show, “Good Morning, Syria,” which drew millions of listeners each day.

Eight months ago, Sayed left Damascus under the pretense of pursuing her studies, though she knew she was fleeing both the regime of President Bashar Assad and a rebel movement that’s killed media personalities who are seen as pro-government. For months after Sayed left, the radio station continued to play promotional jingles for her show, to cover her departure and make her return seem imminent even when it became apparent that she was gone for good.

She’s used her blog and social media accounts to support the uprising but she’s kept silent about her own departure, mostly out of fear for her family still in Damascus, she said, but also because of lingering shame that she believed in Assad’s potential for reform long after the death toll was in the thousands.

Now she’s telling her story, offering a rare portal into the regime’s propaganda machine and an explanation for why Assad remained attractive to so many Syrians for so long.

“The reason I left was to keep what’s left of my personal and professional integrity,” Sayed, who’s 39, said in a three-hour interview in Washington, where she’s living as a refugee. “I compromised it. But I didn’t know what else to do. I had fear.”

Sayed got her break in 2005, when Assad ushered in some mainly cosmetic reforms, including the right to private media ownership. Some of her friends seized on the chance to open the country’s first independent radio station, Al Madina FM, and they hired Sayed for the coveted morning slot.

As Sayed sees it, she was a pressure valve that helped fed-up Syrians blow off steam without really threatening the regime. She embodied the Western-friendly Syria that Assad projected when he inherited power from his father in 2000: She challenged old taboos on women, embraced a secular lifestyle, spoke a cool patois of English and Arabic, and made bold on-air jokes about rampant government corruption. She prided herself on pushing against the regime’s red lines.

“That’s why people became loyal to him,” she said of Assad’s efforts to rebrand his family’s authoritarian dynasty. “When you don’t have anything, and suddenly you have something — even if it’s very little, even if it’s your right — it’s like candy.”

Her family comes from the well-heeled Sunni Muslim merchant class that, together with the minority Alawites, forms the backbone of Assad’s regime. Because Assad was the bookish, accidental ruler — assuming power only after a car wreck killed the heir apparent — he was seen as fairly benign, Sayed said.

Her father, a photographer, once did a photo shoot for the president. Her mother was proud to have him visit her art gallery in Damascus. Sayed’s sister did some advertising work for Assad. And Sayed recalled bumping into the president and his glamorous first lady at the opera.

“A bunch of us — the gray people — we believed that Bashar was supposedly the reformer. He was the apple who fell a bit farther from the tree than the rest of the family. He was just an eye doctor who loves photography and IT,” Sayed said.

When the uprising began in March 2011, in step with the Arab spring protests throughout the region, the people of Sayed’s milieu trusted in their leader to spare them the civil strife that Libya, Yemen or Bahrain endured.

“I thought, `He’s definitely either going to defect or call for presidential elections in six months,’“ Sayed said. “That’s how hopeful we were. Everybody miscalculated.”

Before the crisis, Sayed’s show was an upbeat variety program with horoscopes, entertainment gossip, sports updates and interviews with stars from the Arab world, as well as visiting Western celebrities such as Bryan Adams and Enrique Iglesias. She once got into trouble for a segment that took a clinical look at masturbation, which backfired because it was “too Howard Stern” for local sensibilities, she explained, but generally she was free to complain about the bribes she had to pay public servants, or the neglected roads that damaged cars, or even corruption in schools and police stations

About two months into the uprising, however, what had been the occasional lecture or gentle warning about content became, Sayed said, a return “to the `80s,” when Assad’s notoriously iron-fisted father, Hafez, was ruler.

“My show turned political, and every show turned political because there was an elephant in the room you needed to talk about,” Sayed recalled. “But when you talk about it, you have to say, `It’s terrorists.’ All media became state media, whether you liked it or not.”

The radio station quickly became a nest of informants, with co-workers monitoring one another for signs of disloyalty to the regime. Sayed said she got noticed for petty slights: not agreeing enough with pro-Assad callers, not reading every single pro-Assad text message that arrived, failing to attend pro-Assad rallies.

Sometimes Sayed and a co-worker would grab sandwiches near pro-government rallies in the capital, just to appear to the ever-watchful informers that they were part of the gatherings, which drew thousands upon thousands of Assad loyalists.

