Afghan kite-maker perfects his craft in Hollywood

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Joe Mozingo
Los Angeles Times / May 18, 2008

LOS ANGELES - There is just a breath of wind in North Hollywood. Basir Beria steps out of his shop on Lankershim Boulevard with a red fighter kite. He flings the kite into the air, and after a few nimble tugs, watches it whirl skyward.

The kite darts about at first, fighting the short leash. Beria unreels the string from a homemade spool. The red kite spirals for a moment until he tugs again. It rockets up and across the boulevard.

Beria moves about the sidewalk as if he's waltzing, right arm outstretched. The kite responds to his forefinger - flitting this way, arching that way, in the sky.

At 47, Beria is strong and could do this for hours. Flying a kite is meditation, transcending purpose. But he must get back to the cash register. A year ago, Beria opened a small convenience store, Smoke House and Magazines. He works behind the counter 10 hours a day, seven days a week to pay the bills. Occasionally, he sells a handmade Afghan kite, built in his spare time with slivers of bamboo, swaths of rice paper, and cotton string. The kites - and "The Kite Runner," a novel he did not particularly appreciate - are what brought him to America.

Like many immigrants in Los Angeles, Beria struggles to retain a piece of another place and time in a new land where the future is wide open. For him, the kites fuse the present with Afghanistan, the country he loved and fled. He hopes, in this balance, he will feel whole again.

Beria grew up in a red-stone mansion in the Kabul suburb of Karte Parwan, surrounded by thousands of grapevines owned by his family. He took to "kite fighting" as a rambunctious little boy, the second of seven children.

Kite fighting had a long history in his family and in Afghanistan. When winter vacation began, the leaden sky would light up with swirling colored paper. But the fighters used lines encrusted with powdered glass, called "tar." They brought the strings together hundreds of feet in the air.

When Beria was 8, he took strips of bamboo, pieces of English tissue paper, and wallpaper glue and made his first kite. An older neighbor, Najib, promised to cut it down. Beria dared him to try. Beria released his kite into the cold wind. It keeled to one side, off balance. Najib's kite set on it like wounded prey. Their lines crossed. Beria's string went limp. The defeat made him more intent on learning the craft.

His father, Gul, showed him how to shave a bamboo strip with a razor blade, cutting the pulp away until the skin bowed in a balanced elliptical arc. The smooth, strong curve of the top spar, Gul said, was the kite's muscle.

Beria's memories of that time are warm and nostalgic. But a storm was gathering on the horizon by the 1970s. Over dinner, Beria's father complained about the country's growing dependence on the Soviet Union. A bloodless coup in June 1973 ended the 40-year reign of King Mohammad Zahir Shah. Political discourse became polarized between Soviet Marxism and radical Islam.

The Soviets invaded Afghanistan, and calling home became impossible. Three years passed. In 1984, his father called from India.

The family decided to move to America, where two uncles lived.

In California, the family rented an apartment in Pacoima. Beria worked the night shift at a convenience store. Twice while trying to stop robberies, he was beaten.

Later, he took a job assembling electronics, and then waited tables. He came to love American sports and became a Los Angeles Lakers fan.

But as much as Beria embraced America, Afghanistan remained on his mind. He found rice paper and bamboo. His younger brother brought a spool of "tar" from India. They started kite fighting.

Beria put on a kite festival at Castaic Lake where men showed their American-born children the intricate skills of kite fighting, as their own fathers had done in Afghanistan.

He traveled to kite festivals up and down the West Coast. In San Francisco, he fell in love with Homaira Qarizada, whom he had known in Afghanistan. They married in 1996, had a boy, and rented a home in Tarzana with the rest of the family.

Early in 2006, Beria got a message on his cellphone from a place called DreamWorks. He ignored it. A few days later, a woman got him on the line.

"Did you read the book 'The Kite Runner'?" she asked.

No, he said, but he knew about it.

She explained that DreamWorks made movies and that she was a producer. She asked if they could see him fly his kites.

The director, Marc Foster, and a dozen producers and crew members met Beria at Balboa Lake, where Afghan and Pakistani kite fighters regularly competed. They watched Beria fly his kites. They offered him the job of "kite master" on the set in western China. It would pay $1,000 a week. Beria jumped at it, even though he'd have to quit his job waiting tables.

He flew to the ancient Chinese city of Kashgar with 100 of his kites. Walking the narrow alleys twisting through the desert below the Tian Shan mountains felt like walking through his childhood Kabul - the food, the smells, the Turkic faces.

He read the novel by Khaled Hosseini - about a well-off boy who flees Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation. Beria felt that the novel unfairly portrayed the Taliban as an Afghan creation, when the movement originated out of Pakistan and Afghan Taliban were mostly uneducated, brainwashed orphans of the Soviet war.

For 15 weeks, Beria taught more than 150 local children how to fly the kites and got involved in the film's kite-flying scenes.

Later, he would take great pride walking Homaira and his three children down the red carpet of the Egyptian Theater on opening night in Hollywood and watching his kites soar across the big screen.

When Beria got back to California, he had no job but a firm vision: to sell the kites that people would see in the movie.

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