- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 20, 2001

The Iranian film "Kandahar," a critically hailed examination of oppression in Afghanistan under the Taliban regime, boasts more than a few surprises for Americans only recently familiar with the place as a harbor for terrorists.
The biggest surprise, however, is this:
A mysterious American Muslim with a starring role is a dead ringer for a former Howard University student who fled to Iran 21 years ago after fatally shooting a leading Iranian dissident in Bethesda.
The film's credits identify amateur actor Hassan Tantai as the man playing an American-born physician who helps the lead female character on a mission of mercy hindered by the Taliban.
But evidence contained in Mr. Tantai's own extensive interview with an Iranian film critic, as well as his physical appearance and the sound of his English-speaking voice in the movie, suggests striking similarities to confessed killer Daoud Salahuddin.
Salahuddin, born in North Carolina as David Theodore Belfield, is a fugitive wanted by the FBI and Montgomery County police for the doorstep murder July 22, 1980, of former Iranian diplomat Ali Akbar Tabatabai.
The slain diplomat's twin brother, M.R. Tabatabai, last week told The Washington Times he had "no doubt" that Mr. Tantai and Southern Baptist-turned-Islamic terrorist Salahuddin were one and the same.
"This is the same man," said Mr. Tabatabai, 71, president of the Iran Freedom Foundation. "The fact that this guy, who is an assassin, a terrorist and a fugitive, has 'come back' to his native land as a movie star and is being glamorized is most unsettling."
In one scene in the semi-documentary film, the character takes off a fake beard that he says is designed to mollify the Taliban, and his resemblance to Salahuddin becomes even more pronounced.
The character also draws a handgun from a holster under his robes.
"What are you doing here?" he is asked.
"That's a long story," he replies.
"Kandahar," which has drawn big crowds for a foreign "art house" film, opened in New York on Friday to rave reviews. President Bush requested a screening of the movie, which was scheduled to open in cities across the United States in coming weeks. No venue or exact date for showing in Washington has been announced.
Mohsen Makhmalbaf, who wrote and directed "Kandahar," said he met the man who called himself Hassan Tantai working as a doctor a year ago, after he began filming scenes in a village on the Iran-Afghanistan border.
Mr. Makhmalbaf recognized that "this guy obviously had a past," but "felt that delving into his past would serve no purpose for the film," said Robin Lim, president of New York-based Avatar Films, distributor of "Kandahar."
Ali Akbar Tabatabai, former counselor at the Iranian Embassy in Washington, was an unrelenting critic of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's Islamic revolution in Iran.
Salahuddin, in interviews with American journalists, had admitted to shooting Mr. Tabatabai three times with a pistol hidden in a package after ringing the doorbell posing as a mailman.
Mr. Makhmalbaf, Mr. Lim and others connected with "Kandahar" told The Times they did not know whether Hassan Tantai and Daoud Salahuddin were the same man.
The resemblance is striking, they say. But the filmmakers say they can't go to their actor and ask, because they don't know where he is. They assume, however, that he is still somewhere in Iran. Mr. Lim said there were no plans to use Mr. Tantai to promote "Kandahar" in the United States.
When informed by The Times of Mr. Tabatabai's accusations, Mr. Lim said he was "quite alarmed." But, he said, the accusations would not interfere with plans to promote "Kandahar" for wider release.
"Kandahar" tells the story of a young woman named Nafas, an Afghan-born journalist living in Canada, who journeys back to her birthplace. Her mission is to try to save her sister, who has become depressed by Taliban oppression and threatens suicide.
Along the way, Nafas, played by Afghan-born Canadian journalist Nelofer Pazira, is helped by Mr. Tantai's character, Tabib Sahib. The Sahib character provides medical services to Afghans and says he has journeyed to Iran and Afghanistan in search of God.
If they are two different men, the similarities between the actor Tantai and the fugitive terrorist Salahuddin go well beyond physical appearance. Both are 51-year-old black Americans who have converted to Islam. Both men have pale complexions, wear glasses and have no distinctive physical features.
