With Taliban gone, Kabul kite fights roar back

SPORT FOR GAMBLERS

By Paul Haven ~ The Associated Press

KABUL, Afghanistan -- Nour Aga's passion for kite fighting survived a five-year Taliban ban, a stint in jail to be reeducated in the hardline Islamic regime's rules, and the destruction of everything he owned.

Hours after the Taliban abandoned the capital on Nov. 13, Aga and his buddies were back again -- dueling their colorful fighter kites in the air above Babrak's Desert Field in northwest Kabul.

The competition is slow and beautiful, but it's also serious business. The idea is to cut the string of your opponent's kite before he can cut yours, and Aga and the other professional kite fighters wager as much as 600,000 Afghanis, or about $5 per match -- a hefty sum in a country where most people live hand-to-mouth.

"My father was a kite fighter, and my grandfather before him and I have been a kite fighter since I was knee high," said Aga, now 43. "This is my passion and my profession. Kites allow me to eat and survive."

They also got him in trouble.

The Taliban regime, which banned music, television and most other forms of entertainment, had a particular loathing of kite fighting. Gambling is forbidden in Islam.

Two years ago, Aga was caught by the Vice and Virtue police flying a kite from the roof of his home. The police found his clandestine kite shop and burned it to the ground, he said. They then threw Aga in jail for two weeks, where he was drilled on the evils of kite fighting.

"I lost everything. Everything in the world," he said.

But nothing could take away his love for the sport.

"The Taliban left at 2 a.m. and at 9 a.m. I was flying my kites," Aga said.

Duels at 400 feet

Most kite battles are on Friday afternoons in dirt fields around the war-ravaged capital. The duel takes place about 400 feet in the air with some kites as large as 4 feet long, but the most important part is hours earlier when competitors prepare their strings for battle. The spun cotton thread is made stronger by painstakingly coating it with ground glass and glue, and the finished product is dangerously sharp.

"The string is all important," said Mohammed Sadiq, 58, regarded at Babrak's Desert Field as the champion of champions. But Sadiq, who sat on a small carpet near Aga surrounded by several friends drinking tea and making bets, said the game is mostly mental. "The trick is to anticipate what your opponent is going to do next. A great champion sees his opponent's moves before they happen."

There are usually two people on each kite fighting team. One man hangs onto the string and tugs and pulls to control the dips and swerves of the Gudiparan, or "Flying Doll," while the other holds the spool of string so that it can quickly be slackened or pulled in. Often they both wear gloves to protect their hands from the razor-sharp string.

Mohammed Ibrahim, 44, a furniture maker and professional kite fighter, said there are different theories on how best to maneuver the kites, with some feeling that a higher kite offers better leverage, and others thinking a taut, lower flying kite is best for control.

Once a competitor's string is cut -- which can take from a few minutes to more than an hour -- the detached kite slowly drifts down toward the field, where an army of small children scrambles for a piece of it. Some fashion long bamboo poles with barbed wire at the end to try to snag the kites while they are still 15 or 20 feet in the air.

Even before the kite lands, the wager has usually exchanged hands, but kite fighting can also lead to real fights.

"Give me my money, I'm warning you," one victor threatened. The loser finally coughed up a large wad of Afghan bills, then stalked off.

Comments