(Click here to read Part 1 of this series re: my 1st date with this country.)
Sure I was a SWF in Syria, but I wasn’t there to meet men. In fact, that was the last thing on my mind.
So how’d I end up with with 2 husbands…in 1 day?
I was lingering over breakfast in the hotel courtyard, enjoying the quiet and the cool morning air and reflecting on how much I loved the city and almost wanted to commit to him (it) and to stay longer, perhaps enrolling in an Arabic course.
But I was feeling a bit torn….between him and his more conservative brother Aleppo (and the rest of the country).
Perhaps it was too soon to be that committed? Maybe I needed to date a little more…
Lost in my thoughts, I almost didn’t notice the borderline smarmy man in a Hawaiian shirt (like a Girls Gone Wild recruiter), looking both sweaty and frazzled, who’d arrived at my table.
“Hi,” he said, smiling. “We need you. We want British women.”
“What? Who are you and what are you talking about?” I asked, nearly rolling my eyes. I was not in the mood to be hit on so early in the day. “Also, I’m not British.” I laughed since I’d been mistaken for German hundreds of time, but never British.
“We need people for a special TV show. Would you like to be an extra?”
“I don’t know….I was going to relax today.” I was half tempted to say, “No thanks, I’ve got a headache.”
“We put make up on you and dress you up. You act a little. And you get to eat good food and you make $50.”
“Um, well..I’m not sure.” I chuckled, thinking that I must really look like a low-budget traveler in need of a meal. And a makeover, too. Truth be told–the money and the meal were somewhat appealing. I was on a 40-day trip and $50 went pretty far in Syria.
“Please?” He looked sort of…desperate. At that moment, one of the kitchen employees, Alla (not to be confused with Allah), gave me the thumbs up. Well, that certainly made it all seem legit and so….
“Well, OK–why not….sure,” I said, immediately feeling like a commitment-phobe with buyer’s remorse. But I knew why I accepted the proposal. It’s hard for me to say no to a once-in-a-lifetime experience–especially one that’s quirky and off the beaten path.
On Set, In the Desert
A couple hours later, I found myself in the middle of the desert with about 7 other foreigners and a bunch of professional actors–including a famous one–in a completely fabricated town, from the late 1800s.
We were made up, dressed up in formal clothes (including stockings and high heels) and then asked to….wait….until it was time for the camera, lights and action. In minutes, I went from American backpacker to an aristocratic Brit from the the late 1800s.
The name of the show? Door of Clouds. The plot? I still don’t quite know–even after googling for a few months.
“There’s a town and Bedouins and British,” said the smarmy agent said when I asked him. “And there’s a mariage..some violence… and more.”
Where’d the idea for this very costly production come from? An Emirati prince, a poet, who wanted to make it happen. The director? Someone pretty major–like a Spielberg or Coppola. Definitely not small potatoes–or even baby pitas.
The Actors’ Room
Being an extra–as many people know–is often a waiting game. In Syria, it’s no different. There were two choices: outside in the extreme heat (dry heat stops mattering when it’s over 100) or in the Actor’s Room–which I quickly renamed the Instant Asthma Lounge as nearly everyone was chain smoking. I alternated between the two.
“OK…come now…we need you,” a man in a white shirt and jeans said, summoning us. A low-level director, I thought. My fellow foreign actors and I obeyed and minutes later, we were out in the middle of the desert in the fabricated town, getting ready to….act.
His name was Matthew and he was handsome. He reminded me of a young Ralph Fiennes. His British accent was just right and he was sweet.
When I was told that he and I were supposed to act as husband and wife, I didn’t mind at all. Sure, he was a bit younger, but hey–why not.
We had to walk back and forth in this fake town a couple times, acting married, arm in arm , and it was fun–but hard work (due to the costumes and the heat). In the photo on the right, he’s chillaxing, between scenes, in the Actors’ Room.
But then, just at I was getting into the acting groove, something totally unexpected happened–a twist of fate that would lead me and Matthew to an early, unexpected separation and then, divorce.
My hat fell apart.
In regular life–in 2010–it wouldn’t have mattered. (I don’t wear hats–especially silly ones from the late 1800s.) But on set, when you’re a wealthy Brit in the late 1800s, you must have your hat. To not would simply be scandalous.
“Wardrobe man, where are you?” I yelled, panicking. He came running. He glanced over at his boss, the director in the white shirt and jeans, who said something in Arabic, which sounded like “Hurry the hell up.”
