Film Roles Lead to Fear in Afghanistan

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The families of three young boys in the adaptation of The Kite Runner are worried about retaliation. The boys' work on the movie included appearing in a rape scene. Afghan-American author Hyder Akbar about the hazards of cultural cooperation.

LUKE BURBANK, host:

Now, from sports to a story about life imitating art, imitating life.

(Soundbite of movie "The Kite Runner")

Unidentified Man #1: This fall…

Unidentified Man #2: So what brings you back to Hanshka(ph)?

Unidentified Man #3: I'm going to find the boy. His father meant a lot to me.

Unidentified Man #1: One of the most beloved stories of our time.

Unidentified Man #4: Now there's a way to be good again.

Unidentified Man #1: Becomes one of the most anticipated films of the year.

Unidentified Man #5: You know what they would do to you if they see you're clean shaven?

BURBANK: That's part of the trailer for the new film, "The Kite Runner." Paramount Pictures has pushed the November release date back to allow the two young stars of the film to get out of the country because of fears that they and their families could be hurt by locals angry about the film's content. If you've been anywhere near an airport bookstore, you know "The Kite Runner" is also a best-selling novel written by Khaled Hosseini. He's an American-Afghan.

Spoiler alert: I'm going to have to give away some of the major plot points here in this little segment. So earmuffs if you don't want to know what happens in the book or the movie.

It is actually a pretty sweet book, really. It's about a man who returns to Kabul to take care of his dead friend's son. There's a hitch, though, involving a rape scene that has lots of Afghans up in arms.

Hydar Akbar is an Afghan-American author himself. He just graduated from Yale. Congratulations, fancy pants. His book is titled "Come Back to Afghanistan." And Hyder Akbar joins us now. Hi, Hyder.

Mr. HYDER AKBAR (Author, "Come Back to Afghanistan: A California Teenager's Story"): Hi.

BURBANK: Thanks so much for coming on the show.

Mr. AKBAR: I thank you for having me.

BURBANK: So this book and the movie depict a rape happening to a young boy. How big of a cultural taboo really is that in Afghanistan?

Mr. AKBAR: I think it cannot be underestimated how much of a shock this would have on people in Afghanistan watching the screen, I think the one thing which you need to realize is that the rape in the movie involves people - I mean, it involves two kids that are from different ethnic groups. And because of the situation in Afghanistan, which has involved a civil war for the last decade -more than the last decade, that is a very sensitive topic, and it could have very serious consequences for those people. And quite frankly, the wounds for the Afghan people are just too deep and too fresh to see something like that thrown back at them on the screen.

BURBANK: What do you think is a bigger deal or more incendiary here, the fact that it is a rape being depicted, or that it's between these two tribes?

Mr. AKBAR: I think that they're both key. I think - and the fact that it's between two different tribes is what makes it such a serious issue, though, whereas the two child actors have to leave Afghanistan because of the threats that they might possibly face once this movie is released. I think that has -definitely has to do with the fact that it's two different ethnic groups that this has happening to.

BURBANK: Oh, well, and the company that made the film has been going to great lengths, it would appear, to try to work this situation out. They hired an ex-CIA agent to go in and sort of figure out the facts on the ground, and that there's talking about spiriting the boys away to the U.S. and eventually to United Arab Emirates. I mean, are there real, real physical danger for these boys and their family in Afghanistan?

Mr. AKBAR: Definitely. I would say that there would be probably very serious danger. I mean, once again, I think it's very hard to look at this through an American way and then see and try to understand what's going on. You'd have to sort of put yourself in the situation of Afghanistan, and Afghans have lived through a very intense period of - in the last 20, 25 years. And because of that, I don't think - once again, that it can be underestimated how serious the reactions could be to be seeing a scene like this.

There's something similar to last year to an Indian movie coming out about Afghanistan, and that had a scene in which one person was just speaking a derogatory remark against another person's ethnic group. And that actor had to leave the country, along with that movie being banned once the ethnic group that was being insulted - that (unintelligible) group - and demonstrations in Kabul. So I don't think it can be underestimated how serious the reactions can be.

BURBANK: One of the things that I was curious about is, I mean, this is a very popular book, certainly in the U.S., and, I mean, what's happening in the film is the same thing that happens in the book. Have many Afghans read this book, do you think? I mean, this - could this really be a big shock?

Mr. AKBAR: Well, it depends. I think that's one of the most interesting things, even when you listen to the trailer that you guys just put on. It says, you know, one of the most loved stories of our time, or - and one of the most anticipated movies of the year. Have Afghan-Americans read the book? Oh yes, of course. They're very aware of what's going on, and I would say most Afghans have brought in, you know, refugee communities that have left to places like Europe. They are aware of the book. But people in Afghanistan, not so much. And I think this also has to do with why this kind of reaction might come from people of Afghanistan.

I think it reveals a sort of disconnect between those that are involved in trying to tell the story of Afghanistan, which is usually people that are not exactly products of that environment themselves. So I'll say that this story, the movie itself has probably had little impact in Afghanistan. From (unintelligible) and talking to people, I would say…

BURBANK: Well, Hyder, I just wanted to ask you quickly before we run out of time, you're an Afghan-American yourself. You've written the book about this. Do you put some of this on Khaled Hosseini? I mean, is he selling out Afghanistan by writing a book that depicts this kind of thing?

Mr. AKBAR: Well, it's difficult to say that he is selling out Afghanistan. I could not say about his intentions. But I know that he has defended himself in the past, saying that I felt like this is what literature is for. I agree with that, but I feel like he is writing for an international audience. He is not really writing for an Afghan audience. And in that sense, it does feel like he is perhaps, in a way, selling the Afghan tragedy to outsiders, I would say.

BURBANK: Oh.

Mr. AKBAR: So in that sense, I would hope that he would be more responsible portraying the Afghan stories, especially when he realizes that his audience is not usually Afghanistan.

BURBANK: Well, we'll see if all this attention is good or bad for the movies -picks up some steam from it.

Hyder Akbar, author, Afghan-American, graduate of Yale. His book is titled "Come Back to Afghanistan." Thank you so much, Hyder.

Mr. AKBAR: Thank you for having me.

BURBANK: This is THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT from NPR News.

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