Cultural Oopsie – Afghanistan

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Afghanistan - Kite Fighting

In the spring of 2004 an Afghani student at Columbia University in New York City, recently arrived from Kabul, was visiting Ocean City, Maryland. While walking on the beach, he noticed several people flying kites. He quickly bought a knife from a vendor and began to do what came naturally to him-namely, Kite Fighting. As any Afghani will tell you, the purpose of Kite Fighting is to cut the strings of other Kites, thereby sending them crashing to the ground. Unlike recreational kite flying in the United States, kite fighting in Afghanistan is a serious national sport, similar to baseball or basketball in the United States.

On any given Friday in the capitol of Kabul (the Muslim day of prayer when most kite flying occurs), hundreds of boys and men gather on the rooftops to duel with their kites. Males from all segments of Kabul society participate in this deadly serious sport where the winner is the last kite flying. School boys battle government officials, while street vendors test their skills against business men. These “fighter pilots” coat their strings with a mixture of glue and finely ground glass, which acts like a knife that cuts their opponent’s string. The Afghani sport of kite fighting is relatively well known in the United States, due largely to the popularity of Khaled Hosseini’s 2003 best-selling novel, “The Kite Runner,” and the movie of the same name released in 2007.

The newly arrived college student from Kabul demonstrated his well-honed kite combat skills by cutting the string of an unsuspecting small girl whose kite crashed unceremoniously into the Atlantic Ocean. When the girl broke down in tears, the Afghani student realized that he had committed a serious cultural gaffe. He had assumed (erroneously) that Kites flying in the United States were fair game for Afghani-style kite fighting. The girl’s tears served as a vivid reminder of his own ethnocentrism.

Kite fighting has once again become popular in Afghanistan. It was once banned by the Taliban who declared it “Un-Islamic.” Now that the ban has been lifted, men, boys, and even young girls enjoy the pastime… Children of both genders can be “Kite Runners.” They try to run away with the cut down kites as keepsake prizes.

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