Afghan born Hollywood actor goes to war: Story of 'warrior-actor' Fahim Fazli
Actor and author Fahim Fazli visited ASU this week to speak to students, offer advice and show them no matter where they come from or what problems life throws at them, dreams can be achieved, which he writes about in his book "Fahim Speaks."
Fazli has starred in more than 50 films, working with the likes of Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Bill Murray, Louis C.K. and Robert Downey Jr., but before his acting career, a struggle to get to America began in his childhood home.
Child in a warzone
In the 1970s, communists took over Afghanistan and reshaped Fazli’s life.
“In 1979, the communists came to my country and took over Afghanistan in 24 hours,” he said. “I was 12 years old, and I didn’t know about communism until after the first six months, they killed a million of us.”
The Soviet Union's invasion had an immediate impact on Fazli’s family because his mother worked as a midwife in the Afghan government.
“My mom, her name is Fahima, came home from work, and I saw tears in her eyes and she said, ‘Fahim, we are leaving but you are not. Your dad wants to hold you and your brother,’” Fazli said. “I asked her what was wrong, and she said the communists will kill us if we don’t leave in 24 hours. My dad was stubborn, and he said my brother and I were staying.”
This was the last time Fazli would see his mother and sisters for four long years.
“We went into the house, and I looked at my dad and asked why we didn’t go,” Fazli said. “He said, ‘Shut up and sit down.’ He did it because he believed we would beat the Russians in a month or two, but it took us 10 years.”
After Fazli’s mother left, he had to return to school the next day but lost interest in his studies in the seventh grade.
“I skipped school, and I saw the tanks passing by everywhere, so I made a flier, a propaganda flier was given to us by the CIA who was helping us defeat the communists," Fazli said. "I would get up at two o'clock in the morning, hiding from my dad and run through the city handing out fliers to put the fears onto the Russians.”
After spreading fliers given to him by operatives working for the CIA, Fazli and his friends tried to find other ways to defeat the communists.
“I would play double agent and go to their base to trade American T-shirts or Kent cigarettes for guns," he said. "They were so into American logos because they had never seen them before. I would trade them and then sell the guns to the freedom fighters who were connected to Pakistan and they were connected to CIA.”
With the money from the gun sales, Fazli and his friends would buy kites and playing “double agent” made him want to one day become an actor, but before this dream as a child could come true a longer struggle was about to take place.
“One day, my principal called my dad and told him they had to send me to a communist camp in Siberia and my dad made a decision that it wouldn’t be a good idea for his son to go to Siberia to get brainwashed by the communists,” Fazli said.
Coming to America
One morning, soon after the phone call from the principal, Fazli’s father woke him up at 5 a.m. and told him they were leaving.
“Me and my brother got in a jingle truck with my dad driving toward Pakistan and halfway there we stopped at a checkpoint and my cousin was there, a communist, so I put my head down and he eventually let us go through,” Fazli said. “We then walked seven days and seven nights through the mountains hiding from the helicopters flying over. We finally arrived in Pakistan to a refugee camp.”
Arriving at the refugee camp and meeting the Marines was the first step in a four-year journey to find his mother, Fazli said.
“I told the Marine translating for us I wanted to find my mother and the Marine said come back in four days," he said. "So we came back and the Marines were smiling at us. They said we found your mother after four years of not seeing each other and no letters. She was living in Charlottesville, Virginia.”
Fazli got on the phone and called his mother in Virginia but the response from the other end of the line was not one of welcoming or excitement, but one of confusion.
“My mom got on the phone and she asked who it was and 'I said this is Fahim,'” he said. “She said, ‘What are you talking about? My son is dead. The communists killed him.' I said, ’It’s me, Mom, my voice has changed. I've become a man.' After long struggling to convince her, she believed me.”
Fazli’s aunt, who was in the U.S., had told his mother he and his brothers were dead and that his father had married another woman. This made Fazli’s mother deal with the grief and begin to move on with her life.
