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A life high above the fray

The man making the kite dip and soar is connecting with a time, a place outside his grasp -- Afghanistan, before the horrors.

May 14, 2008|Joe Mozingo | Times Staff Writer

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.

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