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Last Updated: Tuesday, 18 September 2007, 10:46 GMT 11:46 UK
Kite Runner flies into controversy
By Charles Haviland
BBC News, Kabul

Ahmad Khan
Ahmad Khan says he is uneasy about the film in which he stars

Book-lovers and movie-goers are eagerly awaiting the release this November of the film version of a much-loved novel, the worldwide bestseller, The Kite Runner.

But it is running into controversy in Afghanistan, the country where most of it is set, and among Afghan diaspora communities.

Written in 2003 by the Afghan-American Khaled Hosseini, the book spans the years from the pre-war Kabul of the 1970s to the brutality of the Taleban era.

It deals with poignant themes such as exile, a son's longing to please his father and - above all - friendship and betrayal between two boys, the novel's central characters.

"I became what I am today at the age of 12, on a frigid overcast day in the winter of 1975," the novel begins.

"I remember the precise moment, crouching behind a crumbling mud wall, peeking into the alley near the frozen creek."


That is the narrator, Amir, looking back on the boyhood moment that changed his life.

Only later do we learn what he was witnessing - the rape of the boy who is both his loyal best friend and his servant, Hassan - by a psychopathic bully.

Kite-flying is a hugely popular pastime in Afghanistan

Instead of rescuing Hassan, Amir runs away. The incident changes their friendship for ever and is the defining moment of the book.

Yet some of those involved in the film say they had no idea it would have such a disturbing scene.

The film version has been shot in one of Afghanistan's main languages, Dari, and using ordinary Afghans in many of the roles - including the three principal children, who were chosen from among 2,000 in Kabul schools.

That is a brave move aimed at achieving maximum authenticity. But it has created unforeseen hitches.

On a damp and muddy afternoon I visited a mainly Hazara neighbourhood of Kabul - the Hazara are a traditionally downtrodden ethnic group to which the fictional character of Hassan belongs.

Down a secluded pathway I paid a call on 11-year-old Ahmad Khan Mahmidzada, the boy who plays Hassan, and his father Ahmad Jaan.

'Didn't tell me'

The father says it was only after arriving in Kashgar in western China - where the film was shot for security reasons - that he learned of the rape scene, and that he wanted to withdraw his son from it.

Ahmad Khan with father Ahmad Jaan
My own people from my own tribe will turn against me because of the story
Ahmad Jaan, father

"When I told them I would not let Ahmad Khan take part in this film, they said: 'We won't film that scene'," he says.

Ahmad Khan is the perfect actor for Hassan - like the fictional boy, he is always smiling.

But, like his father, he is uneasy about the film in which he is starring.

"They didn't tell me about the story of this book," he tells me in English, recalling the audition and the casting.

He says he did do the rape scene although without removing his trousers - "because that's not right", he adds firmly.

Because this key scene was filmed in a non-explicit way, it seems that at the time Ahmad's father did not even realise it had happened.

I called up one of The Kite Runner's producers, Rebecca Yeldham, in Los Angeles.

"The scene has been handled in a very, very discreet and non-gratuitous fashion," she said.

"The scene contains no nudity. It's rendered in a very sort of impressionistic way. But it's also important in being faithful to that story - that there's no confusions that the attack in the alley that took place on that child was a sexual violation."

'Challenging scenes'

I told her that according to Ahmad Jaan, the director had promised not to film the scene.

"That's not correct," she replied. "No one ever made those assertions to Ahmad's father."

She said all the cast were warned beforehand that there would be "challenging scenes" in the film.

Khaled Hosseini
Kite Runner author Khaled Hosseini is said to be very concerned

But several other cast members have now joined Ahmad Jaan in saying that even though the rape scene has been filmed, it should be removed.

Nabi Tanha, the actor who plays Hassan's father in the movie - Ali - says he is uneasy about the bad language against Hazaras.

Ahmad Jaan says his fears are two-fold - that the film will worsen relations between Hazaras and the dominant Pashtuns (both the boy rapist and the principal character Amir are Pashtun); and that his own family may be in danger when the film comes out, because of Afghan concepts of dishonour.

"Of course I'm worried about it," he says. "My own people from my own tribe will turn against me because of the story. I am so worried they may cut my throat, they may kill me, torture me."

His son has been quoted as saying he fears his friends will shun him because they think he really was raped.

In Bamiyan, the Hazara heartland, I spoke about such fears to Musa Sultani, who heads the local branch of Afghanistan's Independent Human Rights Commission.

Bamiyan has a painful history of violence inflicted on Hazaras by the Taleban and inter-ethnic strife going back much further, and Mr Sultani believes the film could reignite old tensions.

"This scene, in an Afghan context, can be interpreted as a dishonour to one community, to one ethnicity," he says.

"In a tribal society, people don't distinguish between fictitious or real things."

That means that a piece of fiction or a joke could be taken with deadly seriousness.

'Mistaken belief'

However, not all the Afghans involved are as worried.

Mustafa Maroof, who was a casting agent and translator, told the BBC that because the rape scene was filmed in an indirect way, there probably would not be an adverse reaction.

Producer Rebecca Yeldham is aware of the sensitivities now surfacing and says she is in touch with community organisations in Kabul.

But she says the fears - which have spread to expatriate Afghans using internet chat rooms - are based on a mistaken belief that the scene in the film is explicit while, in fact, it was filmed discreetly in deference to Afghan feelings.

"We don't believe the kids' lives are at risk. We don't believe we've put them in that position," she says.

But the producers' concerns are such that they have just decided not to release the film in Afghanistan - although DVD versions are bound to circulate there.

Steven Rubenstein, one of the film's publicity agents, told the BBC the novel's author, Khaled Hosseini, who was closely involved in the shooting, was also "very concerned".

The producers of The Kite Runner are proud to be using ordinary Afghan actors.

But the filming has aroused controversies they seem to have failed to foresee - on the blurring of fact and fiction in a society very different from California, and on Afghan notions of honour and tribalism.

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