Salahuddin confessed his responsibility for the Tabatabai assassination in an interview in Istanbul that aired on the ABC News program "20/20" on Jan. 19, 1996. He said he assumed the killing was ordered by "the Revolutionary Council in Iran." Asked whether he regretted his crime, he said no.
Mr. Tantai, like Salahuddin, had said he had a militant background, left the United States, entered Iran in 1980, and fought alongside the Islamic mujahideen in their struggle to drive Soviet forces out of Afghanistan.
Salahuddin, born in Roanoke Rapids, N.C., and raised a Southern Baptist on Long Island, converted to Islam after enrolling at Howard University in the District in 1969 and was a leader of a well-publicized takeover of the Statue of Liberty.
In an interview with Iranian film critic Jahanbakhsh Nouraei in May for Film International Quarterly, Hassan Tantai gave his age as 50 years and six months. Police records show Salahuddin was born on Nov. 10, 1950, meaning he would have been 50 years and six months old in May.
In his interview, the Iranian critic calls Mr. Tantai's performance "brilliant" and notes the actor has used other names, but does not give or elicit any examples.
"Who are you?" the interviewer asks.
"I am still trying to figure that out," the actor replies.
"It means exactly that," he adds when asked whether his different names mean he has "discontent with a former identity."
He also talks about working as a newspaper reporter in Tehran and going to Afghanistan "for 18 months" to join the armed resistance to the Soviet invasion. "When I got back to Iran, I did write about the situation," he says.
Asked how he got the part in "Kandahar," he replies: "The director got wind of a black American living in Tehran who had been in Afghanistan. He was putting together a project that focused on that country and he wrote in the part."
A report posted yesterday on Time magazine's Web site, www.time.com, noted the actor's resemblance to the fugitive Salahuddin.
The article also said he was the same person as Hassan Abdul Rahman, an American-born former editor at the state-sponsored Iran Daily who fought the Soviets in Afghanistan. An Iranian journalist in Tehran said Mr. Rahman would not confirm or deny he was the man who killed Ali Akbar Tabatabai, according to the report.
Mr. Tabatabai said he first learned of the familiar-looking and -sounding actor in "Kandahar" in a phone call last week from an Iranian in Los Angeles.
"We haven't seen the film and we haven't heard about this," Montgomery County State's Attorney Douglas F. Gansler said yesterday, "but there is no statute of limitations for murder in the state of Maryland."
A Montgomery County police spokeswoman said investigators consider the case open and would be interested in any information Mr. Tabatabai has. The FBI did not respond to requests for comment yesterday and Tuesday.
Mohammad Hossein Nosrat, press secretary at the Iranian Mission to the United Nations, said Tuesday night that he had not heard that Salahuddin may be a movie star.
"I'm familiar with the Tabatabai case, and Mr. Salahuddin's interviews," Mr. Nostay told The Times. "I was not aware of him acting in a film, if it is the same person. I do not remember any comments by any official, or in the Iranian press, about any similarity."
The 85-minute semi-documentary won the Ecumenical Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival and also played at the prestigious Toronto and Salonika film festivals.
The film was enjoying a level of box-office success that could not have been expected when shooting began a year ago, before most Americans ever heard of terror kingpin Osama bin Laden or the Taliban, Mr. Lim said.
Phil Hall, a publicist for Avatar Films, said Miss Pazira told him Mr. Tantai lived in a neighboring village and showed up on the location shooting. The man was unknown to the film company until that time, she told the publicist.
Mr. Makhmalbaf, whose English is limited, answered questions about Mr. Tantai through Hamid Dabaschi, a professor of Middle Eastern Studies at Columbia University. Mr. Dabaschi relayed the information to Mr. Lim.
In the film, Mr. Tantai's character says he escaped from the United States and was not trained as a physician. In real life, Mr. Lim recalled, Mr. Tantai was handing out pills, food and vitamins to the poor in and around Naitak, and the director decided to add him to the script.
Even if investigators can prove Hassan Tantai is Daoud Salahuddin, there is little they could do. The United States and Iran do not have diplomatic relations, so Salahuddin is not subject to extradition.
Betsy Pisik and Matthew Cella contributed to this report.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide