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Voices Spring-Summer 2005:
Click on the cover for the Table of Contents. Read “Flyin’ High: Kite Flying from the Silk Road to Roosevelt Avenue” by Elena Martínez with photographs by Martha Cooper here.
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Volume 31
Spring-Summer
2005
Voices

Flyin' High: Kite Flying from the Silk Road to Roosevelt Avenue by Elena Martinez and Photographs by Martha Cooper

I first went to see the Pakistani kite fliers in the summer of 2000 when many New York City folklorists were conducting fieldwork for the Smithsonian Institution’s 2001 Festival of American Folklife. It was fascinating to watch the kite teams “battle” and to speak with the fliers. I went back to watch the fliers once more in 2001, but have not seen them again, since they relocated to a new field after September 11. The post-9/11 world has bought momentous changes to the Pakistani community. Fearing security detentions, thousands of the City’s 120,000 Pakistani residents have left Brooklyn’s Little Pakistan and other Pakistani neighborhoods for Canada, Europe, and Pakistan. Fliers nevertheless maintain their kite flying tradition, which has become part of New York City’s cultural tapestry.

Irfan Saleem with kite
Irfan Saleem has been flying kites for nineteen years.
In September 2001, an article in the New York Times reviewed the recent military and political history of Afghanistan, in advance of President Bush’s anticipated declaration of war. The piece began, “[Afghanistan] is a nation of warriors, where children glue broken glass to their kite strings to cut down other kites, boys are given rifles at puberty, and old men keep thrushes in wooden cages trained not to sing, but to fight” (Kifner 2001).

The attempt to distance the people of Afghanistan was disingenuous—after all, animals are trained to fight and kids use guns in the United States, too—but the article’s mention of kite flying is interesting. While kite flying may not be as widespread a recreational activity in this country as, say, basketball, glass-encrusted kite strings are certainly not unique to Afghanistan. Kids here in New York City also create kites for competitions and battles. My uncles, who grew up on the “mean streets” of the Bronx, have told me stories about their own glass-string kite fights when they were young:
We used to take glass bottles to the trolley car tracks and wait for the trolley to come. The trolley would pulverize the glass, and we’d sweep up as much as we could.… Or you would break the glass with a hammer, and then put it on a piece of paper with some glue, run the string through it, and you’d have glass string. And then we’d go on the roof, and if there was another kite flying up there, we used to cut theirs down.… There were also tails on the kites, and we used to put razor blades on them. (Cooley and Phelan, 2000)
A former resident of East Harlem also remembers:
We used to fly kites on the roof, and you used that . . . thin wood, from orange crates, put pieces in an X, and got lightweight paper. [The kite] wasn’t just to fly, but an element of war. On the edge of the tail you put razor blades, and you had the advantage if you had the wind. You got your kite over [the other guy’s kite], and gave it slack. Then your kite would collapse and cut the line. (Dargan and Zeitlin 1990)
Kite battles and competitions are popular throughout Asia, from Afghanistan to Pakistan and India, as well as further east in Japan. I learned about a group of Pakistani kite fliers that regularly met in Flushing Meadow Park and competed using glass string to cut their opponent’s kites. In fact, members of the Pakistani, Indian, and Afghani communities all flew kites in the park, but it was the Pakistani fliers who met in teams at the model airplane field to fly kites and practice for international competitions.

