The Kite Maker

4 minute read
Aryn Baker

As anyone who has read the best-selling novel The Kite Runner knows, springtime in Kabul is heralded by flocks of dipping, looping and diving kites. But these aren’t the kites of lazy weekend picnics. They are finely tuned flying machines sensitive to the slightest tug of a master’s hand. The Afghan penchant for competition and (though few will admit it) gambling means that almost anything offers opportunity for a fight and a punt, from dogs to cocks, quail, sheep, boiled eggs and, yes, even kites. The object of this cruel ballet is to slice your opponents’ string with yours, sending the vanquished tissue-paper jewel spiraling to the streets below. Packs of boys too poor to buy their own kites race for the downed warcraft so that they too can enter the fray. They are the kite runners.

In a country where most success stories are haunted by failure–more than 1.6 million girls are getting an education, but hundreds of schools have been torched by insurgents–about the only thing going right these days is the kitemaking industry. One of the more capricious moves of the Taliban regime, along with the banning of music and the requirement that all men grow beards, was a total prohibition of kite flying. In the first heady days after the fall of the Taliban in December 2001, men shaved, music blasted on car stereos and kites took to the air. For Noor Agha, Kabul’s best kite maker, business has been soaring ever since.

Not that you would know it looking at his house. Agha lives in a graveyard. Land is at such a premium in Kabul these days that the dead compete with the living for space. A massive influx of refugees returning from exile following the Taliban’s retreat has forced the near deserted neighborhoods fringing an old cemetery to squeeze between its graves. Agha’s factory is his living room, where he has put his two wives and 11 children to work, cutting, shaping and gluing the intricate tissue-paper mosaics that make his kites stand out for their beauty and superior handling. The secret is in the glue, he says, holding up a pot of evil-smelling green paste. “No one knows my recipe for making a glue that stays perfectly flat when it dries, without rippling the tissue paper,” he says. Business is so good these days that Agha has had to teach his wives how to make kites. He proudly calls one of them “the second best kite maker in Kabul,” although he insists that she will never be as good as he is. “I have 45 years’ experience. She’ll never be able to catch up.” His 6-year-old daughter may have a better chance. Already she is making her own kites to sell to neighborhood children at one afghani (2¢) apiece.

Agha has been feverishly at work producing hundreds of kites for use in China on the set of the highly anticipated adaptation of Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner. Agha says he treats every kite he is making for the movie as a work of art, marking each with his name and signature scorpion image. Even though few of the kites will be used in competition, he incorporates in their manufacture the techniques he has honed through years of flying and fighting–using precision to curve the bamboo frame, creating invisible joints and employing a method for impregnating cotton twine with ground glass, the better to cut down competitors.

The glass technique is something the fourth-generation kite maker learned from his father. For kite fighters it was the equivalent of graduating from bow and arrow to gunpowder. But increasingly there is a risk that the fighting kites are becoming too effective. For a while, those made with Pakistani nylon fishing line were all but impervious to attack. Then canny arms dealers started importing flexible, razor-sharp wire from China. The escalating threat of mutually assured destruction, according to Agha, widely recognized as the best kite fighter around, has taken the artistry out of the game. “Now it’s like children fighting,” he complains. “No skill, no technique.” So Agha leaves the hilltops of Kabul to a younger generation, who will find new ways to win. These days he heads north on Fridays–kite day–to the Shomali Plains, where he gathers with other old-school flyers in intense matches in which the victor is the last kite flying. In most cases it’s Agha’s. “Making kites is my job,” he says. “Fighting them is my disease.”

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