Episode #13: fight or flight

Credit to The Kite Runner film, a 2007 production by Dreamworks Pictures and Paramount Classics, for some of the audio we used. 

Today we have a story of this wonderful world of kite flying… It’s whimsical, it’s fanciful, but this is also a story about lost (and preserved) heritage: the things we hold onto when the rug seems to have slipped from under our feet.  If we look around today, a lot of countries that are around us in the region are plagued by war, and things like intangible culture and heritage traditions, they don’t seem as important when you’re running away from danger. And that’s understandable, because when your focus is survival, the practice of these traditions more often fall by the wayside. Even if they’re the one thing that we hold onto when don’t have anything left.

It's September, 1980. We're in Afghanistan, in an area called Jalalabad, about 100 kms from the border of Pakistan. There's a young, 18 year old man getting down from one of those big container trucks, and he hops down from the truck and starts walking towards the border. And the only things he has on him are his pakul, a traditional woolen hat, and in his pocket, a piece of string from his kite. And this man knows – he is never coming back.

Basir Beria with one of his handmade kites, a traditional Afghani fighter kite.

Basir Beria with one of his handmade kites, a traditional Afghani fighter kite.

episode Transcript

He knew he was never coming back, but what he didn’t know was the significance that this little piece of string would have on the rest of his life.

Basir1-2-3, 1-2-3… testing, testing?

I think it’s perfect.

All right. My real name is Basir Beria, which is what I’m using now. Middle name I got Ahmed, but I don’t use it a lot. A lot of people call me as a kiteman, a lot of people call me kite master. And originally I’m from Afghanistan... and full of history. Experience.

Basir is born in Kabul in 1961.

The place, the area I was born is called Karte Parwan,

 As one of 6 children, his family lived in a large house built into a hill looking out over a valley. 

 There was houses all over, it was a beautiful place! I mean, full of culture. Don’t talk when your parents talk - especially your parents. You not raise your voice. We grew up on those kind of things

The 1960s and 70s in Afghanistan were an era where Kabul was known as the Paris of Central Asia.

The jeans, the style, the wearing the clothes, it was like ... if Friday the new show new clothes come in France, on Saturday it was in Afghanistan.

 And, there was the kite.

I falling in love with the kite almost when I was 5-6 years old. You know kite was always there. It’s in our system, it’s in our blood .You know, I think, no it’s too much, I eat kite, I drink kite, I sleep kite (laughs) It’s part of your system, we grew up with the kite.

As a 6 year old, kite flying begins simply. Basir’s father taught him how to build kites, using the traditional method of tissue paper and bamboo. He would practice flying with his friends, and the young children would watch the older boys and girls take on the more advanced sport of kite fighting. Basir and his friends would hover under the kites, and when one kite would fall, the kids would run after to collect the spoils from the battle.

It’s like, you don't know anything - you just, okay we were running to collect the kites. You know, people fight and you just, okay, after the kite gets lost you are gonna run and get the free kite. That is what the kite runner means. You have to collect as many kites as you can.  When I was a kid I was running for the kite to grab, come home happy 'hey I got the kite' and I get that string from that guy who was one of the greatest kite flyers.

Would anyone, after a kite fell if you ran after a kite - would anyone want their kite back?

Well you can buy it. [laughs]

 Buy it back from you?

Buy it back from me. Because that is your kite. You lost the battle, which means you don't have no right to have that kite anymore.

 Explain to me what the game is. So when I am fighting your kite, the goal like the end goal is that I want to cut your line?

Exactly.

And then the game is over?

The game is over. simple as that.

Men and women play, young and old –

Children… I see a person who was 89 years old at that time - his beard was all the way to his belly button - white completely - he was one of the greatest fighters in my time, and when I remember, and he was the happiest face when you see him every time. Unbelievable, and I learn so much things when I see the people of the kite flying people. Is the nicest people. The humblest person.

Why?

The reason: every time you ask hey, God – you see, you look up. Looking up to the sky is from every religion, if you say God, you’re gonna raise your up. And we, as kite flier, we always look up. It’s kind of beautiful things.

Basir tells me in addition to the art of building the kite and drawing beautiful designs with pen into the tissue paper (a painstaking process that can take months for just 1 kite, by the way, because tissue paper rips so easily), there is also the art of building your line, the string you fly your kite with.

And that one’s is my own spool, my own cutting line, I made it.

What is it made out of?

It’s is a cotton line, glass coated.

Glass?!

Glass. It’s a sharp object. We grind the glass like a become a face powder. The dust of the glass we have, we coat it here.

I knew nothing about this world, so he showed me.

So, hold it.

He held up a normal, uncoated line of string you could find at any store.

