Kamal Moummad: Morocco, Paris, Hoops, Modeling, and a Will Ferrell Movie | KCET
Kamal Moummad: Morocco, Paris, Hoops, Modeling, and a Will Ferrell Movie
Each week, Jeremy Rosenberg (@LosJeremy) asks: How did you, or your family before you, wind up living in Los Angeles?
Today, he hears from actor, model and basketball player Kamal Moummad:
I was born in the suburb of Paris in a city called Mantes-la-Jolie. "MLJ," like we call it back home, is located in "Les Yvelines," France's 78th department. I was raised in Mantes-la-ville, a wonderful middle class city adjacent to Mantes-la-Jolie. I grew up as a French citizen with a Moroccan decent. I have six sisters and three brothers, so needless to say I come from one big happy family!
My parents are originally from Morocco in Northwest Africa. My mother is from Agadir, a beautiful city located on the shore of the Atlantic Ocean in the Southwest part of Morocco. Agadir is near the foot of the Atlas Mountains, just north of where the Sous river flows into the ocean. My father was born and raised in a small village called Ouled Driss near M'Hamid El Ghizlane. Ouled Driss is a very hospitable and loving village located southeast of Zagora, a beautiful ancient town in the valley of the Draa River in the Southeastern part of Morocco.
Morocco became a French protectorate after the "Treaty of Fez" in 1912. In March of 1956 that protectorate ended and Morocco regained its independence from France and Spain, as the "Kingdom of Morocco."
My mom and dad were already married with four children and had no intentions of moving to France. But after World War II, France was pretty much leveled, and what came next has been referred to as "Les Trentes Glorieuses" or "The Glorious Thirty."
For thirty years after the end of World War II (between 1946 and 1975), France underwent a process of reconstruction that spurred strong economic growth and major expansion. In order to maintain positive economic trends, the French government and European countries alike figured that the expansion of their economies required a larger manufacturing and labor force. The French government therefore established policies and institutions that facilitated the greatest immigration period in French history. There was a lot of work then -- a lot of projects with people trying to rebuild their economies.
So what the French did -- and this was also true for Germany, Spain, and England, just to name a few European nations -- they went to their ex-colonies and contracted cheap labor. My father was literally at home when people knocked on his door and said, "You look like you are healthy. You have to go help rebuild France. This would be a great way for you to both serve and honor Morocco." So my father had to leave my mother behind and, at the time, his four children.
In 1974, France passed a family reunification immigration law called "la loi du regroupement familial." It allowed lawful immigrants to bring their spouses and children to France and give them permanent resident status. Today, family reunification accounts for nearly 65 percent of immigration to France.
So once that law was in full effect, my dad was able to bring my mother, who was pregnant with me at the time, and all of my siblings. I am the first in my family to be born in France. All of my older brothers and sisters were born in Morocco. In essence I am first generation French-Moroccan.
The city of Paris is surrounded by l'ile-de-France, which literally means the "Island of France." It consists mostly of the Paris metropolitan area, and it is the wealthiest and most populated of the twenty-seven administrative regions of France. In fact, l'ile-de-France is the world's fourth largest and Europe's wealthiest and largest economy. If the "Island of France" was a country, it would rank as the 15th wealthiest in the world. More than 12 million people live there.
What it really means is that Paris, being one of the world's major global cities, has attracted so many immigrants. Consequently my family, along with thousands of other families, lived in the Paris suburbs and metropolitan area. In the '70s, the Metro system in Paris was already good, but not as great as it is now. Today the public transportation in "l'ile-de-France," and the entire country for that matter, is simply amazing! So back then a lot of people had to live near the corporations and factories they were employed by.
My father worked for Peugeot. He was a spray painter technician for the PSA Poissy plant, which belongs to the Peugeot-Citroen group located in Poissy, a city near where I grew up in Mantes-la-Ville. I ended up playing club team basketball and professional basketball for that city.
