By Laura Flanders, AlterNet
Within the first five minutes of the newly released film The Kite Runner, the leitmotif is laid out in a Karachi-to-California telephone call. Come home to Afghanistan, the protagonist, a young writer “Amir” is told by an ailing uncle. It won’t be an easy journey, the uncle explains, but it’s not too late: “There is a way to be good again.”
At the level of metaphor, the film adaptation of Khaled Hosseini’s best-selling novel is right on target. Abuse of power, remorse, shame, grief, guilt and the dream of redemption: They’re exactly the right emotions to stir in a movie about the United States and Afghanistan. The Kite Runner is a tear-jerker for the politically conscious. Unfortunately, when it comes to real-life U.S.-Afghan relations, the metaphors hit more bases than what’s actually on the screen.
Scripted by David Benioff (Troy) and directed by Marc Forster (Monster’s Ball), the Kite Runner mostly follows the narrative of Hosseini’s surprise hit, published in 2001. In 1970s Afghanistan, a wealthy widower’s son, “Amir,” romps through lush, cosmopolitan Kabul with his best (perhaps only) friend “Hassan,” the family servant’s son.
Clouds are gathering, of course, over the boys and their country. Afghanistan is slipping from a modern secular state into an internationally fuelled civil war. The elegant city of Amir’s affluent father “Baba” is crumbling. (Playing the aristocrat turned gas station attendant, “Baba,” Iranian Homayoun Ershadi turns in the standout performance of the film.) As ethnic tensions are stoked, loyal Hassan is brutally attacked by a gang of bullies while young Amir watches and does nothing. Soon afterwards, the Soviets invade Afghanistan, and the world does the same.
Hosseini has said that his story is about global indifference, “It foretells what happens to Afghanistan in the ensuing decade after the Soviet invasion. Afghanistan like Hassan, served a purpose. And once that purpose has been served, it is abandoned and brutalized and people just stand around and watch.”The symbolism is obvious. Hassan is loyal, adoring, obedient to a fault. He tells his master/friend Amir that he’d eat dirt if asked. Used, victimized and abandoned, Hassan is a transparent stand-in for Afghanistan, the buffer state brutalized in successive “Great Games” — first between the Russian and British, and then the Soviet and U.S. empires.
There’s just one glitch. Neither the Americans nor the British make an appearance. Religious zealots inexplicably emerge, cruel counterparts to cruel communists. Secular Kabul’s caught in between. “The Mullahs want to control our souls. The communists say we have no souls,” says Baba. There’s no third player in this tale. There’s no covert U.S. assistance to rebel Mujahadeen, for example, no paying of bullies to serve the Cold War.
We know from President Carter’s advisor Zbigniew Brzezinkski that the official version of Afghan history is hokum. U.S. intervention didn’t follow the Soviet Army’s invasion, it preceded it. In a 1998 interview with Le Nouvel Observateur, Brzezinski recalled:
We didn’t push the Russians to intervene, but we knowingly increased the probability that they would … That secret operation was an excellent idea. It had the effect of drawing the Soviets into the Afghan trap … The day that the Soviets officially crossed the border, I wrote to President Carter. We now have the opportunity of giving to the Soviet Union its Vietnam War.
The only “American” in The Kite Runner is Amir, the guilt-ridden refugee who does as his uncle tells him. He goes to Afghanistan, performs an act of rescue and returns home redeemed. He gains his “manhood” while he’s about it, proving he’s not quite the pushover his father feared him to be.
Redemption for the United States will come harder.
In November 2001, Laura Bush promised rescue. “Our hearts break for the women and children in Afghanistan,” she told the world in the middle of her husband’s post 9-11 bombing campaign. “The fight against terrorism is a fight for the rights and dignity of women,” said the First Lady. The U.S. Air Force was dropping 15,000-pound “daisy cutter” bombs on medieval Afghanistan at the time. Hillary Rodham Clinton wrote in Time Magazine: “We, as the liberators, have an interest in what follows the Taliban.
“Ironically, or perhaps not so ironically, the talented child actors in The Kite Runner are now living in exile in the United Arab Emirates after their guardians voiced anxieties that they could be ostracized or targeted by ethnic and religious extremists. In the real world, what’s “followed” the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan are more heavily armed warlords, more theocracy and more Taliban.
Some will say it’s unfair to hold the movie of a novel to task for repeating the propaganda version of U.S. history, but the myth of the United States as macho rescuer is not only misleading, it’s deadly — for people in Afghanistan and around the world. Shed all the tears you like as you’re watching, but don’t leave the remorse in the cinema. Try as it might, Hollywood can’t purge our guilt, or dissuade us of the need to act.Laura Flanders is author of Bushwomen: Tales of a Cynical Species.
