NPR

Syria's Civil War Raised Stakes For Radio Host

Popular Syrian radio personality Honey al-Sayed fled the country last year and now lives in Washington, D.C. Both the regime and rebel forces wanted her to be their mouthpiece. She spoke to David Greene about what it was like to broadcast in Syria during the conflict there, and what made her leave.

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Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And I'm David Greene. Good morning.

Let's spend some time now with a woman who has observed the conflict in Syria up close. The civil war there has killed more than 100,000 people. Over two million refugees have fled. In 2010, before that conflict began, our colleague Deborah Amos introduced us to one of the country's best-known radio voices.

HONEY AL-SAYED: (Foreign language spoken) Good morning, Syria.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: This is how many Syrians start their day, listening to host Honey al-Sayed. Her morning show is number one.

AL-SAYED: Good morning, Syria...

AMOS: With a mix of Arabic and English, Honey Sayed says she's pushing the boundaries of free speech.

AL-SAYED: We were the first private radio to open in Syria. And we're allowed now to do something different, so that's Syria opening up.

GREENE: Honey al-Sayed had to watch herself on her show. Too much politics, and she'd get a phone call from government censors.

AL-SAYED: Every year, I kind of pushed the envelope and wanted to see, you know, how far could I go.

GREENE: She talked about taboo topics like sex, divorce, child abuse, and she hoped all this was a sign of slow, but steady progress in the country. All that changed with the civil war. With violence raging, the stakes were higher, the threats were more real. Both the regime and the rebel forces wanted her to be their mouthpiece, and eventually, it became too much. She left.

Honey al-Sayed now lives in Washington, D.C., and she came by our studios recently. I asked her what drove her away.

AL-SAYED: Pressure, because - you're a morning person.

(LAUGHTER)

AL-SAYED: You have a morning radio show. It was the best job I've ever had. And to want to wake up to a job is very rare. In March 2011, and for whole year, I hated waking up to my job, because I didn't know, who am I going to be addressing? Who I kidding? And how can I not talk about the elephant in the room? And how do I remain objective when everyone is monitoring me, not just the regime? And as pathetic as you didn't put a song for the president today, and you were asked to do that. And you think, you know, what do I do?

I knew in my heart that things are only going to get worse. Since the revolution started, both sides kept saying the same thing, (foreign language spoken), which means it's over. The pro-regime people were so confident, and the people in opposition were so confident, that two weeks, three weeks, two months, we're done. I knew that we weren't done. I knew that this is it. This is - it's - Syria's over. Not it's over, there's a victory to any side.

GREENE: Well, what were you feeling? What was a day like?

AL-SAYED: It was horrible.

(LAUGHTER)

AL-SAYED: It was like an exam. You know, how you have butterflies in your stomach?

GREENE: Sure.

AL-SAYED: It's like you haven't studied for it, and you know, you don't know what you're going to do. And you loose all your confidence.

GREENE: Because you don't know what they're wanting you to say on the air or expecting you to say...

AL-SAYED: You want to say something. You want to do something, and then you're expected to say and do other things. And you know that you are micromanaged now. Now it's different.

GREENE: So take me up to when you ultimately leave the country. What brought you to that decision?

AL-SAYED: Well, it was a decision I took on my own. I don't know. I slept - this was in November of 2011. I woke up, and I said I'm leaving. I don't know. That's exactly what happened. It was not a good year. I was extremely depressed, and I just had a visa to the United States and I used it, not knowing also what I want to do with that. But I just know that it's time for me to go, and I'll figure it out when I get there.

I hadn't told anyone that I was leaving and not coming back. I said that I'm coming back in a couple of months. This will be just a, you know, a media training that I have to take, which was, of course, a big lie.

GREENE: Did the government respond to your decision to leave?

AL-SAYED: In what sense? Am I blacklisted? I'm blacklisted. The last I heard I was blacklisted.

(LAUGHTER)

AL-SAYED: So...

GREENE: But your program is still going to allow to go on, just without you there.

AL-SAYED: Do you want the honest truth? I haven't heard the radio station since I left.

GREENE: Why not?

AL-SAYED: Only the first three months. I can't...

GREENE: I'm sorry. I didn't mean to upset you. It...

AL-SAYED: It's OK. So I was doing that every day for a year, crying.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHORT LAUGH)

AL-SAYED: ...right before I start my show; it's just such a big change. It's - it's things that you just never expect. So much has changed in the way we treat each other, in the way we look at each other. Something happened. It's extremely painful - because we've been so used to coexisting as a people for so long before the regime and all that. It's in our history. And now we can't; we can't coexist. And when you're oppressed for so long, and then suddenly there's this youth that are fed up and they're so inspired by Tunis and Egypt and they were going to do this, and they do it. But there's no long-term vision. And there's all these people getting shot and killed and that builds up a lot of hatred and it builds up a lot of revenge. And then suddenly everybody wants a certain kind of freedom, a freedom that we've never really tasted. So, yes, I miss home. I miss everything in Syria.

GREENE: Let me just ask you, from your vantage point here in the United States. I mean, that the conflict in Syria is something that is in the new a lot. Are there things about this conflict that you don't think we as Americans are seeing and understanding?

AL-SAYED: I - we need to understand it first - as Syrians. Yeah, there's a lot that I'm sure Americans don't understand. And that's not just about Syria, it's always being viewed as the region of oil and terrorists, and we're not. There's so much more to Syria than what they receive on the news. There are human beings that are being killed, tortured, detained - young women, men, as young as one-year-old - being sniped. They're selling their organs. They're hungry. They eat leaves and cats. There are sham marriages. There's prostitution. There's everything else so that they can survive. So I just want to say shame on the world that this can still go on. That we are still thinking of what are we going to do to stop it? It's going to be three years. There's almost 15,000 of what we know of that have been killed already. There's not one Syrian family today that doesn't have missing person on their table, if they have a table to eat their dinner on. Whether that person had to force to leave or whether that person has been killed, or missing, or detained, there is always some missing Syrian somewhere. So the humanitarian crisis is a catastrophe.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: That was the voice of Honey al-Sayed. She is in the United States, still doing radio. They're online broadcasts. She's trying to reach as many Syrians as she can - here in the U.S. and also back at home

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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