x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

A Bedouin in Hollywood

Bashar Atiyat went to America 17 years ago to become an actor. But it was the desert that gave him his big break.

Seventeen years ago, I was a 23-year-old lieutenant in the Jordanian army, but I secretly wanted to be a movie actor. Because acting was not a respected profession back then, I didn't tell anyone about my dream, even my parents. Even when I quit my army job and bought a plane ticket to America, hoping to end up in Hollywood, I didn't tell my family what I was up to. Instead, I said that I felt my bachelor's degree in physics was being wasted in the army, and I wanted to go to America to get a master's degree. They believed me.

I got on an aeroplane with a single small bag - just a pair of jeans, a pair of underwear, a pair of tennis shoes, my toothbrush - on my shoulder. I didn't know anyone in America. All I had was the name of a Jordanian guy (a friend of a friend of a friend) with a gas station somewhere in a big state called Texas. I'd never met him, and didn't know what he looked like. I landed at the Dallas Airport around midnight, and took a taxi to look for this guy and his gas station. I found the gas station, but the guy wasn't there, so I just stood inside holding my bag, unsure what to do. Eventually he showed up in a sporty car, and we went out for a late dinner. "You just packed and left?" he asked me, smiling. "You're crazy. Will you work at my gas station?" I nodded yes.

I started looking for an acting school right away. One morning, I found myself talking with an admissions officer at a method acting academy in Dallas. She handed me a thick file of papers. "Everything is explained here in this contract," she said, explaining that if I didn't have the money I could take out a government loan. "Read it and come back next week to sign if you're still interested." I immediately opened the contract to the last page, signed it and slid it back across the table. The admissions officer looked puzzled. Before she could say anything, I explained: "If I read it, I may change my mind. I came here to act. Nothing should stop me now."

A few years later, I graduated with honours and decided it was time to go to Hollywood. After a few rough years, I eventually got an agent, joined some actors unions and started to feel like things were working out. In the meantime, I decided to actually make good on the promise I made my parents, and got a masters in electrical engineering at California State. About five years ago I kept hearing around town about a film called Syriana, starring George Clooney and Matt Damon, that was going to be the first Hollywood picture shot in the UAE. I thought they might want someone with my looks who knew the region, so I tracked down the producer and sent in my head shot and resume. Two days later, I got the call for an audition (to play a villain, of course). A few days after that they called again asking me to come to Dubai.

When I got off the plane, it was so hot that I thought I was standing behind the jet engine - and it was just April, not even summer yet. I'm a Bedouin by origin, and during my military training I spent months at a time in the desert. But after over a decade of California - the soft sunshine, endless beaches, beautiful weather, immaculate greenery - OK, I guess this Bedouin got spoiled. On the Syriana set, I often looked around and got the odd feeling that comes from experiencing two deeply familiar environments at the exact same time, and having each one feel less familiar as a result. Hollywood crews, Hollywood equipment, Hollywood movie stars - but in an Arab element, with the desert close by. One day, Matt Damon caught me staring into space, thinking about all this. "This should look familiar to you," he noted.

"It is," I replied. "But it's been such a long time." After the shoot, I decided to stay for a bit. All of my American film industry contacts started calling and e-mailing me, asking how the shoot went, if I was available to help with other film projects in the Middle East, if the UAE was safe. "Hot, but safe," I said. Over the next four years, I gradually became a sort of professional liaison between Hollywood and the Middle East. I've acted in several projects, consulted on some, co-produced others. Many more are lined up. Shuttling back and forth between California and the Middle East, I'm finally living my Hollywood dream, or at least an odd desert version of it.

The next step is to convince investors here to put money into Hollywood films. I thought it would be easy: in my mind, everyone wants a piece of Hollywood. Here, though, you can invest in real estate and triple your investment in a few months. People sell towers while they're still ink on paper. It's hard to imagine how speculation on movies can compete with that. But, once upon a time, it must have been hard to imagine a booming UAE real estate market. It will happen; it's already started to happen.

The key is local talent. Warner Brothers had to import around 400 people to the UAE to make Syriana. Thanks in part to their travel and accommodation costs, the film averaged a cost of $3000 per minute on set, much of which could have been saved if more of the cast and crew had come from the region. The film would have cost less, and been more profitable. That's why I've started putting on acting workshops in Dubai and Jordan. I'm also trying to convince Hollywood studios to shoot their films with "shadow crews" from their Middle Eastern host countries, filmmakers-in-training who can watch how it's done.

Back in California, they've started calling me the Bedouin in Hollywood. I think that's about right. Soon, I hope to be one of many.

Bashar Atiyat is an actor and consultant based in Los Angeles.