I was 9 years old when my family fled Afghanistan and sought asylum as refugees in the U.S. during the Soviet invasion. It was surreal to watch Rock the Kasbah, a movie about Afghanistan -- a country I later visited as an adult and reported from for seven years during the Taliban era and after the American-led intervention.
At first glance, Rock the Kasbah (premiering October 23) seems like the typical Hollywood movie depicting Muslims: turbaned men with kohl-rimmed eyes on horseback, a girl who needs an American's help to succeed, and bombs blowing up when the plot slows in the movie. However, you would be ill-advised to pass quick judgment.
The Barry Levinson comedy has a twist. The main character Richie Lanz masterfully played by Bill Murray is no action hero -- he's a deadbeat Hollywood talent scout who travels to Afghanistan with his last client (Zooey Deschanel) to tour with the USO. She steals his passport and money and Lanz's left to survive a journey in post 9/11 Afghanistan. The filmmakers capture the tragedies of my homeland through comical idiosyncrasies. The movie switches from stereotype to kitsch, and it's the absurdities that reflect the truth.
Lanz represents the clueless American. Even the name of the movie is a pun on Lanz's ignorance, which his daughter points out when he tells her he's going to Afghanistan "to rock the Kasbah." "The Kasbah's in North Africa, dad," she chides him, a nod to Americans' often tragically simple view of the breadth and diversity of the Muslim world.
Most of the Afghan characters are the good guys, and the Americans are anti-heroes. Compared to patriotic blockbusters like American Sniper, the movie is critical of American military actions. The profiteers, former American military personnel, represent a truth that I can attest to after writing an investigative report Afghanistan Inc. exposing companies like DynCorp, Blackwater and Halliburton. The film illustrates the reality that the violence in Afghanistan is a messy multi-sided catastrophe, not just the Taliban versus the Afghan government and NATO mission. While American Sniper was supposedly a true story based on the Iraq war, I found that the comedy and fiction of Rock the Kasbah provided a more truthful depiction of America's role in Afghanistan.
For all of the film's merits, there are also some liberties taken with reality. For instance, the sex workers in Kabul serving the American and Afghan militaries are mainly women trafficked from China. In the movie, however, Kate Hudson plays a charming and empowered American prostitute. But I could relate to the movie's depiction of the seemingly unbelievable but all too real wild parties thrown in Kabul's large underground restaurants, the drunken expats in seedy hotels, and the random explosions that at times become an almost regular part of daily life in Kabul.
Mostly, I appreciated seeing Afghanistan through the humanity and smiles of the film's Afghan characters. I'm used to documentaries about my homeland that depict constant war and relentless death. The street scenes of children playing and the popularity of the show Afghan Star resonated with me. Families still gather to watch the weekly show, voting for their favorite vocalist. To date, winners have all been men, but a few women have risen to notoriety through their participation on the program.
The film is dedicated to one of them, Setara Hussainzada, an Afghan female vocalist who received death threats for shimmying on stage as her headscarf slipped during her performance on Afghan Star in Kabul. The exiled Hussainzada, now living in Germany, has produced some popular songs on Youtube.
The reality of today's Afghanistan is hard to laugh at even with Afghans' morbid sense of humor and resilience, which once had my father thanking God for my grandmother's five foot height when a stray bullet barely missed her head in our yard in Herat, where I was born.
After 14 years of American involvement, the Afghan government is corrupt and inept. With the help of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, the Taliban have regained power and women are losing the gains they made under the Americans. Security is at its worst in two decades with warlords returning to civil war and terrorizing civilian populations. The drug trade is booming and so is addiction to heroin. Through its comedy, Rock the Kasbah grasps some of these realities.
American combat may be over, but America's longest war must not be forgotten. Movies like Rock the Kasbah are important. They force Americans to remember what has taken place and that Afghans are not their enemy, but allies. I hope that such positive portrayals of Afghans can deepen personal interactions between my two countries. Afghanistan is fading in the news, but it is up to the arts to remind us that, just like Vietnam, the country, in all of its complexities, must remain etched in the consciousness of Americans.