Feel it. It’s impossible to break (strains voice as he pulls on the string). You can pull a car with that.

Then, he held up his own string, coated with glass powder.

Oh you can feel the difference-

Yea!

So the normal string is really smooth, the glass coated one.. it’s crusty. It almost feels like you’re running your fingers over a child’s glitter art project, is what it felt like.

I’m gonna show you something. Hold the two lines. So we need another person but – (laughs)

Hold it tight.

Okay. Okay. (gasp, line cuts)

What happened to the big line?

You cut it!

That’s what you have. And that’s what’s in the battle. We using those cutting lines.

Basir learned the method from his father.  They mix the glass powder with boiled rice water, which is sticky and acts like a very strong glue. (Regular glue, he tells me, would make the string vulnerable to cracking). They then handcoat each mm of the line – sometimes thousands of feet of spool. As the final touch, each kitemaker adds his own secret ingredient to the recipe – I tried, but, Basir woudn't let his secret slip.

I’m not gonna say 100% what I put it and how I do it. Everybody has his own secret. that is what the weapon is. And that’s the killer. That is the samurai.

 As you can imagine, glass cuts string just as much as it cuts fingers, sometimes to the bone. But Basir prefers to fly without gloves, because he likes to feel the movements of the kite in his fingers. As a young boy, his technique developed over time.  As Basir got better at flying and fighting kites, the battles escalated in intensity. He’d fly from stone fences, and would often climb up on his roof to give his kite the clearest path towards the skies.

You know, you are gonna jump from one roof to the other roof because, how excitement is, and I put myself few times from two story house downstairs. I broke my arms two times. I broke my fingers couple of times. And that is what happens. It is part of the game.

What is the signal to say, okay, we are fighting now?

Oh you in the sky means you are ready to fight, okay let's go!

Basir’s life in Kabul was, in many ways, idyllic – playing with the neighbourhood kids, flying kites on his rooftop. And then, everything changed.

I was that time, around 14-15 years old when it happened, one day, wake up, see Russian soldiers on your street, and it start from there, explosion. And everybody was running like, it’s a war!

During the cold winter of 1979, a brutal war began, hinging on the heels of a civil crisis that had been brewing in the country for quite some time. We’re just going to give you a little bit of a summary to put this all in context. So, Soviet forces invaded Afghanistan and the Soviet-Afghan war raged on for nine years. Afghani insurgent groups known as the Mujahideen fought against the imposed communist government of the Soviet Army, and during that time, it’s estimated that over 1 million civilians died in the conflict.   

 And we lost so many people. You cannot find any house in Afghanistan, especially in Kabul, back that time, that not lost 2-3-4 persons in their household.

Afghani society became extremely polarised.

You against them, or you against them. My father even tell me, every day, my son, be careful with the way you talk. Be careful with your science teacher for example, be careful with your other teachers.

Even within families, you never knew who was allied with the Soviet government or with the Mujahideen, who would turn you in for being “on the wrong side.”

Basir was a senior in high school at the time, and started distributing fliers

We call it shabnama.

Shabnama is a farsi term for a pamphlet that communicates a warning, and is usually distributed discretly, Basir’s shabnama was in support of the mujahedeen, the rebel forces.

 You are at the age of 16, 17 years old, your blood is hot. You want to show yourself, you know, I am doing good things.

Basir’s principal found out and had him arrested. He was thrown in prison. For the first 3 months, his family had no idea where he was. 

 Because they are not going to tell you, your son is in prison. They are not gonna tell, 'oh your son is right here'. My dad tried 100 of those prisons in Afghanistan -

He couldn't find me.

First 2 months I was in one room myself, you know. 1 room where I can lay down and there is a toilet. That is it. I don't see outside. I don't see any other people. Only little door to get the food, that is all. To be in a prisoner, it is not a good thing to think about it.. I remember when I was…. wake up one day in prison, and I was thinking, Great Wall, flying kites, how beautiful it is.

Basir started dreaming of flying his kite on top of the Great Wall of China. China because that’s where kites were first made. That dream gave him refuge as he sat in his cell, not knowing when and if he would ever be released.

Inside in a prison, you think about something which is unbelievable in your pictures. and how beautiful the landscape, you know, releasing and flying and higher and higher…

Eventually, 8 months later, his father convinced a friend who worked for the government to issue Basir’s release.

 When I got home, he said, that is it. He said son what are you gonna do? I can see of your mood, I can see… what you are doing, and you are gonna end up again back in prison. Or you are gonna be - this time I was there, maybe next time I won't be there. It’s is not a kid's game anymore.

Basir’s brother had already left Afghanistan for Pakistan, and so his father arranged for Basir to do the same.

My dad took me from home, it was around 11 o clock in the morning time.

