Karim Asir, also known as "Afghani Charlie Chaplin," is just like you’d picture him: Toothbrush moustache, bowler hat, baggy pants, oversized shoes and the jet-black eyeliner.
For the past five years, Asir has been making appearances on the streets and in various venues across Kabul. His goal is to recreate some of the comedic giant’s Silent Era antics for Afghans and drop in a few sociocultural messages along the way.
Asir’s journey to become a Chaplin impersonator began a couple of years ago when he told his parents he wanted to study theater. They were not thrilled.
He says they preferred he became a politician or a doctor — respectable careers that guarantee a secure income in an unstable country like Afghanistan.
But Asir’s heart was elsewhere.
“I said to my father and to my mother that I can’t be a doctor but I have [the] skill to become an artist.”
Eventually, his parents relented and he studied theater at Kabul University.
Today, Asir says, when his parents find out that his YouTube videos hit more than 1 million views, and that people line up to take selfies with him, they beam with pride.
Courtesy of Karim Asir
Asir was born in 1994 to Afghan parents who lived in Iran. They had fled Afghanistan when the Taliban took over.
Back then, Charlie Chaplin was a regular on Iranian TV. Asir doesn’t remember which one of Chaplin’s sketches he saw first, but he says he has always been fascinated with Chaplin and acting in general.
“It was really interesting to me that I saw some people [...] on TV and they’re not themselves. They’re acting.”
When he was 12 years old, his family moved back to Afghanistan. He says that’s when, for the first time, he saw what decades of war had done to his country.
“The buildings were all destroyed and everywhere was destroyed by the Taliban.”
After he graduated from Kabul University, Asir wanted to use what he had learned in school to address some of the social problems in Afghanistan. And why not, he thought, do this through entertainment?
“People want to be entertained. They want to watch funny things. So I think if I show the problems in a funny way they will pay attention,” he says.
The first time Asir played Chaplin on a street in Kabul, he was nervous about how he’d be received. But after a couple of minutes, an audience started to gather. And their reaction, he says, was priceless.
“At first they didn’t know that this is an Afghan,” he recalls. “They said, ‘Oh, my God! Charlie Chaplin is in Afghanistan!’ But someone said, ‘Oh, Charlie Chaplin is dead. Who is this?’ Then someone said, ‘OK, I think this guy is from Afghanistan.’”
Courtesy of Karim Asir.
Lisa Stein Haven, an English professor at Ohio University in Zanesville and a silent comedy scholar, says she was really entranced by Asir after watching a couple of his YouTube videos.
She says she has seen many Chaplin imitators, but what she found interesting in Asir’s recreation was how his character has evolved over time.
“In his early films, Mr. Asir was taking almost exact moments from certain films and replaying them in a new way. And then there were moments in the later ones where he just takes an idea, like he’s become more comfortable with the Little Tramp character and what he’s all about and now he’s going to be more … just kind of riff off of that.”
But what makes Chaplin’s acting and storylines so timeless and universal?
“I think possibly because there was no words involved,” Stein Haven explains. “There was no language. This is why he didn’t want to go to dialogue film, because he didn’t want to put an English language on it. It’s because he could speak to people throughout the world through pantomime.”
Chaplin’s films, Stein Haven says, resonated with so many.
“He had fans in Asia, he had fans in Russia, he had fans all over the world. I think he went to Bali in 1932 and he found that his films had been seen there. And Bali was relatively untouched at that time.”
One of Asir’s recent performances was at an orphanage in Kabul. In the audience were two dozen mostly teenage boys with closely buzzed hair. The stage consisted of a large painting of a city. Plastic bags, paper cups and other trash stick out of the painting. The topic for the performance is the environment.
“Keeping our city clean shouldn’t be left just to the sweepers," one of the actors says. “We all should do our part.”
The boys shout in agreement.
Then Asir enters the stage and the boys can’t stop giggling.
Courtesy of Karim Asir.
Asir is popular but he also has critics. He says some people don’t see comedy as a remedy for the myriad problems Afghanistan faces today.
“They say, ‘We don’t have water, we don’t have a good place [to live] and you’re trying to make things funny,’” he explains. “I say, ‘OK, we have these problems but we also need to be happy.'”
Asir sees his Chaplin sketches as a brief escape from Afghanistan’s troubles. He says he wants to bring joy and solace to his audience at a time when they need it the most.
“Maybe this will be a gift from us to these people who are always thinking about the war and all the bad situation.”
Asir wants to take his performance to other cities across Afghanistan. That’s a somewhat ambitious goal, given the current security condition in the country. In the past few weeks, the Taliban have been staging spectacular attacks. The group managed to take over Ghazni, a city less than a 100 miles from Kabul.
But Asir says that won’t stop him from trying.
“I really enjoy my work,” he says, adding that he feels proud when audience members come to him to let him know how much they have enjoyed his performance.
If there is one life lesson the Little Tramp has taught him, he says, it’s this: When life hits you hard, you get up, dust yourself off, shrug and move on.