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From Kabul to H'wood - a star is born

world Updated: Apr 12, 2007 14:25 IST
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A man living in a graveyard in a rubbish-strewn, rundown Kabul district is the unlikely hero behind the scenes of one of Hollywood's most eagerly anticipated movies this year.

Noor Agha is widely acknowledged as the best kite-maker in Afghanistan, where flying and dueling with kites is the closest thing the war-torn country has to a national sport. He is also a champion kite-flyer.

The Kite-Runner, based on the bestselling novel by an Afghan immigrant living in the United States, hits the screens in November, featuring hundreds of kites painstakingly made by Agha in his shack in a graveyard in Kabul's Ashiqan Arifan area.

He also spent weeks training the movie's teenage protagonists in kite flying and dueling, skills they used on camera when the movie was shot in China last year.

"I got $30 a day for 45 days, teaching them all I knew.

Sometimes I had to smack them when they didn't do well," Agha says, smiling and revealing a missing upper tooth.

<b1>He says he hasn't seen any rushes of The Kite-Runner, a story of fatherhood, friendship and betrayal which starts in 1970s Kabul and moves to California's Bay Area and back to Afghanistan when it was ruled by the Taliban.

"I am waiting for it, it's my movie," he says, taking time off from kite making for a cigarette and a cup of unsweetened green tea.

Half an hour

Agha, a 51-year-old balding and bearded man, makes his kites on a wooden pallet on the floor of his carpet-lined living room.

For the simple ones, it takes just under half an hour, starting with pasting two strips of bamboo on a three-square-foot piece of brightly colored tissue paper, one straight across the diagonal and the other curved in an arc between the other two ends.

A string is then tied around the perimeter and pasted down. As a final flourish, each kite Agha makes carries a pasted paper cutout of a scorpion -- his trademark -- and his name in the Dari script, painstakingly snipped out of tissue paper and glued down.

The key to a good kite, Agha says, is in the glue he uses, a green paste which carries several secret ingredients besides paste and rice gruel.

The quality of the glue allows him to make a kite with no wrinkles in the paper, keeping it entirely flat.

"It's a gift of Allah," says the kite-maker of his skills. These simple kites he sells to traders for $1 a piece, but he charges up to $200 for large kites with elaborate designs, including one with all the provinces of Afghanistan copied from an atlas on to tissue paper, cut out and pasted on the kite.

When the strictly Islamist Taliban ruled Afghanistan, they banned kite-flying. Agha says he worked underground for some time and then fled to Pakistan.

When he returned, the only land he could find was in the graveyard of the district he was born in, where he now lives with two wives and 10 children. And he doesn't want to move, despite his relative affluence.

"Even if you give me the whole of Kabul as a gift, I won't live anywhere else," he says. "This is my homeland."

Down in the Shoar Bazaar, the premier kite market in Kabul, Agha's kites are much in demand. They sell with at least a 60 percent mark up, and many customers will buy no others.

"People ask for his kites," said Sayed Khalil, surrounded by rolls of glass-sharpened twine and hundreds of kites in a tiny shop. "And they will buy 10 or 20 at a time."

Champion

The Kite-Runner, written by Khaled Hosseini, tells the story of the lives of a rich Kabul businessman's son and his companion cum servant, who chases kites that are cut loose in duels by the glass-sharpened twine -- thus The Kite-Runner.

Written in 2003, it was received tepidly initially but became a runaway bestseller in 2005 and last year.

In the novel, Amir, the rich man's son, wins a Kabul kite-flying competition. Noor Agha has won it in reality several times, most recently this year.

Every Friday, he takes a break from kite-making to go to the Nadir Khan Hill in a Kabul suburb, where hundreds gather on the Muslim sabbath to fly kites, duel and chase those which are felled.

"This is my hobby," Agha says. "I am the champion, no one can cut my kite."