Dozens of photos hang on the walls of Abdelaziz Bouydnayen’s home, each one capturing a memory from his more than three decades on set.
Ouarzazate – With a lit cigarette between his lips and a walking cane in hand, “Osama Bin Laden” left his clay home to begin his daily neighborhood stroll.
Dressed in his classic white gandoura tunic dress, beige beret, and favorite military jacket, Bin Laden walked through winding roads of eastern Morocco’s Ouarzazate—a name that originates from the Amazigh (Berber) words “ouar” and “zazt,” which mean “without” and “noise.”
The only sound early on that Thursday morning were the flip-flop of Bin Laden’s sandals—a methodical pitter-patter that only paused three times during his walk.
First, he stopped to refill his packet of Fox cigarettes. Second, he stopped to take grains for the birds out of his pistol pocket. Third, he paused to wave back at locals who had recognized his film-famous salt-and-pepper beard from a block away.
Nicknamed Osama Bin Laden for his striking resemblance to the infamous terrorist leader, 61-year-old Abdelaziz Bouydnayen is one of Ouarzazate’s longest-serving extras.
“They all love me here,” Bouydnayen told Morocco World News. “Even all the tourists visit me when they come visit this city.”
Morocco’s capital of cinema
Bouydnayen’s career in film began in 1985 as a set assistant for the James Bond classic “The Living Daylights.” He remembers Timothy Dalton’s arrival on set and the fervor of excitement that rippled through the city.
Ouarzazate, roughly 200 kilometers southeast of Marrakech, earned the nickname “Africa’s Little Hollywood” after the city’s picturesque kasbah, fields of sand, and snow-capped mountains became a popular filming location among Western directors.
The desert city has been the setting for classics such as “Lawrence of Arabia” (1962) and 21st-century blockbusters such as “Gladiator” (2000), “Black Hawk Down” (2001), and “Kingdom of Heaven” (2005). Most recently, the city’s Kasbah Titrit was the set of HBO’s hit series “Game of Thrones”.
The screen time made Ouarzazate, Morocco’s 51st most populated city with just 71,000 inhabitants, one of the country’s top tourist destinations.
“Ouarzazate is the capital of cinema in Morocco, which brings pride and people to the city,” Mohamed Amzil, the provincial director of the Ministry of Culture, told MWN. “People from all over Morocco and the world come to visit Ouarzazate.”
According to Ouarzazate’s Provincial Council of Tourism (CPT), nearly 245,000 tourists visited the city in 2017. Within the first three months of 2018, the Ministry of Tourism estimates that the tourism industry generated nearly MAD 15.8 billion.
The growing international interest in Morocco led to the creation of two film studios in Ouarzazate—CLA and Atlas—only increasing the city’s popularity as a setting for both local and international films.
The once remote French military base is now home to more than 10 luxury hotels, 20 tour agencies and an international airport, all built to support Ouarzazate’s film and tourism industry.
Cost of a career
The growing infrastructure and the city’s inundation of movies has allowed Bouydnayen to enjoy a more than three-decade career in film.
“I love this field. I fell in love with it when I was young and never stopped loving it,” Bouydnayen said. “So many people in Ouarzazate dream to work in film.”
Younger actors have also been taking to careers in film, hoping to dedicate just as many years to Ouarzazate’s film culture as Bouydnayen has.
“I was willing to explore this new world and try it out because I was inspired by older people that had been working in the field for so long,” Achraf Choukri, a 23-year-old local actor, told MWN.
Throughout Bouydnayen’s career, he has been a part of more than 100 films, shows, and documentaries.
His greatest role was playing terrorist Osama Bin Laden in a documentary about the hunt for the Al-Qaeda leader—a casting that made him famous throughout the city and led to his notorious nickname.
When starring in documentaries, Bouydnayen, along with hundreds of local actors, are commonly recruited as extras for large scenes. Still hanging on his wall is a photo taken during one of the days he spent as an extra for one of the battles in “Kingdom of Heaven.”
To this day, Bouydnayen swears that Orlando Bloom, the movie’s lead actor, waved directly at him during one of the breaks.
“One of my favorite things about this industry is being able to meet foreigners,” Bouydnayen said. “What other career would make me meet Orlando Bloom or Timothy Dalton? None. Just this one.”
But after cameras stop rolling, Bouydnayen and many other extras spend the rest of the year unemployed—waiting for the next film.
On the side of his acting career, Bouydnayen runs a small cigarette shop just down the road from where he lives. But despite the popularity of smoking in Morocco, he says business has been slow.
Having dedicated his life to intermittent cinema, Bouydnayen will retire with no pension and limited savings, a concern that hasn’t caused him to have any regrets.
“I’m not too worried. It will work out, God willing. For me, it’s not always about the money,” Bouydnayen said. “Sometimes you just have to do what makes you the happiest.”
When his walk ended in front of his home, Bouydnayen pushed open the wooden doors, lit another cigarette, and smiled while looking at the dozens of photos nailed to his wall.
“Happy, happy, happy,” he said, pointing to each one.