Moroccan mimics Charlie Chaplin to mask sadness, hardships

When 58-year-old Moroccan Belhussein Abdelsalam was arrested and lost his job three decades ago, he saw Charlie Chaplin on television and in that moment decided upon a new career: impersonating the British actor and silent movie maker remembered for his Little Tramp character.

Abdelsalam has been performing on the streets of Morocco’s capital nearly every day since then. Making people laugh in Rabat provides a meager living: He earns under $150 a month from tips. But he is proud to be the street side celebrity known to residents simply as Charlo.

The former sports photographer sees parallels between himself and the screen legend, whose humor and painted face hid a deep well of painful childhood memories. In the same way, imitating Chaplin gave Abdelsalam a comedic mask to hide his own sadness and hardships.

“It was when I lost everything that I became Charlie Chaplin, (who) made the world laugh and cry without saying a word,” he said. “He is a unique person who fought against discrimination and united (everyone).”

Charlo’s bittersweet days are spent on the capital’s main artery, Avenue Mohammed V. He carries balloons, masks, oversized shoes, trumpets, pigeon feed and a smile.

One minute, he might be reapplying his stage makeup using a broken mirror in a flower shop. The next, he might be delighting the children with magic tricks and impressions, or sending the pigeons into feeding frenzies by scattering bags of seed.

But he also carries the ghosts of his past. He always keeps with him photographs from his previous career and images of himself as a young suited man involved in politics.

The images were taken before he was arrested and spent a year in prison in the 1980s for activities that Abdelsalam says was linked to his political activism and journalism.

That was during the reign of King Hassan II, before Abdelsalam became Charlo.

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