Afghan Kite Flying and its Symbolism

I joined my Afghan friends for kite flying a few days ago. It is their favourite pastime. Last year, I saw no kites, so I naively criticised the culture of kite flying as a romanticised activity in my first blog. Set atop Tapa-e Naderkhan (Nader Khan Hill), where King Nader Khan was buried, droves of children and adults are flying their kites. It is a wasteland. A vast, barren burial ground for an ancient royal family that overlooks a snowcapped mountain range. A breathtaking sight to behold, except that that day was a cloudy day. Omar had brought me up here once because I recognise the monument — or was it the actual burial ground?  — for King Nader Khan, but it wasn’t the weekend then.

King Nader Khan Cemetery. Photo by Edmund Chow © 2012

07 December 2012, however, was a Friday. To contextualise the occasion of “Fridays”, it is important to note that Thursdays and Fridays are weekends for government offices, whilst  Fridays and Saturdays are weekends for NGO offices. So Fridays are common days of rest in the work week for most Afghans.

Standing between the gravestones in the December cold, one part of me is trying to act like an ethnographer, surveying the land, the people, and their activities. “Make sense of this experience,” it tells me. Yet another part of me demands that I let it go, like kites in the soft breeze.

But what’s so special about kite flying? Singaporeans fly them too. And when I was in Varanasi, India, I saw kites flying as well. So why has it become synonymous with the Afghan culture? Reminded by Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, I find this quote illuminating:

The real fun began when a kite was cut. That was where the kite runners came in, those kids who chased the windblown kite drifting through the neighborhoods until it came spiraling down in a field, dropping in someone’s yard, on a tree or a rooftop. The chase got pretty fierce; hordes of kite runners swarmed the streets, shoved past each other like those people from Spain I’d read about once, the ones who ran from the bulls. One year a neighborhood kid climbed a pine tree for a kite. A branch snapped under his weight and he fell thirty feet. Broke his back and never walked again. But he fell with the kite still in his hands. And when a kite runner has his hands on a kite, no one could take it from him. That wasn’t a rule. That was a custom.

That sense of possession — prized possession — is peculiarly Afghan, according to Hosseini. Is this true? Taking off from where Hosseini ended, I seek to make sense of reality, and hopefully from this projection of symbolic experience, identify something unique (or maybe not?) about this Afghan “custom”.

1. The Taped Fingers and the Spool

Omar’s Hands. Photo by Edmund Chow © 2012

To prevent one’s fingers from being cut by the sharp thread wound round a spool, fingers are usually taped. Above, Omar’s palm shows a plaster BandAid between his thumb and index finger, a cut he had received from the previous week’s kite-flying. The redness on the taped fingers comes from the red dye of the thread, although from a distance, it resembled blood. This metaphor of bloodletting — and possibly vengeance or sacrifice — will be taken up in the next few points.

2. The Kite Flyer and The Assistant

The spool is often controlled by the kite flyer’s assistant. While the kite flyer is aiming to fly the kite, his assistant constantly stays on his left with the spool in hand. I thought being the kite flyer was a difficult task, so I opted to be the assistant instead. When I took over the spool, my natural reaction was to hold both ends of the stick with both hands. Omar then demonstrated how to hold the spool with his left forearm, while using his right hand to turn the spool to keep the excess thread taut. I took the spool from Omar again, when suddenly, he turned my spool around. Apparently, there was a correct direction for the spool. The thread has to be wound clockwise, where the bottom end of the spool leads to the kite.

The Technique. Photo by Edmund Chow © 2012

3. Kite Cutting

I didn’t realise how sharp the thread was until I used a spare thread to cross another thread. All that was needed to make a clean break was a sharp pull and the other thread would have been cut.

Even between the best of buddies, Omar and his friends were fiercely cutting each other’s kites. One friend joked about how they would forego friendships for a while just to win at this game. It is a dog-eat-dog world. It is a competition of strength, strategy and endurance. It is not so much who could fly the highest that deserves applause, but the number of kites cut that makes one the winner. This rivalry continues until a new opponent comes along to cut one of their kites. By then, the two friends would find in the third person a new opponent, a mutual target.