Mantes-la-Jolie, the city were I was born and were I went to high-school had the biggest project in France. That is where the french government stacked up a lot of immigrants originally from Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Senegal, Cameroon, and even Portugal. French families, along with a few Spanish and Italian families, lived there as well.
See in America, neighborhoods are divided by ethnicity. You go through a specific part of town and it is predominantly Hispanic, Asian, or Black. If you drive across Los Angeles for instance, you would go through Chinatown, Koreatown, Thai Town, or Little Armenia. You could find yourself experiencing the Hispanic part of Los Angeles, or perhaps Little Bangladesh.
You might even enjoy some great Glat kosher food in a vibrant Orthodox Jewish community, or some delicious East African traditional dishes in Little Ethiopia. In France, neighborhoods are all about economics. It is really what you can afford and how much money you make that will dictate what part of town you will live in. My father kinda broke that mold, he was one of the first of his generation of immigrants in France to actually buy a home.
When most people thought they were going to be in France for two or three years, my dad already knew that he was there for the long run. He had a clear understanding of where he stood and where he wanted to be in life. He saw the big picture. He thought France would be a great place for us to get a good education. In retrospect, my father was absolutely right.
This sparked my father to purchase a home in France rather than sending his money back home. My dad told me that the landlord at his apartment complex was drunk one night, and you know when people are drunk, they usually tell you the way they truly feel!
That landlord felt compelled to share his views on immigration and immigrants with my father. He said: "You guys are a bunch of idiots! You come to our country and you work for us and we give you money -- and the money we give you, you give it right back to us. You pay rent here and you stimulate our economy... and by the time you are done with your rent and your bills you got nothing left. You are paying us year after year."
The landlord was like, "This is a new form of slavery. You are going to work for us for the next ten, fifteen, or even twenty years, and after we are done with you guys, we're gonna ship you right back where you came from!"
This was definitely a very hurtful thing to hear, but my father told me it was the best thing that could have happened to him. Without knowing it this man empowered my daddy by allowing him to look at things with a different set of glasses. It gave him an all new perspective. Soon after that my father bought his first home. He still remembers the bankers who laughed at him and told him he would not make the mortgage.
You have to remember this was the '70s. So the banker had never seen a man fresh off the boat from Morocco -- both Arab and Black -- looking to buy his first home. They've never seen a guy like him dare to come inside the bank to discuss his financial options.
He spoke a little broken French, and still they were like, "Well you know, I am going to be honest with you, you are not going to make it in five years. You should stay where you are at. You have great rent and it is a rent controlled area, and because you guys are immigrants you are entitled to some great governmental support."
My father's unshakable faith in God, firm will, and clear vision allowed him to carry through. He was like "Nope! I am not going to throw my money out the window and pay rent anymore." And the amazing thing is that now my parents still own the house they first bought and France. The very house I and the rest of my siblings grew up in. They also have a retirement home in Morocco. It is such an amazing story! My dad is a true hero. Each and every one of us did well. My brothers and sisters all went to college and everyone is successful in life. Everyone!
Growing up, I simply loved playing basketball. My brothers and sisters loved it too. I played with the youth over there and in high school and soon the game just consumed me. It became my passion! And I got really good at it.
Although my dream was to play college basketball in the United States of America, I decided to pursue a higher education at the University of Versailles [in France]. I really did it for my father! In fact I did it for both my mom and dad. I graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Communication Studies and Networks (Multimedia). While going to college I took intensive private courses in English with my English professor and I studied hard for the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language). I was ready to find a place in America.
I did all this legwork. I applied to schools. I sent videotapes to coaches of myself playing. I was willing to prove myself to any coaches in America and earn a scholarship. I was looking for a NCAA Division One college basketball program with a great communication department. I also wanted to study linguistics and international business.
I applied to dozen of universities across the U.S. of A. and the first school that accepted me was Weber State University in Ogden, Utah. I said, that's it, that's where I'm heading!
