Afghan kites soar on winds of joy, freedom and charity
May 23, 2012
Photos by Karin Higgins/UC Davis
THEN AND NOW
If elements of this story sound familiar, you may be remembering Khaled Hosseini's best-selling novel The Kite Runner — UC Davis’ Campus Community Book Project in 2005-06.
The book project is still going strong, with next year’s selection already having been announced and the selection process now beginning for the 2013-14 book. Each selection is made in accordance with a theme, decided by the Campus Council on Community and Diversity.
The 2012-13 theme of civility and civil rights led to this selection: The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration, by Isabel Wilkerson.
This week, Mikael Villalobos, book project coordinator, announced the theme for 2013-14: gender issues-gender equity. Read more about the theme and how you can make nominations, and how you can be a part of the selection committee.
He also would like to hear from people interested in serving on the 2012-13 Book Project Planning Committee, for The Warmth of Other Suns. This committee will convene in late May.
Throw your dreams into space like a kite, and you do not know what it will bring back, a new life, a new friend, a new love, or a new country. — Anaïs Nin
By Dave Jones
While Abdullah Torabi’s kite danced in the clouds, visions of Afghanistan danced in his head.
The third-year engineering major was born in the United States and raised in Afghanistan, where kite flying is a national sport. Did he participate? “Oh yeah, as a kid, all day, all night,” he said during last week’s Kites for a Kause, presented by the Afghan Student Association as a fundraiser for street children in Afghanistan.
Dozens of association members and other students turned out for the May 17 festival on the A Street Intramural Field. If wind could come from laughter and smiles, every kite would have soared.
And while the kites could have used more real wind, there was no holding down the day’s spirit, fueled as it was by joyful memories of Afghanistan, by the country's new freedom and by the event’s “kause” — children who help support their families by shining shoes and selling cigarettes and gum, and miss school as a result. Many of the children have lost one or both parents.
These same children made the colorful kites for the festival — traditional Afghan kites made with tissue-like paper and bamboo sticks; the association sold the kites for $7 each, with the money going to Aschiana, a nongovernmental Afghan organization that supports the children. The event raised about $560.
“Ex-patriots need to give back,” said Naveed Dastagir, a third-year chemical engineering major, born in Afghanistan and raised in the United States. “And what better way to do it than to have university students help the orphans of Afghanistan?”
‘Pride of a younger generation’
Flagg Miller, associate professor of religious studies who has spent the last several years studying Osama bin Laden through audio recordings, said: "The people of Afghanistan are not all violent, warring militants bent on revolution, much as the world might see them as such.
"Traditions of kite flying, mostly the pride of a younger generation of boys and girls, have proven to be a remarkable act of cross-cultural translation. Not only do they speak of Afghanistan's daring young spirits, too many of them shorn of parents and family members by decades of internal suffering and war, they also speak a language of heartfelt joy that defines our common humanity."
Dastagir, the outreach coordinator for the Afghan Student Association, came running across the field, shouting and pointing to a kite in the low cumulus clouds.
The kite's string led down to Torabi. “That’s a long way up, man,” he said, gazing at his bright blue, diamond-shaped kite with the green, red and black Afghan flag in one corner.
He had not flown a kite since leaving Afghanistan five years ago, but he still has the skill — putting his kite in perfect position to go head to head with the wind, and rise against it; pulling the string taut to take full advantage of the wind, or loosening his grip to let the kite slip in search of better wind. Arms a flurry of motion, string switching from hand to hand, up in the air, down by his side. And soon his kite flew higher than anyone else’s.
Danger in the air, on the ground
Torabi and Dastagir talked about the kite’s “pong,” the Farsi-Dari word for balance, a critical factor in maneuverability — better balance equals a kite that is more responsive to the flier’s tugs on the string, to make the kite bank one way or the other to find the wind.
Dastagir worked as Torabi’s kite runner, holding the spindle of string, playing it out as needed. “More ‘tar,’” Torabi said. “More string.”
And, if this had been Afghanistan, Dastagir would have gone after the kite if it had come down — often the result of an aerial duel in which fliers use their kite’s string to cut another kite’s string.
Sharp string is required — made by mixing ground glass in glue, and coating the string. “You have to be careful,” Torabi said. “I used to cut my hands all day long.”
That wasn’t the only danger he faced. The Taliban, when it ruled Afghanistan, banned kite flying. Torabi did it anyway, “but we couldn’t fly too high or we’d get in trouble.”
A first-timer’s thrill
Others attending the festival, particularly Afghan women, had never flown kites. Yousaf Ahmadi, fourth-year biochemistry major and co-president of the Afghan Student Association, helped the rookies, launching their kites into the air and shouting instructions: “Let go, pull; let go, pull; let go, pull.”
“They’re happy. I’m happy. Hopefully, I’ll get to fly mine,” said Ahmadi, who had not flown a kite since emigrating from Afghanistan in 2004.
Madina Stanackzai, a double major in cultural anthropology and political science, never flew a kite in Afghanistan — she was only 4 when she emigrated in 1998. But, even had she been older, she probably would not have been a kite flier, she said. “It was normal for the girls and women to stay inside.”
Here, she happily gave kite flying a try: “It was a thrill. I wondered why I waited so long!” However, she said, she would not fly a kite in Afghanistan unless she were “somewhere where people can’t see,” out of respect for her family.
Arzoo Arian, a self-described tomboy, had no such reservations. “I ran kites in Afghanistan,” she said, recalling days spent on a hill, watching the aerial combat and going after the kites that came down. She wasn’t anyone’s kite runner in particular — instead, she would try to beat other runners to the kites. “It’s first-come, first-served,” she said.
“Of course, the kites were damaged when they came down. So I would bring them home, tape them up and go fly them the next day,” she said.
A kite runner’s memories
Arian, fourth-year biochemistry major and a board member of the Afghan Student Association, came to the United States when she was 9 and has kept up her kite flying. She was so excited about Kites for a Kause that she practiced the weekend before, on Mother’s Day, going with her mom to a kite-flying park in Fremont, which has a large Afghan population.
“All the memories (of Afghanistan) come back when I run to get a kite,” she said. “It makes it that much more valuable — you worked hard to get it.”
Meanwhile, Afghanistan is making its way along the hard road to a new and better day, free of Soviet occupiers, free of the Taliban. "Now that Afghanistan is developing again, people have the chance to take part in kite-flying events — and that represents freedom," said Salma Ashraf, fourth-year human development major and the activities coordinator for the Afghan Student Association.
Beyond freedom and cultural pride, last week's festival also represented understanding. Stanackzai, who studies cultural anthropology, said Kites for a Kause and similar events "put you in other people’s shoes.”
In an Afghan’s shoes. Or, if you are an Afghan, in a kite flier’s shoes, if, like Stanackzai, you had never flown a kite before.
And, perhaps most significant, in the shoes of the Afghan child who made your kite.
Reach Dateline UC Davis Editor Dave Jones at (530) 752-6556 or email@example.com.
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