Tuesday 17 September 2019

Thirty years of kites, weddings and funerals in Afghanistan

Actor Khalid Abdalla fell in love with the vibrancy of Kabul while filming 'The Kite Runner' there, he tells Evan Fanning

Evan Fanning

KHALID Abdalla leans forward to show the scars he picked up while in Af-ghanistan. It's fair to say that while technically they are scars, they're unlikely to impress any soldiers who have served in what was the front-line of the War on Terror in those post-9/11 days.

The 26-year-old British actor's permanent reminders of his time in the Afghan capital, Kabul, are in the form of marks on his fingers earned while learning to fly a kite in preparation for his role as the grown-up Amir in The Kite Runner, the big-screen adaptation of the hugely successful novel.

While he now has the scars to go with his expertise it wasn't all plain sailing for Abdalla. "Learning to fly the kite there, I was like the idiot," he says. "All these kids would congregate around me because to them the idea of someone, especially an adult, not being able to fly a kite was as absurd an idea as someone not knowing how to kick a ball."

While the film was shot mostly in China, Abdalla's decision to go to Kabul, one of the most dangerous places on earth, to learn Dari (one of the local dialects and the language that much of The Kite Runner movie is in) was, he says, an easy one. The decision, however, wasn't entirely to his parents' liking. They forced him to phone them every day of the month or so he spent there to let them know he was safe.

Those days were spent learning Dari (he took lessons for five hours each day), as well as using the novel as a guide book to explore Kabul and the rest of the country, plus, of course, learning to fly kites. "Around four or five in the afternoon the sky is just filled with kites," he says. "It's a really beautiful sight."

At the time he went to Kabul, Abdalla felt the city was, "safe enough to be worth the risk of being there". It may not be quite as safe at present, but Abdalla is still yearning to return. He found a country destroyed by 30 years of war but whose people had a "resilience and thirst for life, and a love for life. Afghanistan is a country that went through 30 years of war, but through that there was also 30 years of weddings."

Old habits are dying hard for the Afghans, however. The Kite Runner has already been plagued by a controversy which has seen the studio, Paramount, delay the release of the film and relocate the young Afghan stars of the movie, and their families, to the United Arab Emirates for their protection. Their safety, it was felt, might be compromised when local audiences saw the movie, and in particular the pivotal rape scene, which features a Pashtun and a Hazara boy.

Abdalla feels that relocating the young actors was a sensible move. "The response has been, quite rightly, so I think, to take a precautionary, pre-emptive measure to the possibility of their being adverse reactions in Afghanistan. So far, there haven't been and I'm hopeful that there won't be."

The novel The Kite Runner was written in 2001 by the Afghan-born author Khaled Hosseini. When it was published two years later, the movie rights were optioned almost immediately, long before the book became a worldwide hit that has been translated into 42 languages.

It's a tale of a father and son forced to flee Kabul after the Soviet invasion. Abdalla plays the grown-up Amir, now a successful Afghan- American writer who is laden with guilt over the fact that he did nothing when he saw his childhood friend and servant Hassan, being raped.

This guilt is just one of the central strands of the story. Another is Amir's relationship with his father, both as a child in the thriving Kabul of the Seventies, and as an adult when they relocate to America where Amir wants to become a writer rather than his father's preferred path into medicine. As the son of two Egyptian doctors, was this particular conflict one that Abdalla was familiar with?

"No, not at all," he says. "My parents were always very supportive of me becoming an actor and never actually wanted me to be a doctor. There was a point when I wanted to become a doctor and I think my father was gently dissuading me."

He admits there are similarities between his and Amir's life. "I call my father Baba, which is the same as Amir, and he's a similar imposing larger than life character. But that's where the similarities end."

Born in Glasgow, Abdalla moved to London at the age of four. He has travelled back to Cairo twice a year since he was a child so is similar to Amir in having a bi-cultural upbringing. He is also passionate about the representation of the East that is a central part of The Kite Runner.

"It's the first film in the history of Hollywood where the first point of contact with that part of the world, not just Afghanistan, is a human family story and not political violence," he says. "That's something, whether you're Afghan or Arab, that you thirst for."

He began acting in school and continued when he went to Cambridge to study English literature. His big break came when he played the lead terrorist in United 93, Paul Greengrass's widely acclaimed drama based on the hijacked September 11 flight, which was brought down in a field in Pennsylvania following a revolt from the passengers. The decision to take on the role, and give a face to the 9/11 hijackers, was not one Abdalla took lightly. He only agreed to play the role after meeting Greengrass. He also met the families of those who died on Flight 93 after the film premiered.

"Their reaction to me was that first of all they understood the difficulty in taking on the role and that it was a brave thing to do," he says. "But quite a few had said to me that they'd found it difficult to imagine the people who had killed their loved ones, and to have that story told was important to them. And they never blurred the lines between fact and fiction when it came to me."

Understandably, as a young Muslim living in the post 9/11 world he has strong feelings about the state of things. "On that day [September 11] two atrocities were committed. The greater of which was the killing of 3,000 people, but you also had 19 young men claiming to represent 1.2bn Muslims across the world, which was an incredible assault. Unfortunately, large chunks of the world took them at their word. Hopefully, both United 93 and The Kite Runner in their different ways fight against that."

HIS role in United 93 has made air-travel slightly fraught as people may not want to see someone they associate with hijacking queuing up next to them at the boarding gate. "I do occasionally get recognised in airports," he laughs, "but it's always people saying, 'you were in that film'. Thankfully, the one demographic you're sure has never seen the film is air hostesses, so I've not been recognised on a plane yet." There are rumours of an Oscar nomination for Abdalla's performance in The Kite Runner. Soon, there will be very few places where he can go unrecognised.

'The Kite Runner' opens in cinemas nationwide on St Stephen's Day

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