In Point 1 above, you would recall that Omar’s hands were plastered. These literal cuts, I reckon, not only symbolise the pain and scars with which life has thrown at Afghan people in general, but they also represent a strong, enduring character of these hardy people. They would enjoy life, even at its harshest. Despite the cuts suffered from the previous week, Omar would not let these ruin his enjoyment for the weekend. Flying kites can be liberating, and I am pretty sure the sense of fun, together with his buddies, is non-negotiable.

So, what happens when a kite is cut? A chain reaction happens.

4. The Kite Runner, or The Kite Snatcher

It is true. Children run after kites. Some of them are armed with branches attached to long poles. When a kite is cut and is floating through mid-air, those with poles would stick it sky high so that the kite would be stuck to these branches. And when they lower the pole, the kite belongs to the child who “snatches” it. From a distance, I witnessed some kids fighting over the kite. It didn’t turn aggressive, but there was fierce competition even on the ground.

The Kite Branch

The Kite Branch. Photo by Edmund Chow © 2012

The Kite Snatchers. Photo by Edmund Chow © 2012

Only when I queried did I discover one reason for this fierce behavioural snatching. The boy who has the kite can sell it back, either to the kite shopkeeper or the original owner of the kite. Besides the fun of snatching, it is a commercial enterprise for these children.

When they make some money out of this, you see them riding buggy rides. Here, there’s another enterprising adult to satisfy children’s need for fun by supplying these child-sized scooters that run on diesel.

5. The Kite Shopkeeper

The Kite Shop. Photo by Edmund Chow © 2012

As referenced earlier, the kite shopowner could buy the snatched kite from the child, or sell his own collection of kites. What is amusing about this kite shop is that the perimetered walls on which his kites hang are part of a private tomb, evidenced by the cage-like grilles in the above photograph. My friend jokingly iterated that even the dead have a “life”, as seen from the merchandise and activities surrounding the tomb.

A Symbolic Interpretation

Commercialism pervades the entire kite-flying experience. At least on Tapa-e Naderkhan. Not only did the children profit from it, the recycling of money is transacted through the exchange of hands. From the kite owner, to the child, and from the child to the kite shopkeeper or to the buggy ride owner. A kite flyer is always buying a new kite, so the cycle of commerce is regenerated.

Even on a far side near another tomb, an old man has a makeshift gambling cloth. Four squares, and on each square is drawn the symbolic spade, heart, club and diamond, as illustrated:

card suits Image taken from Wikipedia

In the middle of the cloth is a lightbulb cut into half, turned upside down, with a thin metal strip suspended and pivoted by a needle. After children have placed their bets on any symbol, he twirls the metal strip and waits till it comes to a halt. Then the old man takes the money and rewards the winner. I didn’t observe long enough to see if the old man keeps the profits, but I suspect the money is recycled from loser to winner.

Here, these activities illustrate enterprise and commerce.

Next, the fighting that I highlighted earlier, from kite cutting to snatching, symbolises, in my opinion, the long-suffering nature of Afghans. The hard-worn and well-weathered furrows on complexion and deep scars on skin from very difficult standards of living, are identical to the painfully difficult conditions even for statebuilding. Internal strife because of, and from, the Taliban, for example, is still a problem. This sense of fighting also reminds me of Buzkashi, another Afghan game on horseback that parallells Afghan politics (see G. Whitney Azoy’s book of the same name). However, unlike most violent endeavours, this kind of “fight” is characterised paradoxically by fierce vengeance and endearing solidarity. There is always the coming back together, the reconciliation of kindred spirits that I think offers hope for an Afghan future, a so-called “after life”, just like the tombs on top of this  barren mountain renewed by vibrant energies.

I do recognise, however, that this piece of writing is a projection on Afghan cultures and politics. A projection that can lend itself to misinterpretation. A projection that can impose a singular interpretation, rather than offer diversity in cultural meanings. Khaled Hosseini warns in The Kite Runner: “Children aren’t your colouring books. You don’t get to fill them with your favourite colours.” In the same way, Afghan culture(s) are not meant for the colouring. I don’t want to be guilty of that either.