After two years in the refugee camp, Fazli and his family were allowed to come to the U.S. and received their green cards and passports at the airport upon arrival at Washington Dulles airport.
Arriving in the U.S. provided more challenges for Fazli, but his dream to become an actor was still in his heart.
“I always ask myself six questions,” he said. “Who am I? Who do I want to be? Where do I want to be? What is my dream? What is my passion and what is my hobby?”
These questions led Fazli to try to sign up for the Marines but after receiving a five-page test, which he failed, he had to change direction which led to him pursuing his dream of becoming an actor.
“After failing the test, I asked myself the questions again and went to work as an actor but couldn’t get my (Screen Actors Guild) card because I couldn’t get a speaking part,” he said.
In 2006, Fazli began working as a technical advisor coaching Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts and Philip Seymour Hoffman.
Soon after, Fazli began getting parts in other movies and television shows as an actor, voice-over artist and consultant but the parts were typecasts as a terrorist for the most part.
“As a terrorist, the reason I do that, I know those guys hijacked the religion, and I want to introduce them in the movie how evil they are,” Fazli said. “You saw me get emotional; I have a heart and love my mom and stuff, and I don’t mind if I get typed as a terrorists for the rest of my life, and I will always want to show how they hijacked the religion. The religions aren’t bad. These people hijacked the religion and are the boogeyman.”
Working in film and television has led to an illustrious career allowing Fazli to work along side such people as Bradley Cooper and Clint Eastwood in “American Sniper,” Ben Affleck in “Argo,” Tom Hanks in “Charlie Wilson's War,” Louis C.K. in "Louie" and Bill Murray in the upcoming film “Rock the Kasbah.”
After working on films with award winning actors, Fazli’s focus shifted back to his home country and he decided he wanted to do something to help.
Back to War
In 2009, Fazli decided he wanted to pursue his dream of being a Marine and took a test to become a translator for the Department of Defense. This time he passed and was shipped of to Afghanistan where he helped Marines and locals communicate.
“Both America and Afghanistan have given me so much,” Fazli said. “Afghanistan is my birth country and America is my adopted country, and I wanted to pay my dues for this passport.”
After arriving in Pakistan, Fazli began working with local tribes and Marines to open up communication and ease tensions in the area, which had an impact on ASU professor Mark von Hagen.
“What I really liked best was the story he told of how he had to explain to the Afghans that the Marines weren’t Russians,” he said. "He didn’t do that by words but by pulling out a cross to show them they weren’t communists and he did that instinctively and translated that so fast.”
Fazli said multiple lives were saved due to his ability to talk and translate between the tribal leaders and Marines and he is proud that no one, either Marine or civilian, were killed during his time in the region.
ASU student and retired Cpl. John Luebke said Fazli’s ability to stop conflicts and bring people together made him a role model amongst his peers.
“We all looked up to him,” he said. “I had just turned 20 years old and it was my first deployment and had no idea what war was going to be like until I was in it. We had to learn to respect their customs, so if we didn’t have that guidance from Fahim, it would have been a lot different.”
Retired Lt. Col. Michael Moffett, co-author of “Fahim Speaks,” said his time with Fazli in Pakistan began a lifelong friendship and he is proud to have helped Fazli achieve his dream.
“I think I helped him to have an opportunity to chase a dream, writing a book, and I think I helped him realize that dream,” he said. “My dream has also been to write a book and make a difference so I think we both helped each other realize dreams that otherwise wouldn’t have happened.”
The next 50 years
Fazli’s message to students at ASU this week has been seek out your dreams and go for them and if he can come to America and make his dreams come true then anyone can.
“I want to send a good message as an Afghan-American,” he said. “If I can do it, they can do it. My advice to Americans is to not take advantage of this great country. I grew up in a war zone twice. Two empires fought in Afghanistan, Russian and American, and I want Americans to appreciate every second of their lives in this country. Don’t look at the past, think about the future. A ninth-grade-educated Afghan became an actor, became an author; you can do it, too.”
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