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Pakistanis can go fly a kite today

The government is lifting a ban on the traditional pastime -- for a day. Critics say the move is political and aimed at defusing protests in Lahore.

March 15, 2009|Mark Magnier

LAHORE, PAKISTAN — Amid all the turmoil of opposition politicians being arrested, activists roughed up and police blocking a "long march" protest, the government recently announced it would lift, for one day only, its ban on kite flying.

In recent years, sending bits of paper and wood skyward has been outlawed for what the government deems safety reasons: Several boys fell off rooftops and motorcycle riders were injured or killed when they got tangled up in string strengthened with ground glass. (To reduce the risk of injury, the government has banned motorcycle riders for the 24-hour period of kite flying, which started Saturday night.)

But critics say authorities have an ulterior motive for the sudden turnaround: They want residents here in Lahore, Pakistan's cultural capital and an opposition stronghold, to stop protesting and go fly kites.

"It's just like what they did in the Roman Colosseum under Nero to distract people," said Saqib Hafeez, a pilot who grew up in Lahore. "It's openly political."

Officials said they were lifting the ban not to distract the masses but rather to help the kite-making industry, which has been devastated by the restrictions.

Kite fighting has long been a cornerstone of Lahore's spring Basant festival, when fun-loving residents clamber onto their roofs to relax, party and watch kite duels. As depicted in the 2003 book "The Kite Runner," contestants try to cut one another's kite strings through skill and stealth.

Although most kite makers welcomed the chance to do a little business again, the government gave them all of a day's notice.

"How can we make kites with no warning?" said Syad Awais, 34, a shopkeeper who has been forced to diversify into candle sales -- a steady business with all the power cuts. "How can we make money this way?"

On Saturday afternoon, four hours before the start of the festival, there wasn't a kite for sale in sight at Inner Mochi Bazaar, the traditional heart of the kite-making industry in Pakistan.

Faraz Ali Sayad, 9, wended his way through its narrow lanes past motorcycles, pushcarts and pedestrians to a stall where kites once were sold, only to be disappointed. "I'm a good kite fighter," he said proudly. "I'm very happy they're letting us do it. I hope I can find one soon."

Kite enthusiasts say the whole idea of a ban is excessive.

"Cars and trains have accidents, but they don't ban them," said Khawaja Basharat Hussain, former president of the shopkeepers association.

Religious conservatives, however, support the ban on kites, which they see as an excuse for immoral behavior.

"I hate kites," said Faqir Mohammed Shami, 78, sitting under the eaves of Lahore's Badshahi mosque. "It's an Indian custom, the high court banned it, and I'm totally against them."

Amid all the controversy, kite lovers just hope the tradition will endure.

"I'm very fond of kite flying, which I learned from my brother and father," Hussain said. "My thinking is, when man looked at the birds and first dreamed of flying, he sent up a kite."

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mark.magnier@latimes.com

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