BEIRUT — Abbas al Nouri pauses as a particularly loud car roars past the cafe on the main thoroughfare. The overly solicitous waitress lingers, a hint of recognition in her eyes.
At the table, the conversation inevitably focuses on Al Nouri’s native Syria.
“The father who cannot listen to his children is a failure, and this is something that destroys the family,” Al Nouri says, the metaphor describing the war pitting armed rebels against the government of President Bashar Assad.
“This revolution happened so that people could express themselves,” he continues, choosing words carefully between drags on his cigarette. “This regime, which is military in nature, did not have the culture to digest the idea that some people have an opinion.”
He shakes his head as he places his teacup on the table. “It couldn’t believe that it can be criticized, so it fired upon the people ... and fired upon culture and knowledge even before it started firing at bodies.”
Al Nouri, 60, is known to millions across the Arab world as the star of the smash-hit Syrian television series “Bab al Hara” (“The Neighborhood’s Gate”). In real life he sports a full head of hair, unlike his character, Abu-Issam, a bald barber and doctor in an early-20th century Damascus struggling against French colonial domination. Though he was famous even before “Bab al Hara,” the show — no longer in production but seen year-round in syndication — cemented his reputation as one of the region’s top actors.
Al Nouri has worked steadily since his television debut in 1976, and holds the distinction of starring in the only Arab TV program to win an International Emmy Award. The Jordanian-produced “Al Ijtiyah” (“The Invasion”), a Palestinian-Israeli love story set during the 2002 Israeli assault on the Jenin refugee camp, captured the Emmy in 2008 for best telenovela.
On a recent afternoon, he sat down for an interview after one of his many road trips from Damascus to Beirut, where he was working on a new project, “The Passing,” described as a science-fiction series with social implications.
Politically engaged for decades, Al Nouri isn’t shy about criticizing Arab leaders generally or the Syrian government and some of its extremist enemies in particular.
“I don’t want to take away the freedom of people putting on the hijab,” he says. “But I do want to take away the covering of the brain.”
Asked whether he feared retribution for voicing his opinion, he brushed off any concern.
In his native Damascus, Al Nouri lives in Dumar, a suburb a mile from the presidential palace. The district is northwest of Qaymariya, where his parents still live in a “house like those you would find in the television series I work in,” he says, smiling as he remembers the open-courtyard stone homes of a bygone Damascus.
But the smile fades as he contemplates the new reality of his city, where the 10-minute drive to visit his parents has become an hour-plus slog “that makes you wonder how this city is living between one checkpoint and another.”
Checkpoints also slow the drive between Damascus and Beirut, but a heavy Syrian army presence has kept the route relatively safe. Al Nouri commutes to the Lebanese capital to work and to visit his children, two of whom live here at their father’s insistence. The third attends a university in the United States.
He’s forbidden his children to return to Damascus, he explains, not so much for “the oppression on the street as much as the fall of mortars right and left and the fear from the sky.” He says his parents are too elderly for him to consider moving. “My father is almost 100 years old and my mother is 90. I cannot leave them.”
And, he acknowledges, something else draws him back to the ancient capital.
“Even if I lived in a five-star hotel, being away from the site of the pain hurts even more,” he says. “So I don’t envy those who left, because of the worry they must be enduring.” He expels the smoke from his cigarette slowly, watching it waft away. “And I love Damascus.”
With production companies no longer working in Syria and with many artists in exile, the country’s once-prodigious TV and film industry has all but shut down.
Performers, writers and other creative Syrians have not been immune to the bloodshed. Each side in the conflict has targeted artists for their political stances, though that hasn’t discouraged Al Nouri from expressing his political views.
As for his fellow actors’ mass departure, he’s sympathetic but distressed. “This is painful for them, but also painful for me, because I have lost some real partners, and we need them and they are great stars.”
Al Nouri grew up under Syria’s Baath leadership, which seized power in 1963 and continues to rule. He became politically aware in his university days, when Arab nationalism, the fate of the Palestinians and the existential struggle against Israel were the defining issues on campus and on the street.
He was one of the youngest Syrians to speak on the radio in honor of the late Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Egyptian president, who is still revered in Arab nationalist circles even as Islamist movements have eclipsed his secular, pan-Arab vision. But Al Nouri eschews the nostalgia for those days that’s often heard among Arab intellectuals, instead describing the era as one when “freedom of expression was confiscated in favor of slogans.”
He picks up a spinach-filled fatira pastry before elaborating. “They would chant, ‘Our enemy is Israel!’ or ‘We want democracy!’ — when in reality it was the citizens who were the enemy. Whenever a new slogan would come, there would be new branches of intelligence to protect it.”
Here he pauses again, momentarily uncomfortable with what he wants to say. “I hope people don’t misunderstand me, but we did not deserve independence in the way it should have been,” he says, his voice taking on a regretful tone. Slogans often substituted for democracy and creation of a civil society in much of the Arab world. Syria “lived through a large lie, and what is happening now is an abscess that blew up.”
Like many Syrian intellectuals, he is torn about the revolution. He supports the goal of a more democratic nation, but knows the future could be even worse, perhaps some form of Islamist state or Syria balkanized into sectarian cantons, with foreign powers backing different factions.
“I can’t even look at a nation that still lives the problems that were finished 1,400 years ago,” he says, referring disdainfully to the ultraconservative Salafist rebel brigades that would seek restrictions on free speech and artistic expression. He says he fears “a nation that looks to history but not to the future,” adding, “I want my country to be completely free, with complete dignity.”
But after more than two years of a devastating war that has left more than 100,000 dead and millions homeless and reduced large swaths of the country to rubble, Al Nouri concludes, “People just want a solution, no matter how it is.”
The waitress approaches with knafeh, a cheese pastry dripping with sugar syrup. She finally blurts out what has been on her mind for the last 90 minutes: “Are you Abbas al Nouri from ‘Bab al Hara’?”
Bulos is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Patrick J. McDonnell in Beirut contributed to this report.