Hugh Naylor
The National
July 24, 2011 - 12:00am

JERUSALEM // At dusk, the skies over the city's ancient and congested heart erupt into a frenzy of activity.

That is when the Palestinian youth of Jerusalem's Old City congregate near Damascus Gate or climb on to the roofs of their clustered homes with plastic kites.

For the casual observer, it is a spectacle of brilliantly coloured objects overhead. For children in this claustrophobic corner of East Jerusalem, lacking the recreational facilities that are so abundant in the city's Jewish areas, the kite channels pent-up energy into the skies above.

"You don't need grass to do this," said Abed Bahi, 7, watching his brother, Issa, 15, tether an eagle-shaped kite for an evening of flying.

As he spoke, groups of boys stood nearby, tugging on strings to keep kites airborne or hoping to catch a gust to send them aloft.

At 10 shekels (Dh11) each the kite, or "tayarah" in Arabic, offers an inexpensive alternative to video games or memberships of sports clubs.

That may explain their popularity among impoverished Palestinian youth and the undocumented labourers who scratch out a living with odd jobs in Israel.

"There's not much else for us to do here," said Safwat Khallaj, 22, a Hebron native who enjoyed Old City kite-flying sessions after days spent toiling as a freelance construction worker.

"Look around you. You can't find a good place to play football."

East Jerusalem's 270,000 Palestinians, although more than a third of the population, receive only a fraction of the municipal budget for public services.

Whereas Jerusalem's overwhelmingly Jewish west side has 1,000 well-kept public parks, the east has a mere 45, says B'tselem, the Israeli watchdog that monitors the occupied Palestinian territories.

A lack of social outlets only serves to encourage restless Palestinian boys who, feeling powerless against the city's inequities, vent by hurling stones at encroaching Jewish settlers and police.

In the Old City, the dearth of play areas seems as much an issue of space as it does municipal policy. With its narrow streets, densely grouped buildings and religious sites packed with tourists, a child would be hard pressed to squeeze in enough space for an impromptu football match.

"When I exclude the Haram al Sharif [Noble Sanctuary], the other religious places and roads, we have a population of 36,000 people living in about 360 dunums [36 hectares]," said Rassem Khamaisi, an urban-planning expert at Jerusalem's International Peace and Co-operation Centre.

"That means 100 people per dunum … not much room to play."

But therein lies the beauty of kites - they make playgrounds vertical.

Their popularity is no surprise to Mazen Salieme, 40, a toy vendor at Damascus Gate who has sold more than 5,000 kites since the beginning of summer. They are easily his best-selling item from among the Chinese-made action figures and dolls.

"I saw a child who could barely walk yelling at his dad, 'I want a kite, Papa'," Mr Salieme said. "So his parents bought him a kite and the kid actually flew it."

The many kites over the Old City have even attracted to his kiosk the ultra-Orthodox Jews from the nearby neighbourhood of Mea Shearim.

"I had one who bought 50 of them the other day," Mr Salieme said. But the toy's allure falls short of healing Jerusalem's sectarian divisions. In the Old City, kite flying is mostly a hobby of Palestinians, such as Ahmed Muna and his brother Amr, both 10.

Ahmed was practising his skills on a recent evening when a strong wind snapped the string, sending his kite floating over the Old City walls.

"Oh no," he yelled as he ran after it. "Let it go," Amr yelled at his brother. "It's gone."

Ten minutes later, Ahmed emerged with the beloved toy, triumphantly shouting: "I've got, I've got it."

They made a quick repair and continued flying.

"They're free in the sky," said Amr. "You feel free."


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