For over 20 years, actor Bassel Khaiat has blazed a trail across the Arab world. The star of Al Thaman opens up about fame, family, and his nostalgia for Syria, his motherland.
For all his star power, Bassel Khaiat still manages to maneuver incognito. Casual, and without any entourage, Khaiat arrives at the Dubai studio for this photoshoot in khaki slacks and a tee. On his feet are gray Adidas sneakers. His short-sleeved shirt reveals four tattoos on his right arm. The first bears a saying by the French poet Arthur Rimbaud: “It has been rediscovered again. What? – Eternity.” The second is another statement by the same poet: “It’s the sea fused with the sun.” These words were originally written on a piece of paper and hung on the walls of his room in Syria. His house was demolished as a result of the city’s urbanization, but when he visited the rubble, the paper was still there. He decided to tattoo these phrases onto his arm; words, he says, they represent a philosophical dimension of his life. Next to inked geometric lines is the shape of opuntia, which he used to sell in the streets of Diwaniyah when he was a child.
Born and raised in Syria, Khaiat fled his beloved city almost 10 years ago. Witnessing the decline of his country due to a crisis that began in 2011 has not been easy for the actor, who never anticipated seeing such suffering. From this period, he recalls, “I couldn’t bear standing in front of the camera. I can’t explain why but I lost my strength, although I desperately needed to protect my son Shams, and my family,” he says of the harrowing time. “Moving from one country to another, my extreme sensitivity and my feeling of an uncertain future all turned me into a helpless person. I didn’t know what to do. I was present in my body, but my spirit was absent, and I wanted someone to remind me of my existence.”
Acting was never Khaiat’s goal. As a child, he had given theater acting a try and found the experience discouraging. Rather, he was intrigued with cinema life behind the scenes, seduced by stories from his uncle, who worked in film editing in the United States. But with no proper filmmaking school in Syria, he decided to give acting another try, joining the Higher Institute of Dramatic Arts in Damascus. An actor was born.
Khaiat’s career spans more than two decades. He made his debut with Khaizaran in 1999, a social Syrian series about the journey of a woman living in very harsh conditions. He continued with roles in several successful TV dramas and movies. In 2000, he received acclaim for his portrayal of Amer in the social drama Asrar Al Madina, where he played the role of a man left disfigured by an accident. In 2004, he starred in The Gate of Sun, playing the role of Palestinian Khalil in a tale of suffering, hope, and love. The movie was screened at the Cannes Film Festival and featured among the 10 best movies for 2004 by Time magazine. Khaiat then went on to portray Muammar Gaddafi in Niran Sadiqa and a psychotic villain in 30 Youm, in 2017. He played another challenging character in Al Rehla in 2018, portraying a chemical physician suffering from a psychiatric disorder since childhood.
Today, Khaiat is one of the region’s most in-demand actors. “My career is a field of experimentation that I discover every day. Acting isn’t easy. You must be educated, aware, and able to research. I’m constantly developing my abilities,” he says. He admits to always following his intuition and being his own judge. “I store information and improvise most of my works. Notes in my head are enough for me.”
Perhaps one of his biggest hits so far – taking over regional prime time with a ranking in the top 10 on MBC Shahid – is Al Thaman. In this Turkish adaptation, he plays the role of businessman Zein, a man struggles with relationships, the fallout of a difficult childhood, until he meets Sarah, played by Lebanese actress Razane Jammal. Khaiat admits that outside of acting, he doesn’t consider himself to be a romantic, yet “Zein was one of the easiest roles I’ve ever played. My previous roles were complex,” he shares. “I noticed that Arab society lacks this kind of relationship on-screen. There is almost no communication between men and women; there are missing links. In this role, I tried to shed light on this type of relationship and how I would act if I was put in this situation,” he states. “It’s not my objective to provide a model for men in how they treat women, but I saw through Zein’s eyes how their relationship could be built.”
Khaiat might lift from his own personal experience – he has been married to Nahed Zedan for 15 years and they are now parents to two children. While he admits to not showing his emotions often, he does open up inside his house. “I’m an Oriental man, but not Si Al Sayed,” he laughs, referencing the literary and cinematic character created by the late Egyptian writer and Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz. Si Al Sayed is known for his controlling and tyrannical demeanor, believing that his position as “the man of the house” means absolute authority. As for the trials of fame, the actor feels Zedan is now accustomed to them, commenting, “We’ve been together for 15 years; Nahed is used to this life, it has become normal for her.”
Today, he calls Dubai home and is grateful to the city that gave him safety. While he hasn’t returned to Syria in years, his motherland is never far from his mind. “When I close my eyes, I still see the beautiful neighborhood of Diwaniyah as a tale described in novels with all its details, big and small. It is rich in culture, characters, and unique stories, if not in money. One day, I will write a story about this spot,” he says. “And I will translate that into a movie where I will be behind the camera.”
Originally published in the Spring/Summer 2023 issue of Vogue Man Arabia
Style: Cedric Haddad
Fashion director: Amine Jreissati
Grooming: Kavya Raj
Lighting assistant: Denis Timoshenko
Style assistants: Alyaa Hajaig, Rita Abi Antoun
Producer: Sam Allison
On-set producer: Danica Zivkovic
Special thanks: Ka’ak Al Manara
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