At 4 feet, 8 inches and 85 pounds, Hamida Alami takes pride in defying the rules of conduct for elderly Afghan women.
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."
But after he passed away, her life took a turn for the worst. After defeating the Soviet-backed government, the mujahideen began fighting among themselves, reducing Kabul to rubble. Alami could no longer work due to lack of security. Then the Taliban seized the capital and took away women's freedoms. They threatened to kill anyone who defied them. Alami's family gave up their home and most of their belongings and joined the 3 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan.
In 2001, they returned after the fall of the Taliban and found shelter in a camp near Kabul until they moved to the government building.
Despite the harsh conditions, Alami's family liked living in the building because they were close to the city and the children attended school. They also had limited access to power and water.
But in May, the Afghan government forced all of them to leave and buy a small plot of land for $90 here in Barikow an hour and a half from Kabul. Alami's family traveled her by truck with nine aluminum chests of belongings here – seven of them were the fashionable grandmother's. They pitched a tent and built an outhouse on the red soil of the desert surrounded by snow-capped mountains. The wind is strong and constant, the sun scorching. There's nothing for miles except nomads and their animal herds. There's no school, no electricity – her TV is just decoration now, so she rounds up her grandchildren to tell them fairy tales after dinner. There's no water well. The government sends a water tanker daily but it's not enough for the 320 new families. Alami's sons are doing odd jobs to make money to build a home before winter.
As she shows a guest around her new tent that she shares with her three single sons, two grandchildren, and the wife of a son imprisoned in Pakistan, Alami is philosophical, not bitter, about her situation. People who know she's famous, she says, think she's well-off. "I don't need money even though I'm hapless and poor. I need my fame and I've got it. I'm satisfied with that," she says.
Alami loves to be the center of attention and fame suits her well. She may get glares from the conservatives but she has many young fans who think she's a brave and unique woman. And no one has threatened her yet.
Her life of displacement and poverty in Afghanistan is a stark contrast to the glitz and glamor she experienced shooting The Kite Runner" in China.
"I went from a barn to a greenhouse," Alami says in her colorful use of the Dari language. "When I was in China, it was like being in a mother's womb. I was so relaxed. They respected me and were very hospitable there.... I received bouquets of flowers [and] very good food. I even had milk, Coke, and Fanta. I would rest, and three girls would serve me. There were beautiful, beautiful bathrooms, a shower, plenty of water, shampoo, even a blow-dryer and ... pretty white towels."
But her daughter Farida Ghafouri, who is also her unofficial agent, grouses about why an American moviemaker would pay so little. According to the Screen Actors Guild, the American actors' union, pay rates for guild members who speak at least one word in a major movie are $737 a day or $2,557 a week, depending on the contract. The Afghan actors who played even the "Kite Runner's" major roles were paid no higher than $18,000 total.
A spokesperson for the film offered an e-mailed statement: "The filmmakers specifically chose to work with these actors in order to show the strength, nobility and courage of the Afghan people and give these Afghani actors an international platform to demonstrate their great talents. The actor's fees were agreed upon in advance of production, and were consistent with the salary levels of actors with similar experience."
Alami's not complaining, even though her acting colleagues and her daughter are.
Indeed, in their tent here, her daughter takes a cellphone call from someone who wants Alami to play a role in a new Afghan series. Ms. Ghafouri scolds the caller and says that her mother can't keep working for low wages because she lives far from the city and needs more money to travel.
Alami chastises her daughter, reminding her she wants this part. The money's not that important, she whispers.