KABUL, Afghanistan — The kites appear suddenly, whimsical flashes of color that kick above the beige landscape here of relentless dust and desperation.
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They reveal themselves, like dragonflies, at the most unexpected moments: through the window of a grim government office, beyond the smoke curling from the debris left by a suicide bomber, above the demoralizing gridlock of traffic and poverty. To a new arrival in this chaotic city of three million, they are unexpected and wonderfully incongruous.
Banned during the Taliban’s rule, kite flying is once again the main recreational escape for Afghan boys and some men. (It still remains largely off limits to girls and women.) And with the American release Friday of the film “The Kite Runner,” based on the best-selling novel of the same name, a much wider audience will be introduced to Afghan kite culture.
Follow a kite’s string to its source and you will most likely find an Afghan boy standing on top of his roof or in an empty lot, playing the line in deep concentration.
But this is not the stuff of idle afternoons or, as in American culture, carefree picnics in the park. This is war. The sole reason for kites, Afghans will tell you, is to fight them, and a single kite aloft is nothing but an unspoken challenge to a neighbor.
The objective of the kite fight is to slice the other flier’s string with your own, sending the vanquished aircraft to the ground. Kite-fighting string is coated with a resin made of glue and finely crushed glass, which turns it into a blade.
The big kite-fighting day is Friday, the Muslim day of prayer, when thousands of boys and men flock to their rooftops and to the summits of the craggy hills that ring the city, carrying stacks of kites fashioned from bamboo and brightly colored tissue paper, and miles of sharp string on wooden spools.
On a recent Friday afternoon, there were scores of kites locked in duels above Tapeii-i-Maranjan, a high bluff in a southeastern neighborhood of the capital and the city’s most popular kite-flying venue. All strata of Kabuli life — male Kabuli life, that is — were well represented: schoolchildren were fighting ministerial officials, doctors were battling day laborers. They fought in teams of two, with one person tweaking the string and the other handling the spool.
Packs of boys too poor to buy their own equipment were sprinting after defeated kites as they fell to earth. They were the kite runners.
“We don’t have, like, soccer, baseball or basketball,” said Ahmad Roshazai, a translator at a medical clinic near Bagram who was flying kites on the hill with two of his brothers. He had cuts on his fingers from handling the bladelike fighting string. “We don’t have any good places for that,” he said. “No green places.”
He added: “This is the only game we have every Friday. That’s it.”
The inveterate kite fighters speak of their craft as part science and part art. The key to excellence depends on a combination of factors, both empirical and ineffable: the flexibility and balance of the kites’ bamboo frames, the strength of the glue binding the tissue paper skin, the quality of the string, the evenness of the spool and, of course, the skill of the fliers and their ability to adjust to the vicissitudes of the wind.
Rashid Abedi, 25, a business administration student, described the satisfaction of killing another kite. “It has a taste,” he said, and he likened it to the thrill of horse riding or driving a car. “These things all the time have a special taste.”
Kite-fighting string in Afghanistan was traditionally homemade by a laborious process that involved coating cotton string with a concoction of crushed glass and glue. But factories in other more-developed kite-flying nations like Pakistan, India, Thailand, Malaysia and China now churn out tens of thousands of spools of machine-made nylon fighting string that swamp the Afghan market.