In the summer of 2000 I spoke with Sheryar Chaudhry, director of the World Control Board of Kite Flying, U.S.A.; Adnan Munawar, chairperson of the Kite Flying Association, U.S.A.; and Irfan Saleem, captain of the New York Meadow Kite Flyers team. The team has over one hundred active members who meet on Saturdays and Sundays, weather permitting, from April to October. They began flying kites in Flushing Meadow Park in 1996; in 1998 the team was officially recognized by the World Control Board of Kite Flying and allowed to compete in the kite World Cup. More recently, Flushing Meadow Park’s proximity to LaGuardia airport has forced the kite fliers to move their weekend competitions to Kissena Park in Queens, so that kites will not interfere with air traffic or land on the airport’s property.
Kite flier with kite-shaped bag of kites
Fliers bring a kite-shaped bag full of kites, because it is not unusual to go through as many as a dozen in a day’s practice.
Americans are generally unfamiliar with this passion for kite flying and professional kite competition, but children in Pakistan fly kites like kids here play baseball. Throughout Asia, kite flying is far more than just a children’s game—it’s a focal point of religious events and competitions. Kite flying is thought to have originated in China over 2,000 years ago, and from there spread to Korea. In both countries it became widely popular. The string was coated with powdered glass, sharp sand, or ground pottery, and at times knife blades were attached. By the sixth century kite flying arrived in Japan, where kites were flown mainly for religious purposes, although kite fighting with rokkaku, six-sided kites, was also common. In 1921 kite flying was proclaimed the national sport of Thailand. Kite competition in Thailand takes a unique form. Kites are either chula (male) or pakpao (female), and the object is to capture a kite of the other gender and bring it into your team’s territory. In India the festival of Makar Sankranti, a harvest festival held January 14, is a traditional day of combative kite flying. In the weeks prior to the festival, lengths of thread that will be used as kite string are stretched between posts so gum and powdered glass can be applied. After the festival the region appears as a “vision of trees full of strange, bright blooms which are entrapped kites” (Cooper and Gillow 1996, 112).

A patang kite.
A patang kite. The designs and colors can represent a variety of things. During the International Cup the New York Meadow Kite Flyers team kites were red, white, and blue, since the group represented the United States. In the big international competitions the kites are stamped with the name of the person who made the kite. The kite maker has to be registered with the World Control Board of Kite Flying.

The Pakistani kite flying tradition comes from India and has its deepest roots and greatest popularity in the province of Punjab, which borders India. Pakistan separated from India in 1947, and in 1972 East Pakistan became Bangladesh. While the three countries share many cultural traits, there are some significant differences, such as religion: Pakistan and Bangladesh are primarily Muslim, while the majority of the Indian population is Hindu. According to Sheryar, the Pakistani style of kite flying originated in the Indian subcontinent about 500 or 600 years ago with the creation of the basant mala, or festival of kites. This festival was begun by a local king in hopes of uniting Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs through a national celebration (Chaudhry 2000).Today this festival is celebrated in Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh. In Pakistan the basant is observed in mid-February, and during this time in cities throughout the Punjab such as Lahore, Faisalabad, and Rawalpindi, the skies blaze with the color of thousands of kites soaring from the rooftops.

Air kites are taped before flying.
Before they are sent up into the air kites are repaired with tape.

The New York Meadow Kite Flyers organized their own basant mala festivals in 1996, 1998, and 2000. The group, now the New York Meadow Kite Flyers of Queens, are planning another basant mala for June 2005. Although inclement weather forced the cancellation of the popular event one year, thousands of people showed up just the same, some from as far away as Washington, D.C., and Boston. As the only event of its kind in the United States, the festival transcends politics and historical animosities as Indians and Pakistanis gather to fly kites together. The multinational festival also attracts fliers from Bangladesh, Guyana, and the Caribbean.

to string the kites, the spools are wound with a power drill.
To string the kites the spools are wound with a power drill.

You don’t have to attend a basant mala to see the kite fighting teams in action. Every weekend the kite fliers arrive at the park and split into two teams. Preparation takes about fifteen minutes as the fliers spread out an array of colorful kites on the ground to string them, tape them up, and take some test flights.
In addition to readying the kites, fliers have to prepare themselves. They wrap their fingers with duct tape to protect them from the kite line, or manjha, a cotton string with a coating of powdered glass.

