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Environment

In Kabul, kites fly high in battle for the skies

New York, London and Hong Kong may have iconic, indelible skylines made of stone and glass. But Kabul's is a little more free-flowing - it's made of paper.

Ruins of a building serve as a backdrop to a boy holding a pink kite

Kites are as popular in Kabul as the film Kite Runner depicts

There are very few playgrounds in the Afghan capital. Decades of war and foreign intervention have reduced Kabul's recreational infrastructure to paper, bamboo and string.

In workshops across the city, these simple components are assembled to make hundreds of thousands of bright paper kites which can be seen soaring above the unexceptional streets every night of the week. It's a pastime in which Afghans of all ages have been indulging for centuries.

Tamim has worked as a kite salesman in Kabul for the past two decades. On a normal day, he says he sells around 200 kites, which range in price from 15 cents to around 80 euros ($100). But not every day is normal.

Two boys fly their kite into a blue sky with a mountain in the distance

Ahmad and Zabi fly their new kite near Strand Bazaar Market

“Sometimes we sell up to 20,000 kites a day,” Tamim told Deutsche Welle, referring to the days preceding major holidays.

Thirteen year-old Ahmad Hassani has come to the market with just a few cents in his pocket. He has to settle for a small kite which he and his friend Zabi Rahime let loose above a rubbish and rubble-strewn wasteland nearby.

“When I see my kite climb into the sky, I feel happy,” Hassani said. “I enjoy it.”

A kite made for fight and flight

The classic kite flying formation is as a pair, with one piloting while the other feeds or reigns in the string. Kites can soar higher than a kilometer over the city, and it is at such altitudes that wind and air currents provide the perfect environment for dynamic, dramatic maneuvering.

Historian and writer Abdul Rahman Oman Niazi told Deutsche Welle that paper makes the best kites.

“It enables you to fly the kite up high but also paper allows you to make kites big enough to be seen from the ground. You can't do this with plastic.”

There have been periods when kites have vanished altogether from the skies over the capital. In 1996, when the Taliban seized power in Kabul, it banned the practise which it deemed un-Islamic. When it was toppled in 2001 kites began to flutter back into public life looking better than ever.

A boy buying a kite from a stall

Ahmad buys himself a kite

“The color is more beautiful, more vibrant than before,” says Tamin, referring to new, brighter inks that arrived on the market during Afghanistan's kite curfew. The traditional string fibers were replaced with tougher nylon too, and Tamin makes use of both innovations in his current work.

He thumbs a brown lumpy glue in a bowl and spreads it on the paper, quickly bending and fixing in the bamboo frame. Finally he runs thread along the perimeter of the kite and turns a hem on it with glue. He says it protects the kite in the event of attack.

The aerial battle field

What from the ground looks like a graceful ballet of color, is in fact the fiercest of kite-on-kite carnage. Kite flying in Afghanistan could just as easily be called kite fighting, and the key is in the kinds of string used – strong acrylic fibers laced with crushed glass which tear into the kites, snap kite string and often leave bloody tracks on the fingers of the impassioned kite pilots down below.

“It's sharp like blades,” Ajmal Hoshmand told Deutsche Welle from his spot on Kabul's Nadar Khan Tapa hill. “We have to put on tape to protect our fingers.”

The combat element of the sport might be what keeps Afghans flying kites well into adulthood. Certainly something does, for as the sun begins to set, the hill is thronged with flocks of grown men jumping up and down in excitement, and father-and-son duos working wordlessly in tandem to secure another victory.

A boy makes repairs to a kite

Making repairs to a kite downed in a battle

Down below are herds of kite runners who, at the first sign of a battle won, jump and scramble for the prize – a defeated and often damaged kite.

“I don't want to catch kites, I only want to fly them but I have to catch them because my money's finished,” said Imran Khan Dodkhail, a teenager carrying a damaged windfall. He quickly sticks it together and launches it back up into the hostile skies.

Battles are won and lost every evening in the sky above Kabul. With the simple flick of a wrist, emperors become paupers and emperors once again. The metaphorical significance of these battles in light of Afghanistan's recurrent woes is striking, but of little interest to the flyers.

“I came here to catch some kites and simply have fun,” Tahir Shah said. “It's been a very dangerous time in Afghanistan. Now we want a good time in Kabul. The time is coming for people to have enjoyment.”

Author: Don Duncan (tkw)
Editor: Anke Rasper

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