Film could help Afghan kitemaker’s fame soar

[26 July 2007]

By Kim Barker

Chicago Tribune (MCT)

KABUL, Afghanistan - Noor Agha bends over the tissue paper and glues on a ruler-straight line of white stars in seconds. He is not sure how many stars are on the U.S. flag, but such details do not matter. This U.S. flag will have however many stars fit - in this case, 19 - leaving Agha to worry about more important kite details such as the bend of the bamboo stick, the tautness of the string.

Agha is making 100 kites featuring Afghan and U.S. flags for an Afghan-American customer who will pick them up in a few hours. His kitemaking business is soaring because Agha is considered the best kitemaker in Afghanistan. He is also a formidable kite fighter, a popular Asian sport in which each fighter tries to cut down his opponent’s kite using kite string coated in glass.

“What I make, sometimes it’s difficult to even design it on a computer,” said Agha, a fourth-generation kitemaker who can make 40 of these flag kites a day. “That’s why I’m famous.”

Agha’s kites could gain even more fame in November when the movie “The Kite Runner,” based on the best-selling book by Afghan-American author Khaled Hosseini, is scheduled to be released.

The master kitemaker spent two months training four of the young kite fighters in the movie, about the life journey of two childhood friends in war-torn Afghanistan. Agha also made 500 kites for the film, all in the tiny living room of his baked-mud house. The book and movie title comes from the intense kite competitions in which children run after kites that have been cut, chasing them until they land and taking home their prize. The last kite to be cut is the most coveted.

Agha was invited to go as a kite consultant to China, where part of the movie was filmed, but he had to decline. With two wives, 11 children and constant kite orders, he had too many responsibilities at home.

Now 53, Agha has made and fought kites since he was 8, when his father was known as the best kitemaker in Kabul. His father, nicknamed “Scorpion” by an Afghan prime minister who lost to him in a kite fight, made kites for 60 years and gave the kite company its signature - the black scorpion glued near the top of every kite.

The son glues a carefully cut black signature on every kite: “Noor Agha, son of Scorpion.”

“He’s the teacher of everyone who wants to fly kites,” said Lutful Haq, a first lieutenant in the Afghan army and a student of Agha. “He’s the best. After him, maybe me.”

Clearly, the kitemakers and fighters of Afghanistan trade boasts and challenges as easily as they trade swipes of their kites.

Most likely invented in China at least 2,500 years ago, kites migrated throughout Asia. Hundreds of years ago, the fighter kite - diamond-shaped and made of paper - emerged. Kite battles quickly became popular throughout the region.

In Europe, the trend never really caught on; kite duels were banned in France in 1736 because they led to riots and crop damage. But in Asia, such proxy wars are still the rage. There are kite fights in Indonesia, North and South Korea, China, India, Pakistan and Thailand, where “male” and “female” kites vie for supremacy. The male kite is about 8 feet tall and has three sets of bamboo barbs to grab a female. The female kite is about 3 feet tall but moves quickly and is much less cumbersome than the male.

Predictably, all is not peaceful in a kite war. In India, protests were lodged after the sharp, glass-coated string was blamed for killing animals. In Pakistan, kite-flying at the annual spring festival has been curbed after deaths and injuries blamed on the string.

But in Afghanistan, the Taliban regime seemed to ban flying kites merely because the activity was fun. And since the fall of that regime in 2001, colorful kites have bloomed every spring like flowers, diving and cutting through the air and each other.

Agha showed off his hands, lined with cuts from string, and reminisced about how he had nearly lost chunks of his fingers in past fights.

He also showed off photo albums of kites he has made, giant concoctions the size of his living room, of purple and green and yellow flowers, kites that sold for as much as $700, kites so large they have to be carried by five men in the back of a pickup truck. His entry has won the “kite of the year” contest in Kabul every year since 2001.

Agha spent the years of the Taliban in Pakistan, his housing and food paid for by Pakistanis who wanted his kites.

Agha is so well-known here, other kitemakers have even tried to forge the Scorpion brand. But the forgeries can never stand up; they don’t have the secret glue from a family recipe, the special tissue paper from India, the carefully carved bamboo from Bangladesh, the string-glass recipe of herbal medicine mixed with Coca-Cola bottles ground finer than flour.

“There are more than 3,000 kite factories in Afghanistan,” said Agha, who may be exaggerating. “None has been able to defeat me.”

The glue is really the key, enabling the tissue paper to lie flat instead of wrinkling, as it does with Elmer’s glue. Agha said his glue, a brownish-green paste, is made from five ingredients, including wheat. He won’t identify the four other ingredients and is convinced rivals would like to take it to a lab for testing.

The kite business is a family operation. Agha’s two wives are trainees. His wife of 30 years does much of the gluing. His wife of 16 years works on the kite tails and glues the scorpion on each kite.

“The string and the sticks - nobody, not even my old wife, can do that,” Agha said.

His son Mohammad Ehsan, 13, probably will inherit the business. Mohammad makes his own kites and sells them at the market. He is acknowledged by all the children as the family’s best kite fighter. Agha said his son isn’t yet that talented, but he will be some day.

“You need a good kite that somersaults easily,” Mohammad said. “You need sharp string. And you need to be able to give out the string quickly.”

Agha looked up from the kite he was making. “You need to know the weakness of your rival,” he told his son.

Despite his success, Agha still lives in old Kabul in his late father’s home - more of a three-room hovel - sandwiched between graveyards. The main two graveyards here are named Spiritual and Lover, after two Sufi saints and brothers who reputedly helped bring Islam to Afghanistan.

Outside, Mohammad dodges grave markers as he plays out the green kite string with a younger brother’s help. He moves his arms, and the kite dances, looking like a bird or a fish, diving in one direction, spinning in another. He avoids power lines. There are no competitors today, so this is friendly flying, not a fight to the finish, when kites will be cut to the ground.

Agha still fights kites and cannot remember the last time he lost. He jokes about one recent opponent, heard reciting the last verse of the Quran as he battled Agha. The opponent said he was reciting the Quran because he didn’t want Agha to win. Agha cut his string anyway. He is always ruthless, always a competitor.

“The kite should be just like a human being,” Agha said. “Whatever you say, the kite should do. It should be just like a human being, except it cannot talk back.”

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