By Doug Pibel*, Commondreams.org
Pete Seeger has been making music for 80 years. It should be impossible to do that justice in 90 minutes, but “Pete Seeger: The Power of Song” does it. This tightly packed, but graceful, documentary tells the story through the voices of musicians, friends, family, and the man himself, along with a rich helping of music. Seeger’s story is full of subplots, all covered here: hoboing with Woody Guthrie, stardom with The Weavers, blacklisting and contempt of Congress, the civil rights movement, Vietnam War activism, Hudson River cleanup, and elder statesman of the folk movement. But the overarching theme is his unique approach to music. For Seeger, music is a tool to bring people together, and that, as much as the singing, is the point. As we see him leaving the stage of Carnegie Hall at the end of a concert when he was 84, he says in voiceover, “I’ve never sung anywhere without giving the people listening to me a chance to join in. As a kid, as a lefty, as a man touring the U.S.A. and the world, as an oldster. I guess it’s kind of a religion with me. Participation. That’s what’s going to save the human race.” What comes through most clearly is Seeger’s belief in his cause, his optimism, and his joy in living. There is no trace of bitterness as he recalls the years when his blacklisting was so complete that he “traveled from college to college to college” playing for whatever crowds would come to sing with him. His son asks whether he was afraid of going to jail. Seeger replies, “I’m probably very stupid, but I was not fearful. I really believed, and I think I was right, that in the long run, this country doesn’t go in for things like that.” As the film explores the story of the sloop Clearwater and the rehabilitation of the Hudson River, Seeger says, “We’ve all got to be involved in trying to put this world together. I think if the world is put together, it isn’t going to be done by big organizations. It’s going to be done by millions upon millions of little organizations, often local.” Watching this moving demonstration of the power of music and personal dedication leaves you believing it can be done.
By Mark LeVine and Salman Ahmed, Commondeams.org
Next week’s reunion of Led Zeppelin is among the most anticipated in rock history. And with good reason. In the 1970s, the British band was mesmerizing.But beyond unforgettable songs and legendary live shows, Led Zeppelin broadcast a powerful message to fans who tuned in to the right frequency. Bring the soul of the West and Islam together, Led Zeppelin told us, and you can produce a musical force powerful enough to break through the barricade dividing the two civilizations. In its way, this message is far more subversive than the Satanic themes the band was accused of “backmasking” into “Stairway to Heaven.”One of us – Salman Ahmed – is a Pakistani who was born in Lahore and spent his adolescence in Upstate New York. Led Zeppelin was a sonic voyage home for Salman. When he first saw the band at Madison Square Garden during its US tour in 1977, it was a spiritual awakening. There was something deeply familiar in the music.
Once he returned home for medical school he realized that the band had channeled the Sufi music of South Asia through the blues to create rock ‘n’ roll.Soon enough, Salman traded in his stethoscope for an electric guitar. If Led Zeppelin frontmen Jimmy Page and Robert Plant immersed themselves in the blues, Salman studied with the Pakistani musical legend Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, who coming from the opposite trajectory offered a similar message of harmony and brotherhood.The other one of us – Mark LeVine – is a New Yorker born in New Jersey. For him, hearing Led Zeppelin as a young child initiated a lifelong love affair with the music and cultures of the Muslim world. Most rock legends mined the blues. But the bends in Page’s guitar solos and Plant’s vocal melodies stretched beyond the “blue” of such greats as Johnny Copeland and Dr. John (with whom Mark was fortunate to perform as a young guitarist).
In Led Zeppelin’s music, there were hints of the Arabic ruba’, or quarter tone, and Persian koron, or neutral third.Led Zeppelin’s self-described “tight but loose” musical philosophy had an impact on both of us. In blues, rock, and jazz, the function of the drummer and bassist is mainly to lay down a tight groove over which the frontmen can let loose. Rarely does the rhythm section have the space to take the music to a higher dimension.But Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones and drummer John Bonham did just that. For Salman, the interplay between all four musicians linked the band to the great chain of improvisers inspired by Sufism, an Islamic mystic tradition. Salman has a special interest in that tradition; his band’s music is often classified as “Sufi rock.”It was this pedigree that separated Led Zeppelin from the rest of the rock ‘n’ roll universe, reminding those with the right ears of a time when the distinctions between East and West, Islam and Europe, were still fuzzy – often productively so. It’s no wonder the band was signed by a Turkish music impresario, Ahmet Ertegun, in whose honor they are reuniting once more. The soaring minor and major scales that Plant and Page embellish in songs such as “Kashmir,” “Going to California,” “Four Sticks,” and “Friends in the Light” are, to our ears, drawn from traditional vocalizations of qawwali, a Pakistani form of Sufi devotional music.
Led Zeppelin’s ability to move between Western and Muslim cultures was evident when Page and Plant went to Morocco to record songs for their 1994 “No Quarter” album and DVD. Finding musicians performing in a market in Marrakesh, Page and Plant were able to bond with them musically – and with an immediacy that produced some of the albums most alluring tracks, such as “Yallah” and “City Don’t Cry.”Today’s Muslim rock and heavy metal artists, in turn, have been powerfully influenced by Led Zeppelin. The band’s music echoes their own history and culture, helping them create new hybrids of rock, metal, and Islam, and through it, some of the world’s lushest, and most innovative and powerful rock ‘n’ roll.At its core, even the most extreme Muslim heavy metal carries a message of peace and harmony. This is an important counterweight to the sounds of clashing civilizations and endless jihads that assault the world’s ears today.It’s about time the world starts listening; the next Led Zeppelin is as likely to come from Casablanca, Cairo, or Karachi as it is from London or New York.
Mark LeVine teaches history at the University of California, Irvine, and is the author of the forthcoming “Heavy Metal Islam: Rock, Religion, and the Struggle for the Soul of Islam.” Salman Ahmed is founder and lead guitarist for the Pakistani rock band Junoon. A different version of this piece appeared at Aljazeera.net.