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A North Hollywood kite fighter's lofty dream

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There is just a breath of wind in North Hollywood. The fan palms barely tremble.

Basir Beria steps out of his shop on Lankershim Boulevard with a red fighter kite. He walks to a planter where people drop their cigarette butts and kicks up some dust to see which direction it drifts.

The late morning light is bright and scattered, swallowing depth and distance. Beria flings the kite into the air, and after a few nimble tugs, it whirls skyward, quick as a swift.

The kite darts about frenetically at first, fighting the short leash. The Afghan shopkeeper lets the string unreel from a homemade spool. The kite spirals for a moment, until he tugs again. The red rhombus rockets up and across the boulevard in big blazing pulses.

Beria dances with this fiery apparition now. He ignores the recycling truck rattling through his vision, as he does the buses, billboards and ratty birds. He moves about the sidewalk as if he's waltzing, right arm outstretched. The kite responds to every twitch of his forefinger -- flitting this way, arching that way, carving a bit of volume in the flat Valley sky.

At 47, Beria is strong and barrel-shaped, with thinning hair and a thick asterisk of scar tissue on his little finger that testifies to a much darker day.

He brings the kite low over the tar shingle roof of American Drapery and lets it dip behind the iron fence of a Suzuki motorcycle lot. He whips it up just as a truck threatens to mow down the line.

He could do this for hours, flirting with traffic. Flying a kite is meditation, transcending purpose.

But he should get back to the cash register, where purpose knocks with a heavy hand.

A year ago, he opened a small convenience store, Smoke House and Magazines, on Lankershim just north of Burbank Boulevard. He works behind the counter 10 hours a day, seven days a week to make it pay the bills -- selling Newport 100s, Swisher Sweets, coffee, energy drinks, booty magazines and, occasionally, a handmade Afghan kite.

He misses the hours he used to while away building kites in his spare time. There is pure beauty in shaving down the slivers of bamboo, bringing lissome frames to life with swaths of rice paper and cotton string.

But after 23 years working for other people in this country, he has little to show for it. He buys his blue jeans at the Salvation Army and rents a peeling tract home in Tarzana, which he shares with his wife and children, parents, brother, sister-in-law and three nieces and nephews. He shelled out his savings, took out a loan and borrowed from family members to open this shop.

"This is the biggest gamble of my life," he says.

The kites -- and oddly, "The Kite Runner," a novel he did not particularly appreciate -- are what brought him here.

Like so many immigrants in Los Angeles, Basir struggles to retain a piece of a place and time that existed before the future slammed shut -- in a new land where the future is wide open.

For him, the kites fuse the present day with 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 country. When winter vacation began each year, the leaden sky would light up with swirling birds of colored paper.

But the beauty above belied the cunning skill on the ground. Fighters used lines encrusted with powdered glass, called tar. Scattered about the mud-colored city, they brought the strings together hundreds of feet above in the communal air. The faster line would cut the other like a band saw, setting the loser's kite adrift like a leaf in the breeze.

One night when Beria was 8, he holed up in his bedroom with a few strips of bamboo, pieces of English tissue paper and wallpaper glue. When he was done, he marveled at his first homemade kite.

As he took it out the next morning to fight, an older neighbor, Najib, promised to cut it down. Beria dared him to try.

Beria released his kite into the cold wind that blew down from the Hindu Kush. As it spun away, it keeled to one side, off balance.

Najib's kite set on it like a raptor on wounded prey. Their lines crossed. Beria let the spool unreel.

But in a blink, the string went limp.

Beria knew this feeling as sure as a fisherman knows the snap of his dinner escaping.

He went home disappointed. But the defeat made him more intent on learning the craft. His father, Gul, showed him how to shave a bamboo strip down with a razor blade, cutting the pulp away until the skin bowed in a balanced elliptical arc. He taught his son how the smooth, strong curve of the top spar was the kite's muscle.

Beria beat Najib with his second kite, and the two traded victory and defeat over the next year. He learned to jump at opportunities before they vanish.

His youth inthe 1960s was during a unique spell of calm in Afghanistan. His father made a fine living importing electronics and exporting grapes. King Mohammad Zahir Shah had ushered in an era of modernization and openness in Afghanistan. Women no longer had to wear veils. Foreign backpackers shopped in the bazaars. The government built highways and irrigation projects with foreign aid.

Like many students at the time, Basir was filled with a searing pride for his country that he holds in his heart to this day. He learned that his ancient and diverse culture sat at the crossroads of Asia's great trade routes, that foreign invaders fled in squalid defeat.

His memories of that time are warm and nostalgic. But the horror that would bring Afghanistan to ruins was a storm gathering on the horizon. By the early 1970s, many Afghans began to fear imperial encroachment. Over dinner, Beria's father complained about the country's growing dependence on the USSR.

A bloodless coup in June 1973 ended Shah's 40-year reign. Gul grew distraught as political discourse increasingly polarized between Marxism and radical Islam.

He didn't like either. Gul was a devout Muslim but resisted doing anything in the extreme. "Whatever you do," he told his children, "stay in the middle."

Daily life plodded on, though. Beria flew his kites. In high school, he became a champion. He hoped someday to be one of the country's masters.

But he was increasingly drawn into political events. He met up with his neighbor Sharif, a schoolteacher who spent several years in prison for subversion. Sharif brought Beria into an underground movement against the Soviets.

At 17, Beria began to move arms from point to point in the city, as the Soviets drew closer to power. He distributed fliers called "night papers" because no one was supposed to see who left them. They urged Afghans to be ready, when the time came, for jihad.

And then, in April 1978, his school principal walked into his class with two Afghan soldiers carrying Kalashnikovs.

They pointed to Beria.