My family was thinking, "You are not going to apply to any universities here in France? You are putting all of your eggs in one basket? Why?" When I look back I don't blame them.
Once I got accepted, I went to the American Embassy to get my student visa. And then I took off. I flew to Utah on September 18, 1995. I will never forget that day -- I was so excited and my parents and family members were so worried about my new adventure.
Nobody could talk me out of it. They tried! They were like, "What are you doing? You just graduated from a great university. Just stay and pursue your education here. Play professional basketball in France!"
To make things even worse, most of the stuff shown about America on French television and in the media were usually negative, you know? You would watch a program about the United States on TV and all you would see was domestic violence, gangs, hurricanes, natural disasters, racism -- stuff like that. And this was right around the time of the Rodney King case.
There was all of this racial tension going on and the world was like, "What is going on in America?" My parents were worried. I mean they had faith and they believed in me but it was a nerve-racking ordeal! I mean put yourself in their shoes. One of your kids is picking up and going across the Atlantic Ocean with only $500 to his name. Yeah, that's all I had left after paying for all those college applications and mailing all those videos.
When I got to the airport, I finally got nervous. This was my first time flying out of France. I mean, I had traveled across Europe, but we usually either took the train or drove. When I was boarding the plane, they called my name. They said, "We need to speak to Mr. Moummad."
I was thinking there must be a problem with my visa or something. They said, "No, we just wanted to make sure you were here. Enjoy your flight!" I sat back down and next thing I know, I was asleep and we were flying over the Atlantic Ocean.
An assistant coach was sent to pick me up at the airport in Salt Lake City to drive me to Ogden. Unfortunately this guy had never seen me before -- I mean he never even watched the tapes. So needless to say we missed each other at the airport because he just assumed that being from France I would be white. He walked around and looked at me a couple of times and then he left. So I ended up taking a shuttle from Salt Lake City to Weber State University.
I didn't know much about Utah. I do remember my English professor at the University of Versailles. She was from New York and she was like, "Why in the world would you want to go study in Utah? You're from Paris -- you should go to New York or California. What are you thinking?"
The people in Ogden were all so kind and hospitable. My coach and his wife were a very religious family, a nice family. They had great set of values and they took great care of me. They took me to their Mormon Church and introduced me to everyone in their community. I felt welcomed and appreciated.
My coach was under NCAA investigations. He truly wanted me to play for him and I was so looking forward to wearing a Weber State University uniform. Unfortunately he had so many restriction he had to deal with.
Nowadays, you have hundreds of college basketball players coming from all over the world. But back then it was kind of new. They had a hard time figuring out my transcripts from the University of Versailles, so after a month my coach sent me to a junior college near Seattle to play for one of his friends. Although I was saddened by the idea of leaving all the wonderful people I had met in Utah, I was eager to play basketball.
I went to Seattle and I really enjoyed it. Except for the weather -- I didn't like the rain. But I played there for one full season and I did really well. My transcripts were sent to the University of Washington for further reviewing and I got some of my units transferred, so I became a sophomore instead of a freshman. I graduated with an Associate's Degree in one year instead of two.
Then after that I was supposed to attend the University of Washington, but I came back to France for the summer and I met another French college basketball player. His name was Olivier Saint-Jean.
He later became the first French player to be drafted in the NBA. He embraced the religion of Islam and changed his name to Tariq Abdul-Wahad. He played for the Sacramento Kings, the Orlando Magic, the Denver Nuggets, and the Dallas Mavericks. He only played seven or eight seasons in the NBA.
Tariq and I had a mutual friend who knew we were both playing college basketball in America. He invited the both us to a party in Paris, hoping for us to meet each other there. Ironically I met Tariq at a Metro station on my way there. We instantly clicked! We became the best of friends. He was like, "Why don't you come and play with me at San Jose State University in California?"
