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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006
Go fly a kite

Globe and Mail Update
Thursday, Oct. 2, 20

It is kite season in Kabul. Bright bits of paper drift in the warm autumn sky, especially in the evenings when children return home from school and finish their chores.

The sky turns lavender, the mountains fade, and the kites, by now small black flecks, still soar.

Kite flying is the beloved pastime of Afghan children and, because the kites cost only pennies, the activity is especially favoured by the poor.

The most popular Kabul kite shop is the Boba Shukur in the Don-e-Bagh neighbourhood in the central part of the city.

Saboor, who like many Afghans only has one name, inherited the tiny shop from his father Boba Shukur 18 years ago. His family has sold kites to young Kabulis for 40 years.

"My father was a famous kite flyer in Kabul," Saboor says proudly.

He sits on the floor of the shop, barely measuring two metres by two metres, and points to a black and white picture of a beaming, white-bearded man.

As Saboor speaks, young boys carrying crumbled Afghani notes choose their kites. The red, green, white, blue tissues are stretched on thin wooden frames and stacked on the dusty floor.

The small ones cost four Afghanis, the largest up to 100 Afghanis, or two U.S. dollars.

Wooden spools to wind the thread hang like strings of garlic near the door.

During the Taliban regime he sold the kites clandestinely from another booth nearby, because the current location was too obvious an inspection target for the morality police.

The Taliban banned kite flying on grounds that it was unIslamic and imprisoned anyone caught flouting the law. But Saboor, 50, refused to stop selling, more out of the necessity of feeding his family than making any kind of political statement. Selling kites is all he knows - "since I was 15, and without a beard I have been working here," he says.

He said the people of Kabul were unafraid to fly their kites. There were so many in the air, the Taliban couldn't go into everyone's homes at once. People flew them from their backyards, from their rooftops.

"People would come into my booth and whisper what they want," he says.

One day in 2000, he cautiously went to his closed shop to replenish his stock. A Taliban soldier caught him. "The soldiers were in the neighbourhood looking for a man who had long hair," he recalled. "But they noticed a few kites on the floor here and asked what I was doing. They came into my store, and found these stacks. They took them all out, all my kites and put them into a big pile on the street. They gave me a match and told me to light the pile. I refused, because I could not bear it. So they threw the burning match on the kites."

He added: "We are Kabul people, these Talibs, they did not understand our culture, they were village people, foolish and stupid."

Some of his young clients, now grown up, come back to visit him. He shows me pictures of young customers taken about 20 years ago. "This young man came back recently," he says, and points to a smiling boy in the photograph. "He told me his leg was blown off by a mine."

Like all sports in Afghanistan kite flying has a violent purpose. The object of the game is to cut the thread of the opponent's kite. Children once coated the thread in a thin layer of powdered glass to sharpen the line, and make the job of cutting the competitor's thread easier. Saboor's father made the best powdered glass in Kabul. His secret technique involved using a stone to grind glass into a talcum-like powder. Then he mixed two parts powder with one part finely ground rice. Water was added to the mixture and it was rubbed over a line of thread. When it was dry, he ran paper over the thread to remove excess powder. But no one does this any more, said Saboor.

He mourns the loss of tradition. These days, everyone buys a special kind of thread made in Pakistani factories. "Anyone can use this thread, and now anyone can fly a kite," he complains. "In the old days it was an art, it was better then."

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