When 58-year-old Moroccan Belhussein Abdelsalam was arrested and lost his job three decades ago, he saw Charlie Chaplin on television and decided at that moment upon a new career: impersonating the American silent movie star.
A far cry from his old job as a sports photographer and political activist, impersonating Chaplin helped him hide behind a comedic mask from the hardship of Moroccan life, drawing parallels from the screen legend who masked emotions behind humour and a painted face.
“It was when I lost everything that I became charlie Chaplin [who] made the world laugh and cry without saying a word. He is a unique person who fought against discrimination and united [everyone],” Abdelsalam said.
It is a meagre living: He earns less than $150 per month from tips, but the forced career change helped him fulfil youthful ambitions he once had as being a theatre artist. Besides, he said, he had few other professional choices in with the high unemployment rates of the poor North African country. Ever since, he has been performing in the streets of the Moroccan capital of Rabat nearly every day as he makes people laugh. Now he is proud to be a street-side celebrity, known by residents simply as Charlo.
Charlo’s bittersweet days are spent on the capital’s main artery, Avenue Mohammed V, a stone’s throw from Parliament and the Royal Palace. Carrying balloons, masks, oversized shoes, trumpets, pigeon feed and a smile, he commutes in every day from his neighbourhood in Sale.
One minute, he can be reapplying his stage makeup using a broken mirror and eyeliner in one of the nearby flower shops. The next he can be seen delighting children with magic tricks and impressions, or by sending the pigeons into feeding frenzies by scattering bags of seed.
But he is filled with the ghosts of his past. He always keeps with him photos of his time as a sports photographer, and images of himself as a suited young man involved in politics. That was before Charlo claims he was arrested for his political activism and journalism during the reign of King Hassan II and spent a year in prison in the 1980s.
He was in prison for 8 months, something he describes as “the wilderness with monsters in it”. Though he regrets what happened to him, he is thankful for the outlet of theatre to have helped him survive mentally.
“Bad things happened to me from bad people. If not for Charlie Chaplin I would’ve lost my mind,” he said.