KABUL, Afghanistan — Coarse mud was clinging to Fereshta Kazemi's high-heeled boots as she tottered on a slippery footpath. No one noticed. Everyone was staring at her legs.
Her legs! They were exposed! And worse — she wore sheer hosiery that only accented her limbs and emphasized that her tight skirt ended somewhat above her knees. Her hair was uncovered too. It cascaded like a dark blanket across her shoulders.
The popcorn peddler stopped filling his soiled bags and ogled her. The vegetable man leered, and so did the security guard. Two women wearing burkas stared hard. A herd of boys and men bird-dogged this exotic figure from America, pointing and scolding in an alleyway in Old Kabul's Shar-e-Kohna neighborhood.
One boy was so transfixed that he tumbled into a sewage ditch, drawing howls of laughter from his companions. And still everyone gawked at the Afghan woman from America.
Kazemi offered no apology, no explanation. She was born in Kabul 33 years ago and left at age 2. Raised in the U.S., she is back now for the first time, determined to radically alter the way Afghans view women — particularly women who act.
If making it in Hollywood, Kazemi's previous endeavor, is demanding, making it in Kabul is brutal. In August, Benafsha, 22, an Afghan actress from a TV satire, was stabbed to death outside a mosque and two fellow actresses were knifed. Witnesses said the women had been threatened by men for "un-Islamic" behavior.
The two survivors were taken to a police station for virginity tests — and prostitution charges. Another actress, Sahar Parniyan, received death threats after the stabbings and went into hiding.
On this day in Kabul, Kazemi was on her way to a film location. It was a serial, an Afghan soap opera. Kazemi had accepted an ironic role, playing a liberated Afghan American woman who returns home to Kabul; dramatic cultural clashes ensue.
On the outdoor set, the director, Mirwais Rakab, greeted her with a startled look. "Fereshta!" he said.
"I almost passed out," Rakab said later. "Oh, the way she dresses. The way she walks. I was shocked! I loved it, but I was shocked."
Rakab pointed out that he is no prude. He's attended film festivals in Europe and Aspen Filmfest in Colorado.
"Ah, but this is Afghanistan," he said. "We are under great stress."
Kazemi is violating two Afghan codes — one that demands the submissive, fully covered Afghan woman and another that assumes every actress is a whore. In fact, Kazemi and others say, for many years the only women who could be persuaded to act here were, indeed, prostitutes.
While in Kabul, Kazemi is also filming a documentary on the lives of Afghan actors and actresses, focusing on the risks of daring to act in a repressive society. One actress she's following works as a prostitute.
Her subjects will not allow her to interview family members, who object to the disreputable craft. Kazemi herself declined to allow her relatives in Kabul to be interviewed for this article because they consider acting shameful — and a threat to their dignity and safety.
Kazemi realizes that the way she dresses and acts — literally, that she acts — is a dangerous provocation. Death threats are common. This is a country where censors blur the offending legs or shoulders of actresses in foreign-made dramas. Kissing is scandalous and forbidden, even between actors portraying husband and wife.
Kazemi knows too that merely dressing in a way that would be unremarkable in Los Angeles, where she found roles in small independent films, can signal to Afghan men that a woman is, to put it mildly, available — or, worse, soliciting for paid sex.
"I want to make sure I'm putting up a big 'No Vacancy' sign," she said.
But the eyes of Afghan men and boys follow her footfalls. One man told his friends after watching Kazemi walk to the serial set: "She should be beaten."
"Fereshta needs to be careful," said Tarique Qayumi, 37, an Afghan Canadian filmmaker here who cast her in an Afghan-themed movie shot in California. "She's very aggressive and a total feminist, and that's good. But it can be dangerous here."
Other Afghan friends have warned her: "They tell me, do not show 1 inch of skin, Fereshta," she said in her rapid-fire, New York-inflected diction.
But other Afghans have thanked her for championing actresses as artists and even patriots. "One guy, a security guard, saw me and smiled," she said. "He said, 'nooshe jan-et' — enjoy deeply — like, look at this crazy girl, no head cover, smoking, just going her own way.''
Reviving Afghan film
In the 1970s and early 1980s, Afghan cinema was modern and vibrant. Kazemi's documentary follows Maimoona Ghezal, an Afghan actress in her 60s who was a glamorous star of the era.
