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Why Morocco went Hollywood

For decades, it's been a stand-in for Saudi Arabia, Tibet, Egypt, the American West – and now, Iraq.

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That's largely due to low wages. A Moroccan extra earns the equivalent of about $30 a day – hardly union scale, but a solid day's pay in a country where the World Bank estimates the national average is one-fifth of that.

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The salary helps explain the allure even small film-industry jobs have here. "When there's two films in town, everybody works," says Mike Fowley, a set designer who splits his time between Ouarzazate, Morocco, and Aylesbury, England.

But when no productions are in town, "it's very hard in Ouarzazate," says Mustapha Rachidi, who moved here more than 20 years ago from his hometown of Fez. "There's nothing else. Always in the cafes you hear people talking about which production just arrived, or which one is going to get here soon."

Money is only part of the story. Ouarzazate was once merely a stopover for Sahara-bound travelers. Now, small as it is, the dusty provincial town has become a sort of third-world Los Angeles. Would-be actors, extras, and technicians flock here from across Morocco, all hoping somehow to make it in film.

Mr. Rachidi has been more fortunate than most. He longed to act, he says, but his parents couldn't afford to put him through school. Early on, he found work in Ouarzazate painting sets, then began steadily picking up gigs as an extra. Rachidi has appeared in more than 30 foreign productions, by his estimate, from gnat-sized parts in crowded epics to a nonspeaking role fighting alongside Jean-Claude Van Damme in "Legionnaire."

Then came the big break. Rachidi's name may not be a household word, but there's a chance you'd remember his distinctive, somber face from the 2006 film "Babel." Sharing the screen with Brad Pitt, Rachidi played his first speaking role as the father of a young boy who inadvertently shoots the female star, Cate Blanchett.

"I don't have to work as a painter now, God willing," Rachidi says. On a recent trip to Europe – the perk of another film job – Rachidi says he was startled to find his image in print. "My name, my face, my photo in a newspaper," he says. "You won't find it in Morocco."

Foreign productions are distributed more widely abroad than in Morocco, and the actor says he's still unknown at home. Other extras said they don't even own copies of the movies in which they appear.

But this doesn't seem to diminish Aimad Qaddi's enthusiasm for the work. In his day job, Mr. Qaddi leads tours of Atlas Studios in Ouarzazate, showing off sets from "Cleopatra," "The Hills Have Eyes," and the like. "Everything is fake here, all right? Genuine fake," Qaddi joked to one group on a recent morning. "Nothing real here. Just me."

Qaddi is an encyclopedia of Moroccan-made flicks, and not just the desert ones. "Black Hawk Down"? Filmed in the Moroccan city of Salé. The Beirut bits from "Spy Game"? Casablanca, he said.

Qaddi himself played specks in various crowds needed for "Gladiator," "Kingdom of Heaven," and the Viggo Mortensen movie "Hidalgo." "It's not easy to find me," he said, laughing.

Ask Qaddi what job he really wants, and he begins with the humility that's a verbal requisite in a pious land, using the Arabic word for "God willing." Then the dream kicks in.

"Inshallah," he says, "movie star."