“We were a group of people from twenty-six different countries, with forty-six languages to translate between us, which I find kind of symbolic and beautiful,” said Khalid Abdalla, the star of Marc Forster’s film of Khaled Hosseini’s best-selling novel “The Kite Runner,” during a recent interview in Dallas. “People from all these places, come together to tell a story about a place that everyone discovered was important to them, and that they didn’t know very much about.
“Had there not been that sense of people coming together to tell the story not for money and all those things, but because they thought it’s really important to share that and really proud to be part of it, it would have been a very different thing. This being the first film, I think, in the history of Hollywood where, not just for Afghanistan but for the whole region [in which] the first point of contact is a human family story and not political violence…the first about the people who are brutalized rather than the people doing the brutalizing…to go and screw it up would just not be right. The focus of the film is a beautiful story that happens to be about people from Afghanistan. Its themes [are] friendship, courage, childhood, growing up, the relationship of parents with children and here particularly fathers and sons, and I think ultimately…it’s those themes that make the story approachable regardless of where you come from, because that’s how we all live—and ultimately those things are more important to us than politics.” He added, “The most political thing you can do in relation to that region is to make a story about normal people.”
Abdalla, a twenty-five year old British-born actor of Egyptian ancestry with impressive stage credentials who’d earlier appeared in “United 93,” portrays Amir, an Afghan-American who must make a dangerous journey back to his native country at the end of the period of Taliban dominance to make belated amends for something shameful he did there as a child before fleeing the Russian invasion of 1978. Most of the film was shot in western China, near the Afghan-Pakistan border—“very similar in landscape and cultural influences” to Afghanistan, he noted, “more central Asia than China.” But though none of the picture could be filmed in Afghanistan itself because of the lack of infrastructure, Abdalla spent time in Kabul learning Dari, the language he’d speak in the picture—and how to fly a kite.
“All the kids there…know how to fly a kite,” he recalled. “So while I was learning, these kids would kind of gather round, and the idea of an adult not being able to fly a kite was just totally absurd. It being a national sport, it was like not being able to throw a ball. I actually got sun-stroke one time. I was just outside of Kabul by this beautiful lake, and the wind was quite strong, and the kite just went up and up and up, which is fine. I started in the shade, but it went so far out—and of course you’ve got to reel the damned thing back in! And that took so long that the shade moved and I was completely in the sun, and I got sun-stroke, sort of bedded down for a day and a half.”
The other major learning experience was the language. Abdalla spoke Arabic, of course, but when he was originally approached about this role, he had to admit he knew no Farsi (or the Afghan dialect, Dari). So he learned his audition lines phonetically. “I had to learn all this stuff that made no sense to me, essentially,” he said, “but which I never would have gone into had I not felt first of all relatively confident in my ear, but also because I know what it feels like to be misrepresented and how much that hurts. The idea of going into it and being misrepresentative or being inaccurate was impossible for me, something I would not be prepared to do.”
Abdalla was told by Forster that he’d gotten the part, but had to wait nervously for more than a month while the boy who would play the young version of his character was cast. “Then I finally got a call saying we found him, get your visa,” Abdalla recalled, “and six days later I was in Kabul. I spent a month in Afghanistan, where I was having four or five hours of Dari lessons a day, and I was in complete immersion, banished English and went everywhere referenced in the book and more, ate everything referenced in the book and everything else I could find—sometimes I suffered, sometimes I didn’t. I traveled up to the north of the country…[and] gradually the language was filtering into me in a stronger and stronger way, and somehow at the end of a month, though it doesn’t sound believable, I came out, and I like to think that the country’s parting gift to me was its language. Somehow I learned it in a month.”
It’s that sort of dedication to the project, Abdalla said, that marked everyone’s work on “The Kite Runner,” and, he added, will mark his future roles. “It’s sad that Afghanistan is generally associated with…a roster of negative associations before it’s anything positive,” he remarked. “What I will never do—and there’s a great deal of those roles around—is film that I think is a misrepresentation or harmful or cheap, because I think it’s harmful across the board—to me, to people who look like me, to my family. I feel it’s a privilege to try to show what I can about how much I love those parts of the world.”