Actor returned to Afghanistan for role of his life: a translator for US Marines

As Hollywood beckoned, Fahim Fazli became a US military translator as a way of giving back

PUBLISHED : Monday, 11 August, 2014, 7:52pm
UPDATED : Monday, 11 August, 2014, 7:53pm


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 United States, the country that had taken him in after he fled Russian occupation a quarter of a century earlier.

Staring at his US 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 US Marines in Helmand Province, Afghanistan.

If they don’t understand each other … they’re going to kill each other

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 the film Charlie Wilson's War. Hanks starred in the film as a Texas congressman who partnered with a CIA agent to launch a covert programme to support Afghans fighting against the Soviet occupation.

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 2009, Fazli returned to the streets of his childhood.

He spent two years as an interpreter, bridging the tribal culture he was learning in the US Marines with the tribal bedrock that underlies his homeland. By knowing the customs, knowing how Afghans 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 US 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 children. Fazli, charismatic and quick to laugh, also found ways to skirt the pitfalls. If an Afghan elder used colourful terms to describe a US Marine officer, Fazli would sanitise 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 films 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 colours."