I said "For real?" He was genuinely just as excited as I was. We had such an incredible evening. We talked about college basketball, the differences between France and the U.S., school, our mutual set of goals and aspirations -- we talked about life. At the end of the night, he called his coach at SJSU and told him about me. His coach must have felt our pure excitement over the phone. He invited me to walk-on! I was thrilled so say the least. I was destined to come to California. I am forever indebted to Tariq for giving me the unique opportunity to join him in Northern California.
So I join the men's basketball team at San Jose state university as a walk-on and I made the team. I decided to red-shirt my first year and it turned out to be one of the best decision I've ever made. It gave me time. Yes just time -- time to develop, time to grow, time to mature. I had such a fantastic year on so many different levels.
Tariq was blessed with one amazing season. He entered the 1997 NBA draft and got picked in the first round by the Sacramento Kings. I graduated in the spring of 1998 with a Bachelor of Arts in Communication Studies and Literature. I played college basketball there until the fall of 2000. I went back to France to start a new chapter in my life and play professional basketball overseas. But you know while I was there I really missed California.
I decided to come back and finish my masters. While I was doing that, I became a private basketball coach, a strength and conditioning coach, and a personal fitness trainer.
I took on a job at a local gym in San Jose. It was such a fun place with a basketball court and a great fitness center. I was pretty much there from sunrise to sunset. I could work on my game, lift some weights, and make some money. It was the perfect set-up for me.
One of the members at the club was a Hall of Fame NFL player. He is a great man! He approached me to give his son and his son's cousin private basketball sessions. It made me realize how much I loved working with the youth. One day, he asked me what my goals were. We sat down on a couch in the lobby of the club, and out of nowhere he said to me "Why don't you try modeling? You know, you are a handsome young man. You could make some extra money."
I was like, "I don't know. I'm a basketball player. I don't think it's really for me." He had an agent in the city and he called her up and told her she should check me out. I met with her the following day and she she was really nice. She sent me out on my first audition the very next day. And guess what? I booked it. It was a commercial print ad for Coca-Cola.
All I had to do is play basketball pretty much all day. I ended meeting my best friend Nate on that shoot. I made $1,500 in like four hours playing ball all day long and eating expensive catered food. I was like "I can definitely get used to this!"
Soon after, I was doing a lot of commercials in San Francisco. I worked for some very reputable clients -- I mean clients such as Nike, Gap, Banana Republic, Levi's, Dockers, Mervyn's, Adidas, and Converse to name a few. I got my Screen Actors Guild (SAG) card after doing a national spot for Macy's. I even did a national commercial with Lance Armstrong for Subaru. I became part of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA) because I was doing voice-over work in French for the San Francisco Opera.
At this point, everybody, and I mean everybody, kept on saying, "You need to move to LA. You need to move to L.A." Between personal training, private coaching, and modeling I was making some very good money and I simply loved living in the Bay Area. I even put my basketball career on hold because I was enjoying it so much.
I went to New York for a year and I was modeling there. And then I went back to France for a little while because I missed my family and the French fashion industry was something I wanted to tackle. But wherever I went, I kept on missing the Golden State! I moved back to the Bay Area and became a very successful personal fitness trainer and private basketball coach at a luxurious country club and sports resort in Los Gatos.
I started coaching the Fisher Middle School 6th graders basketball team and, I also became the head-coach of the All-Net 6th graders basketball team in Los Gatos.
And then, my agent called me one day and told me she submitted me for a film about basketball. Apparently I was personally invited by the casting director to audition for a part in Will Ferrell's [then-] upcoming comedy, Semi-Pro.
I don't know if you remember that movie? Well, the audition was taking place in Los Angeles. Believe it or not, I felt guilty leaving my All-Net Basketball team. It broke my heart, but everyone was so happy for me. For some strange reason the kids just knew I was going to get booked on this project. The parents organized a farewell party for me! I was so touched and moved by the incredible amount of appreciation and love I received that night.
