April 21, 2014
Mohammed Al Khaldi, actorTuesday, December 10, 2013
‘Every stateless man dreams about being a full person’
Mohammed Al Khaldi, actor
Born: 1983, Kuwait
Occupations: Actor, English teacher, DJ.
Status: Political and humanitarian refugee in Venezuela. Stateless person.
Kuwaiti-born Mohammed Al Khaldi is a man with a fascinating story and an identity shaped by connections to several countries, from Iraq to Eritrea to Venezuela, while officially belonging to neither. A political and humanitarian refugee in Caracas, Mohammed’s life took another expected turn after playing a Lebanese jihadist in Esclavo de Dios, by Joel Novoa Schneider. The film, which focuses on an alleged suicide attack that was supposed to be carried out in Buenos Aires in the aftermath of the gruesome AMIA bombing, is released in Argentine theatres this week. In a long chat with the Herald, Mohammed talked about the film’s problematic release in Venezuela, about his stateless status and what it means to belong somewhere.
The Venezuelan release was problematic. I understand the authorities decided to screen a pro-Palestinian short documentary before your film?
Yes, but let me tell you how absurd it was: based on the trailer that some government people saw, before the premiere of Esclavo de Dios, they said our film was kind of anti-Arab, anti-Islam, presenting Jews in a favourable light, unlike Muslims... But how can you reach this conclusion without seeing the entire film? Nevertheless, they imposed this pro-Palestinian short film. Let me make myself understood: I’m not against it, but the way they did it was unacceptable.
What do you mean?
Esclavo de Dios had a nationwide theatre release. And this short was screened just before our movie started, but it started rolling without credits, so viewers had no idea whether it was part of our film or not... The credits would only appear at the end, but it was still confusing for everybody in the theatre since Venezuelan authorities hadn’t included the short film in the theatres’ programmes.
Did the film generate a social debate, aside from this official intervention in the screening schedule?
It did, it did. I mean, we did something unexpected and people were expecting quite a different message from such a film. They were imagining the typical Hollywood movie that shows some people in a good light while casting others in the shadow, but Esclavo de Dios is not one of those movies. It’s a balanced film with a message about tolerance and peace. And it seems a lot of people don’t like that, it’s as if it’s not convenient.
You’re not a professional actor. How did you get cast in this role?
It’s a little bit of a long story. I teach English as a Second Language in a school in Caracas. And one day, a colleague from school, who is studying Social Communication at the University and who was doing a project for one of her college courses, asked me to give my testimony on camera, to explain what I remembered about the Gulf War... That video was shown at the university and a casting assistant saw it and approached my friend to get in touch with me.
Were you interested in acting?
Actually, I refused at first. I thought, I’m not an actor and I don’t want to look ridiculous on camera. But I agreed to meet the director, Joel Novoa Schneider, who told me he had seen more than 2,000 people for my character and he hadn’t found anybody until he saw me. He convinced me to read the script and, I have to tell you, once I started I couldn’t put it down. I just loved it.
Your story is unusual, to say the least. You’re a stateless person. How did that shape you?
I was born this way. I was born in Kuwait, but I was a third generation descendant of Iraqis and couldn’t be granted citizenship. And things got worse when I was very little: Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and, since Saddam was Iraqi, we were considered traitors. We were persecuted, we didn’t have any rights, I was kicked out of school, I could not work because nobody would hire me...
What about your family?
I had my mother and four siblings. My parents divorced when I was about five and I saw my mother suffering a lot, trying to provide for all of us. When I was 14, I found a way to help, working as a DJ. Some people liked me and, little by little, I started making money and helping my family. When I was 15, my father showed up and said the government was pressuring him to fix our situation. You see, he had worked for 35 years as a police officer, which was a highly respected job in Kuwait, and he was listed to receive some end of duty money but he had to make us “legal” in order to get paid the full amount.
What did “legal” mean when you weren’t eligible for citizenship or residency?
We had to belong to another country. The government of Eritrea was willing to help, so we went to their embassy in Kuwait, signed some papers and received our passports. My siblings and I became Eritrean and my father became Yemeni. I wasn’t happy with it, I mean, my father wasn’t Yemeni and I wasn’t Eritrean and we’ve lived our whole lives in Kuwait. Furthermore, our new situation came with rights and obligations: Kuwaiti authorities could now deport us, send us to Eritrea, a country which was not my own and where I’ve never even set foot.
How did things change for you once you were no longer stateless?
They didn’t. You know, they had a word forus in Kuwait, they called us “bedoun,” which can be translated as “stateless,” but which also means “without anything,” without belonging anywhere. They kept treating us as bedoun even after we became Eritrean. And so, after a few years, I faced my mother and told her that I had decided to leave. I was tired of being nobody and I just wanted my chance to go elsewhere and be recognized as a human being, a normal human being. To have a life. As a bedoun, we weren’t issued birth, marriage and death certificates. So I couldn’t get married, couldn’t raise a family or have a normal life. Not legally and officially, at least.
That’s when you went to Venezuela?
Yes, I went to Caracas and started working there as an English teacher. However, two years later my Eritrean passport expired and I became stateless again. Apparently, Kuwait’s deal with Eritrea regarding some of us stateless people was revoked when the Eritrean government changed. So I was once again bedoun but in Venezuela.
What did you do?
Well, a friend told me to file for asylum, something I would have preferred to avoid, since refugees are barred from returning to the place they fled. But it was the only way to sort out my situation. The only legal way, at least.
What do you mean, the only “legal” way?
Oh, it’s just that some of my friends offered to marry me so I could get papers in Venezuela. I refused, it’s a matter of principles. I think marriage is for life, not something you temporarily get into for a benefit or other. You know, the Kuwaiti government doesn’t want us because they think they’ll end up paying benefits for all of us. I don’t want any of that. I don’t care about any benefits, I just want to be acknowledged by my country. All I want is be Kuwaiti.
Do you still want it?
Of course I do, but it’s kind of impossible.
Hypothetically speaking, if you get the citizenship, that won’t erase the years of persecution, abuse and hardship as a stateless person in Kuwait.
We can forgive that, if they recognize us, of course. Do you remember, there’s a line in Esclavo de Dios, where a character says: “Without forgiveness, there’s no love.” I am willing to forgive as long as I become recognized as a full person. Every stateless man dreams about being a full person.
What about being stateless in Venezuela? How did that go?
They don’t seem to understand what stateless means. They keep telling me, you’re Kuwaiti. So I’m like, “Yes, I’m Kuwaiti, but unfortunately they didn’t give me citizenship which automatically makes me stateless.” And that’s when Ven-ezuelan officials get nervous and say, “No, don’t utter this word, remove this word from your head.” They issued me an emergency passport that says I’m Kuwaiti.
Would you say your life story prepared you for the role in Esclavo de Dios?
Well, yes and no. Some people say I was lucky, that it was easy for me, starting from the top as an actor. But you see, I had been stuck for so long at the bottom... I’ve been through hell since I was born so I think my whole life prepared me for this role. After so many years of being a bedoun, a man with no place of his own, everything changed for me on the first day on set. When I heard someone yell “Rolling... Action,” I just felt like I really belonged there. And then I decided to keep doing what I’m doing and keep acting because this is a new love I just found in my life.