Damascus: After 15-years in solitary confinement, celebrated Syrian actress Sabah Al Salem, 63, was recently released from the Central Damascus Prison. Her crime was the usage, distribution, and manufacturing of heroin.
Having disappeared suddenly five years before outbreak of the present conflict, many believed that she was dead given that there were only available as to her whereabouts, with no communique either from the state or her family.
Arab audiences remember Al Salem for co-staring next to Arab legends Duraid Lahham and Nour Al Sharif in 1984 and 1993. With Lahham she acted in Al Hudood, a blockbuster movie about Arab borders and with Al Sharif in the science fiction movie, Al Raqs Ma’a Al Shaytan (Dancing with the Devil).
Hailing from the countryside of Homs and trained as a pharmacologist, Al Salem began her acting career at the age of 24 while also working as a lab specialist at the Syrian Pharmaceutical Company.
“I was able to reveal several cases of high corruption, along with imaginary deals” she recalled, which led to many wanting to silence her.
Part of the revenge was the heroin that she immediately got addicted to, which was placed in her coffee cup by one of the company managers. “I would no longer rest unless I had some more” she added, saying that this came in the midst of a failed romance with a young actor.
“Then, someone showed up to make me an offer: more heroin in exchange for remaining silent about what was happening in the company.”
She accepted the offer, having become completely submissive to the drug, which placed her on the watchlist of the Anti-Narcotics Department at the Ministry of Interior. She was officially classified as an addict. At one point she was pursued by any officer from that very department, who wanted to lure her to bed, but she refused.
“He had me arrested on the charge of drug manufacturing, although the drugs that I made were for my personal use and not for trade,” she confessed.
She was brought to court, charged with the use and sale of heroin, and sentenced to death, a sentence that was first commuted to life imprisonment, then to fifteen years.
None of her colleagues visited her in jail, she added, and no effort was made on her behalf, either by the Syndicate of Artists or the Syndicate of Pharmacists.
“Only two people visited me in my cell. One was the artist Muhsen Ghazzi and the other was Maher Al Attar, a producer, who paid for all jail expenses.”
She is now planning to return to acting saying: “They shouldn’t think that my health conditions and financial situation will force me to make any concessions, whether in quality or pay. I still believe that acting is a sacred mission.”
She then added: “The Syria that I left behind when entering jail is very different from the Syria of today. My heart is too small to bear the sadness of my country.”
For its part, the Syndicate of Artists came out with a statement, saying that although they sympathised with Sabah Al Salem, they could not accept her comeback, because of her criminal record.
Al Salem last appeared on screen in 2004.