So I came down to L.A. for the audition. The movie was about Jackie Moon, the owner-coach-player of the American Basketball Association's Flint Michigan Tropics, who wanted to make his NBA dreams come true. I showed up dressed in character with a headband and wristbands. I had long hair back then, like an Afro, so I picked it out all the way.
After three days of a very competitive auditioning process, I was cast! In the movie, I am a point-guard for the "Anaheim Amigos." I ended up being featured more than I first expected.
There is this one scene, a fight scene. Will Ferrell hits me in the face with a shoe and punches me in the groin. You know, it was really fun. I had such a blast doing all that. I enjoyed being on set with Will Ferrell and the rest of the cast. I especially loved working with Woody harrelson. When I was a kid back in France "Les Blancs Ne Savent Pas Sauter!" was one of my favorite movie. Oh yeah, that means "White Men Can't Jump" in French.
Woody loved to play half court three-on-three or four-on-four basketball. We had some really competitive games going on! By working with such a wonderful cast and being exposed to the movie business, I just knew that acting is what I was meant to do.
I guess my passion for acting must have dated back to when I was a kid growing up in France. The way I really learned English was by watching every weekend a very popular TV show called, "La Derniere Seance," which means the "last showing" in French. This incredible show was hosted by Eddy Mitchell, a French singer, actor, and great lover of American cinema. It was my favorite program on television.
The format was like an old fashioned double feature picture show, with two classic movies and some American cartoons. It was late at night, old black and white films in English, with French subtitles. I was exposed to great acting and great film-making at a very young age. I enjoyed classic films such as "Casablanca," "Sunset Boulevard," "Psycho," "Some Like it Hot," "Lawrence of Arabia," or "On The Waterfront."
To this day, my favorite actor is Sidney Poitier, because I watched all of his films on this show. I simply loved watching "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," "In the Heat of the Night," "To Sir, with Love," "Lilies of the Field," or "A Patch of Blue."
It all came back full circle. Now that I am an actor, everybody tells me that I remind them of a young Sidney Poitier. When I do scene studies for one of my acting classes I love to pick sides and monologues from Sidney Poitier roles. What a divine sign of serendipity!
Well, I have been in Los Angeles for the past six years. I guess time flies when you're having fun! When I first came to L.A., I think I was a little overwhelmed. I didn't know what to expect about this city. I heard all of these -- you know people have these preconceived perceptions about L.A., right?
They put a lot of energy trying to compare L.A. to New York, Chicago, Boston, Miami, London or Paris. I personally don't waste my time doing that because L.A. is like no other places out there.
I fell in love with this city. What I love the most about Los Angeles is that to me it is a very welcoming place. No matter where you're from, what your nationality, background, or religion is, you're welcome here! You don't feel rejected. People are warm and friendly just like L.A.'s wonderful weather. It is such a unique place to live. Unique in its diversity, its richness in culture, and its plurality.
There are so many different communities living in harmony here in Los Angeles. I am talking about Arabs, Armenians, Africans, Persians, Mexicans, Russians, Koreans, Chinese, Hispanics, Native Americans, Europeans, Indians, Jews, Muslims, Christians, and more, living in peace here in L.A. And all these people you have a chance to meet. I just love it! I just enjoy it so much.
This city attracts the most talented individuals the world has to offer. I don't take L.A. for granted, in the contrary; I feel indebted to Los Angeles for welcoming me and my dreams with such open arms. So I guess I am here now pursuing yet another chapter in my life.
My dream is to become a successful film and television actor. I want to use my success to give back to the community by empowering under-privileged children through education and literacy. I really love Los Angeles. I feel like L.A. is my home!"
(as told to Jeremy Rosenberg)
Top Image: Kamal Moummad promotional headshot mosiac. Image courtesy Kamal Moummad***
Do you or someone you know have a great Los Angeles Arrival Story to share? If so, then contact Jeremy Rosenberg via: arrivalstory AT gmail DOT com.