Who is Qusai Abtini? Syrian child TV star killed in Aleppo

Published 7:02 am Monday, August 1, 2016

BEIRUT (AP) — The sit-com is a little like “I Love Lucy,” starring a comic housewife who gets into shenanigans and bickers with her husband. Except children play all the roles. And it all takes place in one of the historic stone houses in the old city of Aleppo, besieged by government forces in one of the worst battlegrounds of Syria’s civil war.

“Um Abdou the Aleppan” is a small curiosity of the 5-year-old war, the first sit-com produced out of rebel-held parts of Syria.

Aired in 2014 on a local Aleppo station, it was a light-hearted look at life in the war-ravaged city, finding comedy as it showed residents dealing with everything from cut-offs in electricity and water, to factionalism among rebels, to bombardments and violence. The child actors, even as they spot-on mimic characters of a traditional Aleppo neighborhood, provide a tone of innocence.

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The tragic reality intruded on that innocence this month.

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 Aleppans, whose city was once the commercial center of Syria with a thriving, unique culture but has now been torn to pieces by fighting, with whole neighborhoods left in ruin. Tens of thousands in the city have been killed since the summer of 2012, when Aleppo split into rebel- and government-held districts and the two sides turned on each other.

In recent weeks, government forces have tightened their siege of rebel-held sections, 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.”

“Umm Abdou the Aleppan” aired in nearly 30 episodes, each about 10 minutes long, on the opposition station 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 the witnesses to “the massacres committed by Assad against childhood.”

The show is steeped in the atmosphere of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, taking place in the stone alleyways of one of its old neighborhoods, with the dialogue in the city’s distinct accent of Arabic. The title character, Um Abdou, was played by a young girl named Rasha, while 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 Umm Abdou’s daughter. Over tea, Umm Abou tells her all her daughters are married to members of the Free Syrian Army, the comparatively secular rebel umbrella group. When she learns that the prospective groom is a “mujahid” — an Islamic militant 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!” Umm Abdou muses.

“Qusai was a very talented boy,” Sakka told The Associated Press. “We were looking for an intelligent boy,” he said from southern Turkey via Skype. “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. Once he moved from acting in plays to TV, his dreams broadened and worked on transforming what he was living through” into his performances, she said, speaking from Aleppo via Skype.

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 and his father was wounded, left bound to a wheelchair. On July 8, Abtini’s father decided to send his children out of Aleppo.

But 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, holding a placard reading, “Qusai, Abu Abdu the Aleppan. You are a little hero. You scared the regime with your giant acts so they killed you.”