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Afghan actor links cultures as U.S. war translator

Aug. 10, 2014 - 01:55PM   |  
Afghan native Fahim Fazli, left, and retired Marine Michael Moffett pose for a photo on Aug. 6 at the base of Mount Washington, N.H., before ascending the mountain via the Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail. The two are co-authors of a book about Fazli's life as an Afghan native who fled his country, became a U.S. Citizen, a Hollywood actor who played roles as a Middle eastern terrorist, and returned to Afghanistan to be a translator for U.S. Marines.
Afghan native Fahim Fazli, left, and retired Marine Michael Moffett pose for a photo on Aug. 6 at the base of Mount Washington, N.H., before ascending the mountain via the Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail. The two are co-authors of a book about Fazli's life as an Afghan native who fled his country, became a U.S. Citizen, a Hollywood actor who played roles as a Middle eastern terrorist, and returned to Afghanistan to be a translator for U.S. Marines. (Jim Cole / AP)
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CONCORD, N.H. — Fahim Fazli’s screen career was beginning to take off, with roles in blockbusters like “Iron Man,” when the Afghan-born actor decided it was time to give back to the country that had taken him in after he fled Russian occupation a quarter century earlier.

Staring at his U.S. passport, he wondered: “Do I earn this?”

Fazli, in New Hampshire last week for a book signing for “Fahim Speaks: A Warrior-Actor’s Odyssey from Afghanistan to Hollywood and Back,” went to work as a translator for the U.S. Marines in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. It was a U.S. Marine who had helped Fazli track down his mother, who escaped Afghanistan in 1980, and put his family back together.

His wife, his agent and his manager asked him: “What are you doing?” He was established in Hollywood. Besides playing roles on screen, he had advised a team of Hollywood heavyweights including Mike Nichols and Tom Hanks on “Charlie Wilson’s War.” Afghanistan was one of the most dangerous places in the world.

“I say, ‘I would like to pay my dues for this country,’” Fazli said.

So in 2008, Fazli returned to the streets of his childhood. He spent two years as a translator, bridging the tribal culture he was learning in the Marines with the tribal bedrock that underlies his homeland. By knowing the customs, knowing how Afghanis treat people they trust — and those they don’t — he thought he could make a difference.

“If they don’t understand each other,” he said, “they’re going to shoot each other. They’re going to kill each other.”

Some moments were easy: He taught the Marines to keep a piece of candy, a pencil or a pad of paper in their gear when they went out in the streets: cheap gifts for the kids.

Fazli, charismatic and quick to laugh, also found ways to skirt the pitfalls. If an Afghan elder used colorful terms to describe a Marine officer, Fazli would sanitize it in translation.

“Of course I use a little acting skill to translate it the right way so this party doesn’t get hurt and this party doesn’t get hurt,” he said.

If acting helped his translation, his work in Afghanistan helped the 48-year-old Fazli develop his career, especially in war flicks and, he freely admits, playing a Middle Eastern terrorist. He had a role in the Oscar-winning film “Argo” and recently finished filming “American Sniper” under Clint Eastwood’s direction. With wavy black hair, a thick beard, dark complexion and intense eyes, he can convey pure menace when he shuts off his easy smile. But he doesn’t mind being typecast.

“I want to introduce all those close-minded (people) who have hijacked the religion and become a sociopath,” he said. “The reason I’m doing this is to show them how evil they are being a terrorist. And I enjoy it. I like to introduce their real colors.”

He and co-author Mike Moffett, a retired Marine and professor at the New Hampshire Technical Institute, know they face long odds getting Fazli’s story from the page to the screen. The co-authors hiked Mount Washington last week and would love to have New Hampshire’s Presidential Range stand in for Asia’s rugged Hindu Kush mountains.

To get a shot, they’ll need more than Hollywood connections, said Larry Benaquist, professor emeritus of film studies at Keene State College.

“For them to work, you need some kind of American connection,” he said of war movies. “Maybe the fact that (Fazli) worked with the Marines. At some point, his relationship with America is shown.”

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