Back in the wardrobe room–a hot and slightly musty trailer that invoked instant claustrophobia–he and I began to argue re: which hat. He found a pink hat. I hated it and said, “NO.” He then pulled out a yellow one, which was better, but still not quite right. Finally, we agreed on white and I ran out, back to the crazy scene of people, animals and madness.
And guess what?
My husband was gone. Actually, he was with another woman. A Dutch girl who was a bit younger, I’m sorry to say.
“Um…so who’s my husband now?” I asked the Wardrobe Man in a snippy tone.
He looked panicked and came back a minute later with a German guy whom I’d met in the van (see photo to the left of man chillaxing in Actors’ Room.)
He was nice and also a suitable husband, superficially, but I have to admit I preferred husband #1. Perhaps it was the handlebar mustache that turned me off?
“What do we do?” I asked, trying to go through the motions, feigning an attraction. I guess I was acting, wasn’t I?
“Just walk with me. And pretend we’re shopping for camel saddles.”
That’s what we did. We acted–for real.
And then, the fake rain came.
“Act happy….smile,” the director yelled. And we obeyed. Again, real acting. But I began to think we should have made more than $50. It’s hard to act happy when you’re wearing cheap high heels and stockings in 110-degree weather with a fake husband who’s a replacement for the original. There’s a reason some actors get paid so well.
There were several scenes like this–where we were “rich Brits walking through town shopping.” A few times we saw real action, such as a woman who’d just gotten married being carried in a box by a camel who seemed a bit ornery. At another point, it looked like some soldiers were investigating a situation of some sort.
At one point, one of the professional actors pointed a gun at me when I told him I was American. Fortunately, it wasn’t loaded and he was…”just making joke,” as he put it.
As for the real action, we didn’t see much of it. It was simply too hard and too hot to stand there; worse yet, the wind was wild and kept blowing around and kept getting into our eyes and mouths. And so, most of the time, we just hung out in the Actors’ Room, enjoying “backpacker chat.”
At one point, one of the real actors, entered the room. I had a feeling he was a good one and maybe even important. I had no idea who he really was…
“So who are you in the show,” I asked, still not sure what the show was even about.
“Great….nice to meet you,” I said. I wondered if was a hero or the hero. A big difference, I thought, since the would mean the one and only…
“You know…I want to go to Hollywood. That is my dream.”
“Yes, but I need to learn English better.”
“I’m actually a ESL professor–that’s what I do. Too bad I’m leaving in a few weeks.”
“A shame,” he said. “I need more time.” He smiled and walked out of the room. Darn, I thought–maybe I should have gotten his number.
This regret was followed by a fantasy about taking a sabbatical from my job to help Syrian actors perfect their English. Sounded like fun. Also, I wouldn’t have minded him being Husband #3. As I later found out, from my hotel receptionist Hoosam, the “hero” is one of THE most famous actors in Syria!
On Dec. 1, 2010, I learned the identity of this mystery man (thanks to a former student of mine from Jordan. His name: قصي خولي . Qusai Khouli.
So…did I see ever see any of see this show? No, but millions of people in the Arab world did–and during their special holiday Ramadan. And knowing that–and having had 2 husbands in 1 day–somehow made it all worthwhile. Would I do it again? Maybe, but for more than $50…
By the way, the next morning, when I woke up, I had knew what I needed to do with my relationship with Damascus. As sad as it was to break up with that wonderful city, it was the right thing to do.
Read about my love affair with Aleppo and the rest of Syria in the part 3 of this series: Juicy Details of the 2nd Date, which is coming soon. It includes a special slide show that will make you want to buy a ticket to Syria–or at least, get up and belly dance!
How about you?
Have you ever been an extra on a foreign TV show? If so, what was it like? Have you ever been torn between two…places? Staying vs going? Do you know the real identity of the famous actor–the “hero” with the hand wound? Please share with readers in the Comments section…I/we would like to hear from you!
PS: A few days after this adventure, I had another one you won’t want to miss reading about. Just published today (my 1st guest post ever, incidentally) on the Travelated website, it’s about what happened when I spent the day with a Japanese couple in a beautiful but eerie crusader castle–also in Syria. It involves shisha, odd sausage and a place where one can easily be held prisoner by those who lurk in the evening. Click here to read it.
By the way, my guest post is one of many “Travelations,” stories that can inspire you to “get out of your own little corner of the Earth, if only for a little while.” Travelated is a cool site where travelers “get inspired and get going”; check it out!
Learn more about “Door of Clouds”