x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Kites of spring

An outlawed Pakistani festival, celebrating the advent of spring, finds a new home in Sharjah.

For the 24 hours between last Thursday and Friday nights, thousands of Pakistanis - Lahoris, to be exact, perhaps 6,000 - gathered on the outskirts of Sharjah to celebrate the advent of spring. Basant, as the event is known, is a Punjabi word for the season of renewal, and is usually celebrated on the rooftops of Lahore with a week of partying and, most famously, kite fighting. In Sharjah, the densely packed wood and brick havelis and narrow lanes of the Mughal-era old city were replaced by a huge patch of flat desert sand beyond Emirates Road.

Above the area where people had set up camp, hundreds of kites soared through the late-afternoon air looking like a colony of delirious vultures, suddenly dipping and cutting through the air. Naveed Ahmed and Farhat Abbas, both 26-year-old Lahoris living in Sharjah, were walking down the congested road leading to the spectacle. They volunteered to explain the basics of Basant. "First, it's a spring festival in Pakistan," Ahmed said. "The second concept is that we are all the same - there is no upper class or lower class; in Basant, everyone comes together."

At the heart of Basant celebrations, explain the two men, is kite-flying. Not the pastime mostly practised by young children on the beach, but a duelling version played by skilled combatants, their kite strings encrusted with crushed glass or some other abrasive. The goal is to cut the opponent's string, sending his tetherless kite sinking to the ground. "When two kites start fighting, that is a 'pecha,'" Ahmed, draped in a Pakistani flag, said. "'Bokata' is what I yell when I cut your kite."

The kites were made out of coloured paper and light wood, most a simple square no more than a metre across. Imported from Pakistan, they were being sold, depending on their size, for Dh2 or Dh4 each. A roll of the "chemical coated" abrasive string was Dh50. A crescent of vehicles was parked around an open space, as large as two football pitches, where the kite flyers did battle. Around them, cars sat with their doors open, stereos blasting bhangra at full volume, while young men in salwar kameez or jeans and T-shirts stood following the action and cheering. Families sat on chairs in the back of flatbed trucks picnicking. The sand around them was scattered with small green vines covered in white flowers, a meagre ode to spring in the fertile Punjab.

Watching the ongoing duels, it seemed the pleasure of catching a defeated kite as it floated downwards was at least as great as piloting one of the contenders. When a victor yelled "Bokata!" or "Lootna!" after severing a kite's string, dozens of men fought for position, then ran to grab hold of the freed object. "Catching the kite is more difficult than flying it," said Arsalan Zafar, 14, who had come with his uncles and had tape wrapped around his thumb and forefinger to prevent cuts. Spectators roundly jeered those who missed an easy catch.

Sajjad, 34, who is originally from Kashmiri Mohalla in Lahore's old city and now lives in Dubai, was flying one of these captured kites. He expertly tugged the string in short jerks, sending his kite swooping towards another. "This is in the blood of Lahoris. From childhood, all year round kids fly kites from their roofs," he said. "In my grandfather's six-storey house, the top floor was just for kite flying - in the old city every house is like this." While some of the people in attendance claimed that Sharjah's makeshift Basant was but a shadow of the original, Sajjad said he almost preferred it. "What I like here is that it's just a game. It's fun. In Pakistan it's very aggressive, there is aerial firing and weapons - it gets crazy."

In fact, since 2005, Basant has been officially banned in Lahore. Every year, Lahoris are killed by the razor-sharp string or stray bullets, and kites wreak havoc on the city's electric wires. Right-wing Islamist politicians looking for publicity often loudly decry the festival for its "Hindu" origins and the music, drink and dancing associated with it. Nevertheless, Lahoris often flout the ban, and this year even the governor of Punjab said he would not be deterred from celebrating.

Many at the Sharjah Basant felt conflicted about the ban. "It's good because people get extremist about the kites," said Farhat Abbas. "But our friends in Lahore are really missing it. They say 'Wow! How?!' when I tell them about our Basant here." But his friend Ahmed just shook his head, "The ban is very sad." Sitting in the driver's seat of his Toyota Land Cruiser with the door open, parked in the middle of the kite-flying area, Shahid - stout, with a curling moustache and black stone pinkie ring - looked every inch the Lollywood villain. When I asked him what he thought of the Basant ban, he replied with a smile, "I'll show you why they ban it." On his mobile phone, he had a video of a friend's Basant party from a previous year. In it, as men and women danced to bhangra on a red-carpeted roof, three men fired Kalashnikovs and pistols into the air as they cheered and shimmied in the unmistakable Punjabi fashion.

The unofficial organiser of the Sharjah Basant is Haji Mohammed Amin, who moved to the enirate from Lahore 30 years ago - and hasn't been home for the festival since. Amin scouts the location and gets at least tacit permission from city officials, and then the venue and date is spread by word of mouth. "I'm not into flying the kites; arranging it is the most important part," he said. "Every year it's grown. People have even come from Pakistan to celebrate here."

As the setting sun sank beneath the dunes on Friday night and the sky emptied of kites, people - many of whom had camped there the night before - began to leave. They walked to their cars on sand littered with the shredded carcasses of hundreds of kites and countless metres of string. Red flares shot into the clear desert sky, leaving trails in front of the moon as they fell - uncatchable.