“He has support, and people need to know this,” Sayed said. “Yes, there were people who got paid and, yes, there were people who were forced, but not all of them. There’s still a lot of loyalists, and that’s a fact we have to deal with.”

State security pounced when she attended a U.S. Embassy function; she hadn’t thought twice about going because she was the secretary of the Syrian American Business Council. She got in even worse trouble when she disagreed with a caller who was lambasting a famous Syrian singer who’d disavowed the regime; Sayed was forced to make a humiliating on-air retraction the next day.

“All I really wanted to be was objective on air. I didn’t want to take sides, I just wanted to say, `We understand,’ and `Please, let’s not do it the hard way,’“ Sayed recalled. “I still wanted to promote peace and love, but as one guy told me, `You must be lonely in that world.’“ Sayed said she grew more deeply depressed and physically ill with every passing day. She no longer rose early, worked out and greeted her fans with lighthearted jokes. She dreaded going to work each day, she said, and found herself frequently in tears.

To make matters worse, the station had begun receiving threats from the armed opposition, the then-nascent force that would turn into one side of a burgeoning civil war.

The rebels in recent weeks have shown themselves to be particularly merciless when it comes to pro-regime media figures, kidnapping and executing a TV anchorman, abducting a state TV cameraman, capturing a pro-regime TV crew and killing one of them, forcing on-camera “confessions” from state media workers, killing a journalist with the state news agency SANA and bombing several pro-Assad media outlets. Sayed made her decision to leave long before those atrocities.

At the time, in the last weeks of 2011, it was the regime’s pressure and paranoia that she couldn’t endure, she said, along with a realization that her faith in the president had been naive. “I would clench my teeth when I got messages from Homs or Hama” — where fierce government shelling campaigns were under way — “and I couldn’t read them on the show. I know my fans dropped by half. I know it. And I hated myself,” Sayed said. She became reckless on air, she said, almost inviting reprimands.

If she heard of a pro-government rally, she’d go on the air to steer people away from the area on account of “heavy traffic.” The next time she got a text message from the flash-point city of Homs, she threw out management’s edict to ignore opposition sympathizers: “I feel you, I agree with you and I’m sorry I can’t read your message on air,” she recalled saying. Then she exploded at a listener who called in to complain that the station still played Persian Gulf music when it was well known that Saudi Arabia and Qatar were arming and bankrolling the rebels.

“I told him, `How about we close the radio station for people like you? We won’t put Gulf songs, we won’t put American songs, we won’t put Turkish songs, and how about we live alone on this earth as Syrians? Would you like that?’“ she said.

Her family and friends agreed it was time for her to leave, and she was lucky: She had a valid visa to the United States left over from an earlier trip. She quickly sold her car and made quiet arrangements to go.

There was no fanfare on Dec. 31, 2011, because her fans weren’t supposed to know that it was her last show in a seven-year run. They figured it out only later, she said, when they found her on Twitter and sent messages of thanks.

“I had to go on air and say, ‘See you in a few months. I’m going for a media training,’“ she said of her last day. “I cried off the microphone. The producer would turn the music up for a minute, I’d wipe off the tears and go back on air.”

Sayed was also fortunate that she landed in the United States just in time to qualify for the Obama administration’s recent “temporary protected status” designation, which allows Syrian refugees to stay in the U.S. and apply for work permits because of the crisis in their homeland.

Now she’s struggling to land a job. Her days are consumed with meetings with potential employers, activism online and with Syrian nonprofits, phone calls to check on her parents and friends in Damascus, and long bouts of soul-searching at the Potomac waterfront or in her favorite cafes.

She won’t support the armed rebel forces, she’s decided, because there’s too little known about them and their ambitions, and she’s a pacifist at heart. She’s a bigger supporter of the nonviolent protest movement, even though she knows it’s been rendered irrelevant in the civil war.

The typically poised and eloquent Sayed broke down one recent afternoon when she contemplated the lack of options for ending the bloodshed.

“I hate them. I don’t care about my show, I just hate what they did to the country,” she said of the Assad regime. She buried her face in her hands and sobbed, shoulders heaving. “We cannot allow anyone to divide us, inside or outside Syria. I just hate that I can’t be there. I hate that I have to be scared for my family. I hate that I can’t have a voice to tell them what I used to tell them: ‘It’s OK, let’s stick together, let’s love each other.’“

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