MAZAR-E-SHARIF, Afghanistan – The dozens of turbaned horsemen on their prancing steeds assemble on a dusty field on the outskirts of this city in northern Afghanistan. Despite their shouts and cracking whips, however, the riders’ intent is peaceful. As they do on most Friday afternoons after prayer, the horsemen have gathered for a friendly match of buzkashi, or goat grabbing.
Across northern Afghanistan, as well as in neighboring Central Asian states, this winter sport has been an enduring pastime for centuries. The object of the game is for a member of two competing teams to pick up the carcass of a decapitated calf or goat from the ground, carry it around a flag, and return it to a circle in front of the judges.
It is not surprising that a game that prizes courage, horsemanship, and brute strength would be one of the most popular forms of public entertainment here.
Buzkashi is sport reduced to its simplest form, with no contrived side-shows or complicated rules. And, as many things are done in Afghanistan, the seeming chaos of a buzkashi match actually follows a deliberate system that is not always obvious to the foreign observer.
During Taliban rule, many of the top players fled their villages or fought with the Northern Alliance. Others left the country. But now the pros are trickling back. Teams from local villages play each other. Sometimes matches are held to celebrate a wedding or the birth of a son; other times tournaments take place in which thousands of horsemen participate.
At the start of a round, the master riders, known as chapandaz, bunch up in a tangle of men and horses. Players in the midst of the fray stoop down from their mounts – whip in mouth – and try to grab the carcass, which can weigh up to 150 pounds. Suddenly, one rider breaks from the crowd, dragging the calf as he gallops across the field with his rivals in hot pursuit. Opposing riders use their whips to urge on their horses and to hit the rider with the carcass in order to steal it.
Admission is free to the couple of thousand men and boys who have come to cheer on the riders. Armed men futilely try to hold back the throngs by swinging their Kalashnikovs. Often the bystanders become unwilling participants in the game, as the riders charge headlong toward the sidelines, causing the crowd to scatter.
During the match, one chapandaz falls headfirst over his horse, but jumps back on his mount and continues the pursuit. At one point, a motorcycle with a little girl clinging to the back speeds across the field. Nobody seems to mind the three mounted US soldiers, dressed in desert fatigues, who ride with the mass of horsemen.
As the lead horseman with the calf disappears over an embankment and across the road behind the field, a medical student named Baryalai offers a running commentary: “It’s not like a football game where there’s out-of-bounds,” he says. “Because horses are also taking part in this game, it’s allowed.”
For the owners of the horses, possessing buzkashi champions is a matter of prestige. For the chapandaz, too, glory comes before money. Here, corporate sponsorship is not a foreign idea. At this match, a trading company put up the prize money: about $12.
After the game, Amir Zoyer sits on the field and pulls off his long, pointy riding boots. The 40-year buzkashi veteran is also a local fighter. Once out of his boots, he clambers into a pickup truck, bristling with rocket-propelled grenades, and roars off.