"I worked in cinema then, and I remember all the women's gorgeous legs — I'm hungry for all that again," said Rakab, the director.
Sadam Niko, 21, who plays Kazemi's love interest in the serial, "Kocha-e-Ma" (Our Street), said of his costar: "I think she's so brave." If the war ever ends, he said, "All these problems will just go away."
Kazemi is living temporarily with relatives in a conservative neighborhood where most women wear burkas. She refuses to wear even a head scarf.
"I respect the traditions of being covered, but I will not cover my hair. I won't," she said.
The men in the shop next to her relatives' house gossip about her, she said, and stare as she strolls past. Her male cousins insist on escorting her every time she walks to find a taxi.
One cousin told her that he would be shamed and would deny he was her relative if she appears on the TV serial. When she told him to have courage, he said it was about honor, not courage.
"He told me: 'You'll be considered a prostitute,'" she said. "The value of a female is directly connected to male honor. Her reputation — how she looks and behaves in public — is all that matters. And it's all tied to sexuality."
When Kazemi mentioned to her aunt that she plans to find her own apartment, she was told that she would first need her parents' permission.
This is true, said Kazemi's mother, who lives with Fereshta's father in the Bay Area. Kazemi asked that her mother's name not be published because she has worked in Afghanistan as a translator for American troops.
Parents had other ideas
Kazemi's parents are classic immigrant strivers who wanted their daughter to become a doctor. Both are professionals who fled Afghanistan after Fereshta's father was put on a death list by the communist government, Kazemi said. The family lived in Thailand before moving to New York when Kazemi was 6.
Even as a child, Kazemi wanted to be an actress, her mother said. "She always told me: 'One day, I'll go back to Afghanistan and change things,'" she said.
The other day, Kazemi was trying on a wedding dress for a movie role as an Afghan woman married in a village. She playfully suggested that she discard the wedding cloak and instead bare her shoulders.
"No! Cover your shoulders!" the movie's producer, Omar Zazai Ramin, told her. "Do you want to get us all killed?"
Even for men, filmmaking is often considered base and subversive, said Qayumi, the filmmaker: "Respect for the industry isn't there yet."
Qayumi spoke inside a high-rise construction site, where he was filming "The Road to the Truth," about the April 15 attack on Kabul's diplomatic zone by insurgents firing from an unfinished high-rise. The docu-drama's stars are the actual Afghan rapid response police who fought the attackers. One officer flung stones at rubber-neckers who gathered too close to the set.
Western-raised Afghans like Qayumi and Kazemi, who plans to stay here for a year, want to show that cinema can honor Afghan culture by creating admirable, nuanced characters. They resent the insipid Indian, Turkish and Iranian dramas that dominate Afghan TV and overshadow locally made productions.
"Every nation needs its storytellers," Qayumi said. "Afghans are working to heal their country — police, doctors, soldiers. What we're doing is building heroes."
Kazemi met Qayumi when he sought Afghan American actresses while completing his master's degree in screenwriting at UCLA. She won the role of the Afghan wife of an Afghan immigrant hounded in Los Angeles by a female American soldier with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Kazemi said she persuaded Qayumi to make her character — a traditional wife — stronger and more willful. She lobbied for and won a fleeting scene in which she and her husband kiss in the movie, "Targeting," a psychological thriller written by Qayumi.
Qayumi said he gave Kazemi the part because "she has a certain fire in her. She brought a lot of energy to the role."
One cold evening in Kabul, at a private club on a trash-strewn dirt street, "Targeting" was screened on a swatch of white cloth tacked to a brick wall. Qayumi, wearing a "Rambo III" T-shirt, propped the projector on a napkin box.
The audience represented a slice of Kabul's young, hip, urbane milieu. The dominant language was English with smatterings of Dari. Kazemi sat up front, well dressed and elegantly coiffed.
In the film, Kazemi's character spoke in Dari and English. The wife is respectful but bold enough to argue with her husband. In a brief long shot, they kiss. When the credits rolled, everyone applauded and whistled. Kazemi and Qayumi rose to answer audience questions.
Kazemi had a question of her own. "I don't know if everybody caught the kiss — did you?" she said. "I hope so. It's very important."