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Come fly with me
by Griselda Molemans
TheSyndicatedNews columnist

Griselda Molemans has been contributing to international media outlets for over 20 years in the realm of entertainment and sports. She resides in Los Angeles.

Smokehouse and Magazines, on North Hollywood’s Lankershim Boulevard, opens early in the morning to sell coffee, snacks, cigarettes and magazines, but at 9am, proprietor Basir Beria steps out from behind the counter. He’s going outside to fight. Beria is the master who taught the two young start of the movie The Kite Runner – Zekeria Ebrahimi (who plays Amir) and Ahmad Khan Mahmidzada (who plays Hassan) – the finer points of kite fighting in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, in western China. Now he’s explaining the basic principles of kite flying on the street in the arts district of North Hollywood.
Beria, who was born in Kabul in 1961, has chosen to use a beautifully decorated wooden drum (charka) and spools the wire back and forth at breakneck speed. “Look, the trick is to roll back the kite wire as far as possible to be sure you can use the full 800 meters of wire to keep your kite as high as possible in the sky.”

Beria prepares the razor-sharp string, the foundation of kite fighting, himself. “It takes me three days to grind down the glass and stamp it to a fine powder”, he says. “I mix that powder with a secret ingredient, then cook it with rice into a sort of paste. I also add coloring, preferably pink or yellow, which is very popular among Afghan kite flyers. I rub the paste onto the string until every millimeter is covered. It is very precise work, but it protects your string and stops your opponents from cutting it.”

He grins as he refuses to reveal the secret ingredients, then walks over to a large cardboard box of kites. “It’s a family secret I learned from my father. It’s the secret behind the Basir lines. Here, in the LA region, you can buy kite wires ranging from US$25 to US$800. Often customers call me, asking me if I can prepare a good drum of line for about US$400. Those orders are usually for tournaments and festivals.”

Beria receives requests from far and wide for his lines and the fancy kites he designs, decorated with women’s faces and dancing dervishes. “The Afghan communities of Los Angeles and San Francisco are very keen to maintain their culture and traditions. Of course
we’re part of American society now, but kite flying belongs to our culture. That is why we fly our kites with real Afghan cutting lines. A nylon line has been introduced to the market now, but that’s for cheaters. It’s an unwritten rule for Afghans: you don’t fly with chemical lines. It only shows you have no talent.”

From his large collection, he picks a kite that incorporates the colors of the Afghan flag (red, green and black). “This is the kite you see in the movie and that I have hanging on my wall in the shop. I’m very proud that film studio DreamWorks approached me to be their kite master because they felt I was the best man for the job,”, he says. “In total I worked for two months on the film set in Kashgar, a city in western China, close to the border with Afghanistan. I had three weeks to teach the two young Afghan stars and 148 Chinese boys from the area how to fly kites. The main thing was getting the body language just right.”

“Zekeria and Ahmad had already had lessons in Kabul before they came to Kashgar,”, he says. “All Afghans can fly kites; it’s in the blood.”. He tosses his kite up a few times to catch the wind. “The two young actors are 12 years old,” he tells. “They’re used to running after the kite flyers in Kabul, but not to letting the kites up themselves. Actually, it’s the older and more experienced men who let up the big fighter kites. When I was that old and living in Kabul, that’s how it was. I discussed this with director Marc Forster, but his response was, ‘We’re sticking to the story line of the book by Khaled Hosseini.’
“So then I concentrated on teaching them the right posture, the movements and use of correct kiting terminology, such as shorto paneer which is the essence of kite fighting. It literally means ‘cut the cheese’, in other words, ‘cut the line of your opponent’.

Beria’s kite is now airborne. With subtle movements, he lets out more of the line. Holding the drum in his left as he slowly unwinds it, he twists the line around a finger of his right hand. “That’s how I keep the line locked”, he says. “The more wind the kite catches, the more I let the line go out.”

The Afghan flag dances in the wind and draws the attention of passers-by in the busy shop-ping strip. “Hey, kite man, how’s it going?” several people inquire cheerfully. Drivers halted by a red traffic light crane their necks to watch the kite more than 100 meters above their heads. With enviable ease, Beria controls its movements.

“When you’re talking about real kite fighting, you’re competing with about 50 fliers. On average, a contest takes an hour, but if real kite pros are involved, it might take longer. You need to be patient to take out the kites of your opponents. You have to keep avoiding their attacks and keep control over your own kite, because just one mistake and your kite is cut down. If a big competition is not decided after three hours, the kite fighters bring their lines close together and pull down their kites as a sign of good sportsmanship.

