In 2011 Sanjar Qiam fled to the UK from Afghanistan – and he brought 12,000 kites with him.
“I’ll tell you how I got them here,” Qiam chuckles, speaking by phone from his home in Brighton, over the din of squawking seagulls. “I shipped them with DHL.” When the customs clearance officer delivered the boxes to his newly opened toy shop on the East Sussex coast, he did so with a raised eyebrow. “What are you going to do with so many kites?” he asked. To which Qiam replied, “I’m going to get everyone in the UK flying them.” The officer wasn’t convinced – and Qiam soon realised why. “I overestimated British enthusiasm for kite flying,” he laughs.
Eleven years later, the UK’s enthusiasm is set to be challenged by Kabul’s master kitemaker once again. This time around, he’s upping the ante: from 12,000 flatpacked kites to an immersive, multi-city kite flying festival that will mark a year since the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan. Spread across 15 locations, and developed alongside Good Chance Theatre, Fly With Me will celebrate the ancient Afghan craft of kite flying in what is being billed as “an aerial act of solidarity” with the people of Afghanistan on August 20.
“The true victims of the Taliban are the Afghan people,” Qiam says as we discuss the recent horror of the US and UK withdrawal from Afghanistan, a botched evacuation that was subsequently found to be a “disaster and betrayal” by the UK foreign affairs committee. “I’ve seen friends murdered by the Taliban; journalists, teachers, doctors, children.” Sometimes Qiam asks himself, how could this happen? “Where do we start? The cruelty of these guys.”
He was 15 when the Taliban took control in the mid-Nineties. “Life was full of hardship, and full of joy, and it’s this contrast that’s made me who I am today,” he muses on his own life story, which, like Afghanistan’s turbulent history, is full of contrasts of darkness and light.
“When I was a child, I loved kites. I made them with my friends, and we would fly them together,” he reminisces. To Qiam, these most simple of toys – “paper, bamboo and string, that’s all you need” – conjure memories of childlike competitiveness on the streets of Kabul. But they also symbolise something deeper, and that’s a powerful act of defiance, “the freedom to have fun despite the tyranny”.