The month was September, the air was slightly cool, and Basir left with his hat, his pakul, a few coins he liked to collect from childhood, and, of course, a string of kite.

I didn’t care about anything else, I don’t know why. And the coin was in my pocket and a string of kite…. somewhere it was in my left jacket, it was right there. That’s it. And that was the only things I think about it, to put in my pocket.

Basir’s father took him to a container truck transporting medicine, he hugged his father goodbye, and climbed into the truck as a passenger next to the driver, a friend of his father’s who was regularly helping Afghanis flee across the border. 

 We was riding from Kabul to Poli Charikar was the route. I was sitting right in the front talking to the driver, what is up, and how do you get out, and all this. And I see my dad's car. He is driving also. It is passing, going further. And I was looking, wondering what is going on, why my dad is going, where he is going, what is going on. And then I see in the distance, my dad’s car he was waiting for us to come. As soon as he sees our truck, he raises hand to slow down. So we stop. The driver stop, and I get up and he come across. And the first thing he says, "can I hug you one more time?" I swear to God, he was asking me, "can I hug you one more time?" And I said, ‘yes, Daddy, come on.’ And I was you know, sometimes you say you drunk and you are high, that two types of things that is happening in your life. that time, I was high, I was drunk. Both of them. I don’t know what I did, how I reached Pakistan. How I survived 7 days 7 nights walking from Jalalabad all the way to Peshawar. You know if you are cutting me with a knife, probably there was no blood coming. If you gave me a bullet right through here, it comes through here - probably I was not having a feeling. By the time I reached the place and that person told me, 'that line you see right there - you are not in Afghanistan anymore.' And that was the toughest toughest pain I have ever had in my 55 years age. I remember exactly. I was crying that time. I said, 'that is it? That’s the country? After that it is not Afghanistan?' I didn't believe it. I was 17 years old, 18 years old. And I said 'that is it?' All those passion I have for the country. All those things, we put ourselves in danger, our lives... We reached that moment, and you gonna say bye? I remember every part of my body, it is just like nuts and bolts get loose. I feel it that way. I don’t have no culture. I don't have no parents. I don't have no blood. I have a nothing. Nothing. The place you born, the place you wanna die for it, and you come to that moment, you say, 'I wanna give up?' That is not easy, that is not easy. It is just like, 'Oh you are not my mother anymore, I don't know you anymore.’ How in the world can you say you don't have a mother?

Basir walked across the border into Pakistan, and his father had arranged for him to continue to Germany using a fake passport. He reunited with his brother in Pakistan who had fled Afghanistan before him, and the two flew onto to Germany where they spent the next 5 years there. Basir took classes at local center, studied German and, because he was always good at art, fashion design. On the side, he buses table at a restaurant. Then, one day the brothers get a call from their father.  

 He called my one day from India. ‘Oh we escaped the country, we are in India.’ He said, ‘It’s getting harder and harder every day.’ And he said, ‘It’s enough, I cannot survive, I cannot live there. God give, God take.’ That’s what he said.

My cousin come in Vegas, live there, I don't know why Vegas, but he decide to be there. So next day called me and said, ‘We gonna go to the United States. If you wanna go, try to get yourself there, and we are gonna get back together. You know, nothing is make me happier to get your family together.’

And, 1985 I come to United States. And I go to Vegas. And I hate it and I hate it…

Why?

What does Las Vegas has besides gambling? Nothing else. You go to a restaurant - you have to go through a casino. What else you can do? As a kite flyer, as a person who likes to have that freedom of - to be on the beach, to be on that green area, flying kites – Las Vegas is gambling in the desert.

Since Basir was a young teenager in Afghanistan, his cousins in the US living in Los Angeles would send enticing photos from LA. So when Basir decided he couldn’t stay in Las Vegas, he took his immediate family and resettled in Los Angeles. Basir, his 2 brothers, 3 sisters, parents, and extended family have been living next to each other in LA since 1985.  Even though Basir and his family moved really far away from Kabul, BAsir held onto those traditions that reminded him of home. He organised kite festivals across the country, he fought in competitions, he often won… and he also hosted kite building workshops or Afghani culture lectures at local schools. At one point he owned a convenient store where he sold sodas and cigarettes, alongside kites he built and hand-designed. And then, in 2006, after completing a graphic design course, he receives a phone call.

One day I was at home, I got the message on my phone saying, 'Hi Basir, this is Lesley McMinn. I am from Dreamwork… and they called so many times, I didn't answer. So what I thought about it, when the Dreamwork called, you know, because I was giving my resume of my graphic design, I said 'Dreamwork'. I didn't know! I swear to God, I didn't know what is Dreamwork mean. I thought it is agency of work and they find you dream work! So I said, wow, maybe they find a good job for me - dream work.  So I pick up the phone, dial the number, and say, ‘

Hi this is Basir, did you call me about the working?'

