Taking flight in Kabul

Theodore May
7 Min Read

KABUL: When you live in a perpetual state of war, getting on with life is the only way to persevere.

A car bomb had rocked the outskirts of Kabul Friday morning, hitting outside the wall of US Camp Phoenix. When we visited the bomb site two and a half hours later, there was little evidence that people had died there, except for a piece of scrap metal or two and some shattered glass on the road.

There was no heightened security on guard or military investigators patrolling, just the normal flow of traffic.

That afternoon we made our way up Nader Khan hill on the edge of town to participate in the age-old tradition of kite flying.

By the time we arrived, thousands of Afghans had gathered.

My colleague Ali had brought two kites of his own, yellow and purple paper ones. Everybody flies paper kites here, keeping a roll of tape close at hand to patch up any tears.

Ali had also brought his high quality string, explaining to me that the more expensive the string, the sharper and more effective it would be in battle.

With the city of Kabul stretched out below us, Ali and I launched our kite, with a local Afghan boy on hand to hold the spool.

It just so happened that day that the wind direction meant we were flying our kite right into the sun as it set over the mountains. Also in front of the sun, creating an odd backdrop for our kite flying, was a US security blimp, tethered to the ground and keeping watch over the city.

Not long after we’d launched our kite, Ali got in his first battle. The two kites spun furiously around one another. Ali suddenly let his string go, and the kite took the slack. The idea is to create enough friction between the two strings that your opponent’s snaps.

It was to no avail. The enemy, standing anonymously on another part of the hilltop, had bested us. Our line went slack and I watched as the kite drifted slowly to the ground.

Determined to make myself useful, I ran to where the kite looked like it was falling. But a local scrum had beat me to the punch. A handful of kids positioned themselves underneath the kite, the tallest boy grabbing it as it came down.

“That’s our kite, I told him, gesturing so he’d know to give it back.

“Mekheri, he said, in a wide grin.

Years in Cairo of divining what people were saying without actually understanding them kicked in here, and I knew exactly what the boy was smiling about.

“Buy it from me, he had said.

I took the boy back to Ali. Amused and a little bewildered, I told Ali that the boy had taken our kite.

Ali dutifully pulled out 10 Afghanis – roughly LE 1 – and handed it to the boy, who then returned the kite.

“That’s part of the fun, Ali said, chuckling at me. “You have to buy your own kite back!

I was astonished.

But that’s the way the economy turns on Nader Khan. Kites are sold and re-sold for anything from LE 1 to LE 5. Over the course of the afternoon we caught kites, found kites, and lost kites. And even in defeat, everyone seemed of good cheer.

When the wind picked up in the late afternoon, I took my turn at flying.

“Swims like a fish! Ali yelled, borrowing an Afghan expression, as the kite we had just bought from one of the roving vendors went soaring.

The wind took the kite, and the line ripped through my hands, leaving my palm and several fingers puffy and raw.

I sent my kite further and further, until it was a small dot against the setting sun. Seemingly out of nowhere, a slim black kite cut through the sky, bee lining for mine.

As soon as it looked as though our strings had crossed, Ali yelled for me to release the string. I let it run through my hands in an effort to saw the other line.

And then I made the rookie mistake. Thinking I’d let my kite run far enough, I again seized the line.


Just like that, my line fell slack and my kite floated gently down over a small rise.

Ali clobbered me with cheerful admonitions about where I’d gone wrong. I listened and then suggested we stroll and chat with other kite fliers, figuring it was the only way to deal with my over-competitive sensibility.

Nader Khan was, in a past life, heavily blanketed with landmines. Now, thanks to the efforts of several NGOs, the hill is clear and has been replanted with baby pines. As a result, we walked carelessly across the dusty stretch.

As we began walking, Ali pointed out a training center for bomb sniffing dogs that still occupies a corner of the hill, though kite flying children run throughout the kennels.

On our stroll, we ran into generations of Afghans, some who had been coming to that hill for nearly half a century – save for during the 5 years of Taliban rule.

Imanuddin Kohi sells kites at the entrance of the hill. He’s 50 years old and has been flying kites for 40 of them.

Kohi used to be a painter, but he was forced out of the profession when he injured his back. So he chose kite-making, capitalizing on a hobby he loves. He has to support his nine children on less than $200 per week.

Kohi’s scarred hands and weathered face testify to the life he’s led. There’s no question he’d rather be in a more lucrative profession.

But, as a Black Hawk helicopter cut low across the sky in front of him, Kohi admitted he still found time to indulge in one of the country’s most enduring traditions.

“When it’s quiet, he said, “before people arrive, I take out a kite and fly for a little while.

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