My UAE: Perpetually reflecting with actor Habib Ghuloom Al Attar

The 53-year-old from Ras Al Khaimah discovered his acting talents performing in school plays, but in 1983, his decision to study for a bachelor’s degree in drama at a Kuwaiti university did not sit well with his family.

Actor Habib Ghuloom Al Attar starred in Khiyanat Watan Min Riwayat Rita. Pawan Singh / The National
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As the star of many well-known Arabic TV dramas and movies, Habib Ghuloom Al Attar is practically a household name in the Gulf. And as an accomplished author, playwright, director, producer, actor and adviser to the Undersecretary of the Ministry of Culture, he’s also an all-round star when it comes to all facets of storytelling.

But it's for his role in TV dramas such as Khiyanat Watan Min Riwayat Ritaj (The Betrayal of a Country) last Ramadan, which also stars his second wife, Bahraini actress Haifa Hussein, that Al Attar is best known.

“Strangers on the streets try to stop me and call me by the drama character’s name, but next year it will be a different name, because we will be watching another drama series,” he says.

The 53-year-old from Ras Al Khaimah discovered his acting talents performing in school plays, but in 1983, his decision to study for a bachelor’s degree in drama at a Kuwaiti university did not sit well with his family. “People back then used to think that actors in the theatre were like court jesters – it wasn’t a respect­able profession,” he explains.

Al Attar’s eldest brother registered him to join him in the air force on the same day that Al Attar was accepted to university in Kuwait. “I was in anguish,” he recalls. “My brother stopped talking to me for four years because I wouldn’t join him.”

But Al Attar was determined to make his family proud. He topped the class at university and went on to get a master’s in drama in Egypt, then a PhD in drama from Manchester University in the United Kingdom. On his return to the UAE 30 years ago, he was offered a position with the Ministry of Culture and has worked there ever since. “My brother counted that as a ‘real job’, and he forgave me,” he says.

Al Attar has witnessed monumental changes in the realm of Emirati drama, which he documented in his PhD on the history of drama in the Gulf. The UAE has a rich history of storytelling, but before the emirates unified in 1971, the only professional acting that took place was in plays performed by visiting troupes, which were staged at sports clubs and on outdoor stages. “It started with light theatre plays, then plays by Shakespeare and the French playwright Molière,” says Al Attar. “People went to the theatre at that time because they had nothing else. But after unification, people could afford to buy their own television sets and enjoy the comforts of air conditioning. They preferred to stay at home than go to the theatre.”

At first, there was only a handful of television channels to watch, the most popular being Iran TV. “This was like watching something from the Moon, because the people were dressed as Europeans and [we] had never seen this before,” he recalls.

As the nation came to terms with the consequences of its newfound oil wealth, Al Attar tapped into their concerns in the play Al Ma'seer (Destiny), which he wrote in 1985 and is set in the time before the discovery of oil. It's the play he's most proud of.

"Al Ma'seer is about a guy who lives by the sea, but is afraid of the water," Al Attar explains. "He gets into a boat, shaking with fear and falls into the water. Then he comes up to the surface with a huge pearl. Now, he becomes rich and everything changes. His mother refuses to let him marry a poor lady, his brothers try to use him and he is harassed by requests from everyone. He enters another, harder life. In the end he decides to throw the pearl away. Money is not everything, you know. We should live as human beings were meant to live."

As television dramas and movies took over from theatre as the most popular forms of storytelling, Al Attar also became a star of the screen. He's appeared in a string of movies, most notably the first Emirati-made feature film, City of Life (2009), directed by Ali Mostafa, and also Mostafa's internationally acclaimed thriller The Worthy (2016), set in a post-apocalyptic, water-deprived world. And a new Ali Mostafa production now beckons for Al Attar. "Ali told me a few days ago, you should be ready to act in this new one," he reveals.

Al Attar has also penned several books on the themes of theatre, music and the Arabic language. “I have so much knowledge in my head, sometimes I wish I didn’t,” he says. “My mind is always preoccupied with my work.”

What food can you not resist?

In general, I only eat once a day, I don’t have breakfast or dinner. My favourite dish is white rice with fried fish and tomato. This is our Emirati cuisine.

What’s your favourite part of the week?

Every weekend I drive to Ras Al Khaimah to see my mum, who is very old and sick. I am trying to be there as much as I can, appreciating every moment.

Where do you like to travel to?

I like Eastern Europe, especially Bulgaria, Romania and Poland. The big capital cities, like London and Paris, are full of Arabs and as a well-known actor in this region, I don’t feel comfortable going there because I don’t want to be recognised. So I try to find somewhere European, but far from other Arabs.

What’s your favourite play?

The Tragedy of Al-Hallaj (1965) by the Egyptian playwright Salah Abdel Sabour, which is about a cotton worker. I like this story because it's so philosophical and it's rare to find philosophical Arabic theatre plays. It uses strong, visionary Arabic language.

What is your all-time favourite film?

I used to watch Hollywood films, but I don't have time now. I love Notting Hill, with Julia Roberts.

If money was no object and you could make any story come to life, what story would it be?

My dream is to play Sheikh Zayed. We have to do something to honour him and I would love to be the first actor to play him.

You have two sons and two daughters. Have they also chosen acting as a profession?

No. One son is a doctor of cardiology, another an engineering teacher and my daughters are studying English literature and medicine at university.

Which actors do you most admire?

The Egyptian actors Adel Adham and Ahmed Zaki, who have both passed away now. I also admire Al Pacino and I used to watch Laurence Olivier’s plays in black and white on television.

How do you prepare yourself for a role?

I always read my character very carefully. I try to get to grips with understanding what the lines really mean, and why that character is saying them.

What is your favourite place in the UAE?

The place where I was born, next to the sea, where our old house is. We had nothing back when I was growing up. I had time to watch the Sun rise and set. The sunset in particular was unbelievable.

What is your favourite character that you've ever played?

I played a rude company manager called Sanad in the series Banat Adam (Adam's Woman). The character is always trying to seduce ladies, one of whom dies, and Sanad's life is turned upside down. The series has an important message – not to cheat or treat people badly.