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A movie star rises from ruins of war

Discovered in a refugee camp, feisty Grandma Hamida has gained fame in Afghanistan, but not riches – despite a role in 'The Kite Runner.'

By Fariba NawaContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / July 17, 2007

Barikow, Afghanistan

At 4 feet, 8 inches and 85 pounds, Hamida Alami takes pride in defying the rules of conduct for elderly Afghan women.

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Her most rebellious act this far in life is that she became an Afghan actress, post retirement age. In a country where acting and singing are taboo even for young women, Ms. Alami started her career despite the disapproval of neighbors and relatives. She laughed at the men and women who gossiped behind her back when she put on her skirt suits and wrapped a sheer, silk scarf around her hair before going to work when she lived in Kabul.

She says she's between 70 and 80 years old. But as far as Alami's concerned, she feels as if she's 21. Sitting cross-legged in her home in a blue velvet dress and silk-embroidered loose-fitting pants, she flashes a toothless grin and says emphatically: "Age is something I fight.... God has given us life to enjoy and appreciate, and that's what I do."

If she could hide the lines on her face and hands, Alami might seem to be 21. She's got the energy and youthful soul of an adolescent. All the years of war, desperation and poverty Alami has survived haven't dampened her spirit.

Her vivaciousness and storytelling skills earned her her first role in the Golden-Globe winning Afghan movie "Osama." She's illiterate, but Alami works hard to memorize her lines, which are given to her verbally.

Afghan filmmaker Siddiq Barmak discovered the widow in a camp for the homeless in Kabul. He searched among the poor to discover acting talent for all the roles in "Osama," a casting method that Iranian filmmakers also use. That was five years ago. Since then, Alami says she has been in more than 30 TV programs, including films and drama series. She almost always plays a grandmother.

Her latest foray into acting is her biggest – a small but key role as a neighbor in "The Kite Runner." The Hollywood movie, which will be released Nov. 2, is based on the bestselling novel by an Afghan-American, Khaled Hosseini, that tells the story of betrayal and salvation. The book has sold 8 million copies worldwide. The film, directed by Marc Forester and made by DreamWorks, was primarily shot in China, and more than a dozen Afghan actors were flown in from Kabul, including Alami.

But Alami has no idea what the movie is called – let alone what it's about – and she's clueless as to how big a box office hit it is expected to be. She received $1,000 for two weeks of work – four to five lines with the main character. She knows that other Afghans plucked from obscurity to act in the movie were not happy with the pay they got, but she isn't aware that some have launched complaints through the international media.

While stardom has not brought wealth, it has given Alami fame throughout Afghanistan, where she is known as Bibi Hamida (Grandma Hamida). For this mother of eight and grandmother of two dozen, fame takes the edge off life's hardships, which include being the sole breadwinner for six of those family members.

Like most Afghan actors, Alami earns $10 per week for most of her roles in Afghanistan – which is just shy, for example, of the average civil servant's monthly income of $50, and not enough to pay rent in the city and buy meat.

Until May, Alami had been living for four years as a squatter on the fourth floor of an abandoned government building in Kabul. Situated across from the former royal palace, the building was damaged by the civil war, with holes in the walls and broken windows and no balconies or indoor plumbing. Alami and her family lived in one room with a small black and white TV, a caged bird, and their bedding folded and stacked in a corner. Nearby outhouses used by the building's squatters emitted an intolerable stench.

Alami was never well-off but she wasn't always this poor. She came from a family of illiterate laborers. She worked as a janitor during the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan. Her husband sold vegetables on a wagon and they lived in her paternal home. Both were liberal and liked to dress up and enjoy walks in the park and go to the movies.

"My husband was my best friend," she says. "He wasn't like these other Afghan men who lock their wives in the house and make them wear burqas."