“If you want to stand out, you buy an expensive kite”, he remarks, as he skillfully brings down his own. “That’s what we Afghans so. If you want to stand out here in LA, you buy a Harley-Davidson”, he says, laughing.

Beria is a certified kite pilot, a member of the American Kitefliers Association. “Here in the United States you need a license to go out and fly a kite in the street. That’s typically American, based on fear of litigation. If you want to fly your kite around electricity lines in Afghanistan, it’s your own business.”

He has nostalgic memories of early 1970’s Kabul, where he grew up in a house with seven bedrooms and four bathrooms. “Almost daily I went with my older brother, Masir, to watch the kite flying in our neighborhood. The famous kite masters then were men such as Bejo, Schichlang and Asef, who all must be old men by now.

“One time we witnessed a fight where the kites flew so high no one could see them any more. People were making bets among themselves on how the fight would end. That also is part of this sport and something friends do together. We didn’t know who had won until we heard the yelling of the people who had gone running to find the cut-down kite.”

Beria’s Kabul was transformed from a paradise to a battle zone when, in 1979, the Soviet Army marched in. After graduating from the Lycée Française high school, Basir Beria was taken prisoner by the KGB, the Soviet Union’s secret police and security agency, because of suspected subversive activities. After 18 months, he was released and fled his country by foot through a mountain pass to Pakistan. “My father didn’t want me to be involved in the resistance movement against the Russians, so I ended up going to Germany,” he says.

After living in Bad Homburg, near Frankfurt, for four years, he emigrated as a political asylum seeker to Los Angeles, where he was joined by his parents a few years ago. “When the situation became worse under the repressive Taleban regime, they left everything behind. My home base in Kabul is completely gone, but I still feel hadzrak, the with to return to my homeland.”

He often telephones aunts and uncles who are still there. “What they tell me is that they receive so much aid from all over the world, but the aid supplies keep disappearing. After all these years of occupation, Afghanistan has become the victim of an international power struggle”, he sighs. “The big political powers have turned the country into their own playground, but does that help the people who live there?”

During filming, Beria talked to Hosseini, who followed up The Kite Runner with the book A Thousand Splendid Suns, about the situation in their home country. “His book appeared at the right moment”, says Beria. “Over 2,5 million Afghans have been killed in the ongoing war, so it’s terrific that a story like this puts Afghanistan back on the map. I bow deeply to Khaled as a writer and he bows to me as a kite master.”

There is a hint of disappointment in his words, though. After some hesitation he says, “Some parts of the book you’d better discuss with Khaled. I think he’s one of the best writers because he takes you away to a completely different world. But when I asked him in Kashgar if the story was true, he said, ‘No, only 2 percent.’ I was so disappointed I almost left the film set.”

And then there’s the infamous rape scene. “I’m not at all surprised the movie is banned in Afghanistan and the two young actors had to be taken to a secret hiding place in the United Arab Emirates as a precaution. I told Marc Forster during the shoot that the scene would lead to protests. First they weren’t going to film the scene, but they did anyway. Even though it wasn’t real, Ahmad Khan cried terribly afterwards.”

The boys and their guardians have been taken to an unidentified town in the United Arab Emirates where they have been placed in a school with many other Afghan children. Paramount Vantage, the movie distributor, has promised to care for the children during the worldwide release period and possibly up to the end of their schooling.

“That particular scene is very hurtful to many Afghans”, Beria remarks. “Rape is something you’re ashamed of; people don’t talk about it. It’s too painful. The reality in Afghanistan is that your father will kill your rapist as well as you. DreamWorks could have thought that through better.”

Following the premiere of The Kite Runner, in the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood, and the worldwide release of the movie, Beria had had no further contact with the American production team. “That’s how it goes. For weeks you have great fun together and after that everyone goes their own way again.”

For Basir Beria it means tending to his humble store and his family – and biding his time. “Since 1980, I’ve been waiting for the time when we can return, but when I see what’s happening there, my heart cries. I have many dear memories of the paradise where I grew up.”

Until then, he flies his kite in Hollywood, where it dances in the wind, surrounded by pigeons. The symbolism is not lost on him.

Published: Jul 14,2008 21:47
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