The teams use traditional kites shipped from Pakistan. The patang kites made of spliced bamboo and tissue paper have a hawk-like shape, which makes them easier to control and more maneuverable. To ensure they will flow in the direction of the wind the kites are flown at great heights, using up to 1,000 yards of string, at times making them barely discernable against the blue sky. The goal is to swoop the kite across your opponent’s string, and move it up and down in order to cut the string. With the right techniques, and depending on the tautness of the string and the angle at which the kite is flown, it is sometimes possible to cut lines without using glass-powdered strings. In a day’s flying (about four to five hours) it is typical for a flier to go through ten or more kites, because cut kites drift away and are seldom recovered. Lucky park visitors may find them in other areas of the park where they have touched down. When the group flew kites at Flushing Meadow Park, a walk through the area around the model airplane field would often reveal trails of kite string that had fallen from the sky.
Fliers wind their fingers with tape.
Fliers wind their fingers with tape for protection from the razor-sharp kite string.

Immigrants fly kites in part to maintain their heritage, but the popularity of kite flying in this country also reflects the sport’s increasing status back home. With its starring role at festivals like the basant mala, professional kite flying in Asia has begun to attract major international sponsors such as Coca-Cola. One year a Marriott hotel in Pakistan even arranged a basant mala on its rooftop. With the promise of monetary success and fame, kite flying is drawing more participants. Players on winning professional teams become celebrities and may be approached to do commercial advertisements.

Kite flying.
Ready, set, go!

Kite fighting competitions are popular throughout central Asia. Their broad appeal is reflected in New York City, where Pakistani kite fliers are not the only ones who use the parks for kite battles. In the parking lot near the model airplane field in Flushing Meadow Park, Afghani kite fliers would gather. Instead of powdered glass string they use a material similar to fishing line, and their kites are diamond-shaped and smaller. Kite flying in Afghanistan was a traditional sport for decades until banned in the mid-1990s under Taliban rule. But since the end of 2001 it has made a comeback; sales in shops along Kabul’s “Kite Street” are booming (Peterson 2001). In Afghanistan, kite flying is not a reminder of violent traditions as the New York Times article implied, but—in addition to a cultural tradition that goes back centuries—a symbol of freedoms restored.

Kite flying at Flushing Meadow Park in 2000 This year the World Control Board of Kite Flying, U.S.A., received a patent for its basant mala. The kite fliers of Kissena Park plan to organize basant mala festivals in future years. From the rooftops of the Bronx to the rooftops of Pakistan, from the parks of Queens to the streets of Afghanistan, kite flying competitions will continue entertain people of all ages.

Note: The title of this article comes from the Silk Road, which was a trade route across Asia to the Mediterranean in active use from approximately 200 BCE to 1200 CE. This route from Nara, Japan, to Venice, Italy, was started by merchants trading goods, but ultimately created places where ideas, music, foods, and religions were exchanged and adapted to new homes. Roosevelt Avenue in Queens is just north of the parks where the kite fliers have their competitions. Due to Queens’ ethnic diversity—it is the most ethnically diverse county in the United States—many have likened the borough to a contemporary Silk Road.


 






Elena Martínez is a staff folklorist at City Lore in New York City. Martha Cooper is the director of photography at City Lore. For information about this year’s basant mala festival or to find out when the kite fliers are practicing, contact Sheryar Chaudry at (800) 529-1601.


Americans are generally unfamiliar with this passion for kite flying and professional kite competition, but children in Pakistan fly kites like kids here play baseball. Throughout Asia, kite flying is far more than just a children’s game—it’s a focal point of religious events and competitions.


Works Cited

Chaudhry, Sheryar, Adnan Munawar, and Irfan Saleem. September 21, 2000. Interview by Elena Martínez.

Cooley, Harry, and Richard Phelan. April 23, 2000. Interview by Elena Martínez.

Cooper, Ilay, and John Gillow. 1996. Arts and Crafts of India. New York: Thames and Hudson.

Dargan, Amanda, and Steven Zeitlin. 1990. 1984 interview of Ben Swedowsky. In City Play. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Kifner, John. September 23, 2001. Forget the Past: It’s a War Unlike Any Other. New York Times, Week in Review:8.

Peterson, Scott. December 3, 2001. A Letter from Kabul, Afghanistan. Christian Science Monitor.





This article appeared in Voices Vol. 31, Spring-Summer 2005. Voices is the membership magazine of the New York Folklore Society. To become a subscriber, join the New York Folklore Society today.

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