‘Don’t forget Afghanistan’: The kite festival with a message
One year after the Taliban seized control of his country, an Afghan immigrant is bringing his love of kites to the UK in a festival that represents “an aerial act of solidarity” with his people.
by: Kat Lister
15 Aug 2022
The kite festival takes place a year on from the fall of Kabul. Image: Fly With Me
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”.
When the Taliban consolidated power in the 1990s, kite flying – a national outdoor sport with deep cultural meaning in Afghanistan – was banned alongside other joyful expressions of individuality such as music, theatre and dancing. Despite the ban, Qiam kept flying: “It just made it more fun.” When rooftops became too dangerous, Qiam and his friends headed to outlying hilltops. “If we heard they were coming, we would either bring the kite down or we would tie it to a tree and say, ‘the tree is flying the kite’.”
Afghans aren’t new to drastic changes, Qiam tells me, as we talk about the unexpected twists and turns his own life has taken. When Qiam was living in Kabul, kites weren’t a trade, they were a hobby. “I wasn’t a crafts person, I was an intellectual,” he says. But all that changed when he came to the UK on an entrepreneurial visa. It was a way for him to assimilate into his new surroundings, but it was also a way to stay connected with the country he was forced to flee.
The message of this festival is, “don’t forget Afghanistan”. Does Qiam feel like it’s been forgotten? “Definitely,” he replies. He talks of the betrayal of the international community and the humanitarian crisis that has subsequently left over 24 million people on their knees. According to Red Cross figures, 95 per cent of people don’t have enough to eat and a million children under the age of five are at risk of dying over the next three months.
On June 21, a devastating earthquake struck the eastern region of Afghanistan, hitting 5.9 on the Richter scale. “Over 1,200 people died,” says Qiam. “As we speak, there are floods every day destroying people’s livelihoods and there is fighting going on every day. People are trying to flee the situation. My own family – my parents, my brothers – escaped the Taliban and are in Pakistan but I can’t sponsor them so they can come and live with me in the UK.” The ‘Homes for Ukraine’ scheme was a really good idea, he says – but why didn’t the UK government do the same for Afghanistan?
Afghan refugees, compared with their European counterparts – though both fleeing conflict and violence – received very different responses. In June, Boris Johnson was accused of “another broken promise” when the Home Office announced it would be slashing the number of Afghan refugees allowed into the UK from 5,000 to 2,000. And in May it was reported that the stalling of the Afghan resettlement scheme had left 12,000 Afghans stranded in hotels across the UK.
“Unfortunately, we’ve created a narrative where compassion is overshadowed by the strangeness and the otherness of Afghans and their culture,” Qiam reflects. “We are not strange, we are very much like you.” At its core, this is what Fly With Me is all about, and this is what Qiam hopes to achieve with his kites, establishing “a cultural exchange and making a stronger community.”
As the seagulls start squawking again, I wonder what Qiam misses about his home thousands of miles away. “I miss the crisp mornings when the sun rises from behind the mountains,” he instantly replies. “I miss the cold winters when you have knee-high snow. I miss the smell of the fig tree and the blossom of the cherries.” The sadness is unavoidable right now, he admits, but when a kite is in flight there is always hope. “We want to highlight the joyous side of Afghanistan which is its culture and its people,” says Qiam. “I have learned to live with the harshness and the difficulties and find something to celebrate.”
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