Despite an ongoing civil war and the looming threat of U.S. military action, Syria’s President Bashar Al-Assad celebrated his 48th birthday today with an elaborate star-studded party in the capital Damascus, with several Hollywood luminaries taking part.
Assad and his wife, Asma Al-Assad, and hundreds of guests were treated to a two-hour birthday bash with musical and theatrical performances. Pop singers Jennifer Lopez and Nelly Furtado led the crowd in English as they sang “Happy birthday” to Assad, who was born Sept. 11, 1965.
Other celebrities who took part included Hollywood actors Hillary Swank and Sean Penn, action star Jean-Claude Van Damme, boxer Mike Tyson, French actor Gerard Depardieu and basketball star Dennis Rodman. Filmed footage of the birthday — which reportedly took place at the Presidential Palace amid heavy security — was uploaded to Al-Dahik, the Middle Eastern version of YouTube.
Their participation in the party is likely to cause an international uproar, not only because of current tensions involving Syria but also the fact that the celebrities who attended have previously participated in celebrations and private events for dictators and controversial leaders.
Hillary Swank, who claimed ignorance after she appeared at Chechen warlord Ramzan Kadyrov’s 35th birthday party in 2011, seemed to enjoy her time at Assad’s birthday as she and Mike Tyson reenacted scenes from her movie Million Dollar Baby, in which she played a professional boxer, to the delight of the audience.
“This has been the best day of my life!” she declared after wishing Assad a happy birthday. “Every Sept. 11 will be a special day for me thanks to Mr. Assad, his lovely family and the gracious people of Syria.”
Depardieu did an impromptu dance with Asma Al-Assad, calling her “beautiful and glamorous, worthy of the cover of a magazine.” Penn read a poem criticizing “America’s imperialist war” and praising Assad as a “true hero, among the great leaders of the world like like Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro.” Van Damme, Depardieu and Penn also took photographs and signed autographs for the Assad family.
Eccentric ex-basketball champ Rodman, who flew to Syria after recently making a second trip to North Korea, thanked Assad for his hospitality and offered to speak to President Obama on Assad’s behalf.
“I don’t know what everybody’s talking about when they call you some thug or dictator or whatever,” Rodman said. “You seem like a pretty cool dude to me. I hop everything works out for you.”
Assad is known for his interesting and surprising taste in Western music and movies, as revealed through his iTunes emails.
When contacted, publicists for each celebrity participant declined to say why their clients attended the party or how much they were paid.
In an email, Swank’s publicist wrote that the actress “is not familiar with any human rights abuses or allegations against Mr. Assad.”