They took him to the Sedarat prison. When he wouldn't renounce his activities, he says, they kicked him in the spine and dragged him to a cell.

Four days later, they took him to a room and strapped him to a chair. They wrapped copper electrical wires around each of his little fingers. Panic welled in him.

The last thing he remembers is their asking a question about his neighbors.

He woke up, battered, lying in a cell with a man putting water on his face. He'd been out for 12 hours.

Beria languished in prison for months. He was allowed no visitors, but his father came every visiting day and waited in line seven hours to leave him food. And then after a year and a half, he was suddenly released.

At home, his family cried and hugged him and laughed at the giant beard he had grown. But sadness hung heavy in his father's face. He told Basir he paid a large bribe to get him out. "I can't do anything else if you're caught again," Gul said. "You have to go."

A guide led Beria on backcountry trails to Pakistan, where he joined up with his brother Nazir. They got passports in Peshawar and flew to Germany. Beria got a job washing dishes in Bad Homburg, and they found an apartment.

Beria was desperate to hear from his parents. But the Soviets invaded, and calling Afghanistan became impossible. Three years passed, and then his father called one night in 1984.

"We're in India," he said. "We escaped the country. We didn't even wash the dishes the last night."

"Afghanistan is gone. There is no more Afghanistan."

Beria cried. His father cried. His mother, younger brother and sisters took their turns on the line. They all cried.

They decided they would move to America, where two of Beria's uncles lived.

The family reunited and rented an apartment in Pacoima. Beria worked the night shift as a cashier at an A.M./P.M. store. When he got beaten up twice trying to stop robberies, he took a job assembling electronics in Chatsworth, and then waited tables at a Holiday Inn.

He came to love American sports and became a Lakers fanatic.

But as much as Beria embraced America, the iron blood of Afghanistan pumped through his arteries. In his spare time, he found some rice paper and bamboo. His younger brother brought a spool of tar from India. They started kite fighting from the back of the apartment complex.

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

Beria traveled to kite festivals up and down the coast. In San Francisco, he fell in love with Homaira Qarizada, whom he had known back in Afghanistan.They married in 1996, had a baby boy and rented a bigger home in Tarzana, with the rest of the family. Homaira and his parents made big dinners of bolani flatbreads, qaboli rice dishes and mantu dumplings.

Sometimes they sat in the family room, watching Afghan television in tears. The Soviets had fled. The Mujahedin turned against one another, destroying much of the country. The Taliban stepped into the void with tyranny.

Beria watched his parents' dream of seeing their country again wither and die. He wanted to make their life better here. He needed to find a career, buy a home.

He took graphic design classes and sent out his resume, but got no responses.

And then came 9/11. The family sat paralyzed in front of the television. How could this be connected to Afghanistan?

They began to hear of vigilante attacks on local Muslims. Gul stopped going out in his traditional clothes.

"How's Bin Laden?" someone asked Beria.

This infuriated him, because Al Qaeda and the Taliban had ruined his country. He loathed them more than most Americans could imagine.

But their life went on. Beria and Homaira had another son and a daughter. And then early in 2006, Beria got a message on his cellphone -- someone from a place called DreamWorks.

He ignored it. A few days later, the woman left another message. Again he ignored it. Finally, she got him on the line.

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

He said no, but he knew about it.

She explained that DreamWorks made movies and that she was a producer.

Then she asked if they could see him fly his kites.

On a Sunday afternoon, the director, Marc Foster, and a dozen or so producers and crew members met Beria at Balboa Lake, where Afghan and Pakistani kite fighters regularly competed.

They watched Beria fly his kites. He explained how they moved with just one string, how they were made, how they cut. 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 at the Holiday Inn. This was his big moment to strike.

He flew to the ancient 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.

Beria relished this job. He felt like kites were his calling.

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, he says. But the book brought a level of focus on his country, and his beloved kites, that he welcomed.

For 15 weeks, he taught more than 150 local children how to fly the kites and got involved in every detail of the kite-flying scenes. He would later take great pride, walking Homaira and his three children down the red carpet of the Egyptian Theater on opening night and watching his kites soar across the big screen.

When Beria got back to California, he had no job but a firm vision. He was going to sell the kites that people would see in the movie. He scrambled to get some money together. He found a bit of storefront space at the north end of the NoHo Arts District.

He decided he'd better sell other items. He'd seen kite stores go under. He put on a pot of Farmer Brothers Coffee and set up a rack of magazines. He loaded up with sundry items -- cigarettes, Twinkies, knock-off watches.

He hung his kites on the walls and displayed his spools of handmade tar.

He opened in March 2007. Customers trickled in, mostly for coffee or cigarettes. He made only 35 cents profit per pack. If 30 people came in for smokes in a day, he made just over $10. He wondered if he'd made a dreadful error.

Many mornings were so slow, he'd fly his kites out front to ease the mounting anxiety.

Then in summer, a medical marijuana dispensary moved into the space next door, and its customers soon gave his business a little uptick.

Now he gets by -- barely.

He dreams of one day just making and selling his kites. When he can, he still steps out on the sidewalk to let his mind follow them through the sky.

And so this bright morning the red kite is hovering over the motorcycle lot, swaying side to side, like a cobra.

The wind picks up slightly from the sea. The owners of the shipping and postal shop next door step out to watch. "Hey, Barry, I was just telling Steve here you should go fly a kite," one of them drawls.

Beria's line is suspended horizontally across the boulevard. A bus is fast approaching, bobbing up and down with the wheels in the gutter.

At the point where a pedestrian would be well past doomed, Beria flicks his wrist as if he were whipping a conductor's baton.

The kite pulses into the dingy blue, and the line lifts like a drawbridge before the bus.

Beria draws it down to earth and heads back to the register.

joe.mozingo@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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