'No that is the Dreamwork, we call, I am Lesley McMinn, one of the producers for ‘Kite Runner'.

I say, 'What is going on?'

She said, 'Did you read the book, The Kite Runner?'
I said, 'Yeah I read, I gave it to some few people. Because I am a kite...  Whatever comes to the kite, I grab it, anythings.

The Kite Runner was a best selling novel in 2003. The book follows the story of a young Afghani boy growing up around the same time as Basir, flying kites, and coming of age during the Soviet-Afghan war. Oh and, the author, Khaled Hosseini, was actually a classmate of Basir’s in school. A few years after the book shot to fame, Dreamworks picked up the right to turn it into a film. And that’s when Basir gets the phone call.

 And, ‘Marc Foster want to talk to you and wanna see you…’

I said, ‘Okay.'

 The associate producer went onto say that they wanted to see Basir fly his kite, because they were looking for a kite master to train the actors how to fly and fight kites, as well as to design the kites in the film.

 I train all those 150 kids for the background, for the movie. The body language, the everything about it. All those practicing. The hero of the movie, Amir and Hassan - I train them. If you don’t pay attention, there are a million kite flyers, they will automatically see, ‘Oh, the angle in the picture looks fake.’ Because that person is flying is right here, and the angle of the kite is right there which is - he is not flying, the other person is flying. It looks fake, it is gonna hurt that action. It is gonna hurt the entire movie.

 Because the US was still at war with Afghanistan in 2006, Dreamworks shot the film in Western China instead. Basir spent an entire year there with the cast and crew.  And remember his vision that helped him get through those 8 months in jail, the dream to fly his kite on the Great Wall of China?

I said it is over, you know, it’s never happen. You know, from Afghanistan travelling in china. That was my dream. You know, it is impossible thing.  But, when we were shooting that movie, The Kite Runner, and one day I was with the translator, and they took me to the Great Wall. And, always having my kite with me. I have a case, traveling.

And… I’m on top of Great Wall, and pick up my kite and fly. First 15 minutes, I was kind of emotionally… really, couldn't believe it. First 15 minutes, finally a voice came in my head, you know what? You’re dumb, you’re stupid, you are wasting every second of it! Get up, don't blah blah! Just get up, pick your kite and fly! And first things, I just jump, and open my case, and pick up one of my favorite kites (because it is controllable and very nice kite so i can do every move with it). I pick up the kite and fly it, and fly it Until it was really dark, and I could not even see the kite. And i pull the kite down and come back to my hotel.

Can I ask, what do you do now?

I work on Uber. Driving Uber. And flying kites. That is the two things I do. And draw sometimes.

Since Basir left Afghanistan in 1979, he hasn’t returned. He talks about wanting to go back, to live as a normal Afghani family, but there’s a resignation in his voice like he knows the Afghanistan he wants to return to doesn’t exist anymore. Most of his family is in the US with him, now, because of that.

And, as for the kite – kite flying will always be deeply embedded within Afghani tradition. There was a period under the Taliban rule from 1996 until the early 2000s in Afghanistan when kite flying was banned nationwide for being “un-Islamic”, along with dancing, weather forecasting, and bird-keeping. Today, some pockets of Afghanistan are still majority Taliban-ruled, and these enforcements are still in place. Basir tells us that some avid kite-fliers fly clear plastic kites to go undetected, so to a far-off Taliban soldier it just looks like loose trash twirling around in the wind.

It looks like people who were good kitemakers, they lost their feeling. They don't build anymore kites. The people who was making cutting line, they not interested because their son was killed. The people who was like a good kite builder… he is in the jail. So somehow, it was kind of forgotten things. But, for the Afghan, as soon – as as soon as they find they are safe right now, they start flying kites. The thing I see in the camp, little kids running flying kites. That is - you cannot… when I see that kind of moment, when I see it in the camp. He has no pants, his butt is naked and his nose is running, but has got a string on his line and having a plastic kite - trash plastic kite- built from his brother's or someone's… and he is happy, and he is holding, and he is having no shoes... And the way it looks to me, and I say, 'You know what? You cannot take away dream from anybody.’


Episode credits

This episode was produced by Hebah Fisher and Razan Alzayani, production support by Rabiya Shabeeh, fact checking by Lilly Crown. Sound design and original music by Mohammad Khreizat, and credit to The Kite Runner film, a 2007 production distributed by Paramount Classics and Dreamworks Pictures for some of the underlying audio used. Thank you to Basir and his family for opening up their home to us in LA and teaching us about the wonderful world of kite flying.