Back out in the open, Afghan kites fill Kabul's sky with colour

By Patrick Cockburn
Saturday 01 December 2001 01:00

The flying of kites, banned by the Taliban as an un-Islamic activity after they captured Kabul in 1996, is once more the rage in the Afghan capital.

Excited groups of people, clutching the strings of their multi-coloured kites, fly them from rooftops in the gentle breeze. It is a hobby to which Afghans are passionately attached. Even under the Taliban, kites made out of multi-coloured paper were secretly sold and covertly flown by enthusiasts, who travelled to distant hilltops, out of sight of the religious police, to do so.

"They put me in jail for 15 days for selling kites," said Khan Mohammed, a neatly dressed shopkeeper in the Shur market in Kabul, where 30 kite shops are now openly doing business for the first time in five years.

"The Taliban said kites were prohibited under shariah law," he added, shaking his head in disgust.

The Taliban had another bizarre reason for banning kites. People in Kabul often climb on the roofs of their closely packed houses to fly them. The Taliban claimed that would enable a man, under the guise of flying his kite, to look down from the roof of his house into the women's quarters of the house next door.

The expulsion of the Taliban has produced a cheerful mood in the Shur market, where the shops are decorated with large coloured kites. In one shop, grinning through badly broken teeth, was Mohammed Amon, 56, who said: "I have been making kites for 40 years. I went on doing so secretly under the Taliban.

"When they would ask me what I needed the special paper for, I would say: 'I need it for making paper flowers'." Mr Amon pointed proudly to two kites he had made, hanging from a wall. He said that one, made out of red, yellow and purple paper, was called "butterfly" and another, all in white with two large circles on its wings, was named "eyes".

Across the street, a young kite-seller, who said his name was Zabiolla, had painted, as if to highlight his rejection of Taliban beliefs, a woman with long dark hair and red lips on one of his kites. He said: "I had a shop here for 12 years. When the Taliban came they burned all my kites. They said it was forbidden by shariah. Once they punished me by hitting me with steel cable. The only people who were able to fly kites openly in the city were very small children."

Zabiolla said that business was brisk today because autumn was the best season for kite flying, thanks to the strong winds. Sometimes, the wind is too strong. As we drove away, we saw a small boy vainly pursuing his escaped kite, sailing 500ft overhead, through the crowded streets of Kabul.

One reason kite-flying is so popular in a country as poor as Afghanistan is that it is extremely cheap. Khan Mohammed was selling an enormous kite made out of 10 pieces of paper – ingeniously designed to imitate an airmail letter – for the equivalent of £1; smaller kites are cheaper.

Making kites is not a skill easily acquired. Mr Amon explained: "You need springy wood, which comes from Bangladesh, to make the struts and special coloured paper made in Pakistan. The string comes from Lahore in Pakistan."

Kite-flying was not the only pleasure banned by the Taliban. Television, chess and football were also outlawed. Many Afghans adore song birds, which they keep in their houses. People in Kabul's bustling bird market, which has about 50 shops, recalled that, when the Taliban first arrived in the capital, they even tried to insist that the birds were un-Islamic and strangled several of them to prove it.

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