Horseplay, Afghan-style

In Afghanistan, sports fans favor the national game - buzkashi.

August 15, 2004|By Michael Hill and John Makely | Michael Hill and John Makely,SUN STAFF

So what can you say about a country whose national sport involves a bunch of tough guys on horseback, kicking, whipping and screaming as they fight over a decapitated calf carcass?

You can probably safely say that this is not the most genteel neighborhood in the world. And that has certainly been proved true by generations of would-be conquerors who have found their way to this country.

The game is buzkashi. The country is Afghanistan.

In a recent match in the Afghan capital of Kabul, the sport's free-for-all roots were on clear display. The male stud horses - no geldings allowed - were fast and tough, and not above biting one another.

They were trained to stop in their tracks should a rider fall off or speed away suddenly if their rider grabbed the carcass off the ground.

But there was a certain method to the madness. Points were scored by breaking free with the 150-pound calf carcass - held only by the hands of the rider - galloping to one end of the stadium and then returning to drop it in a 10-foot-wide chalk circle in front of the grandstand.

Announcer Habibulah has been a fixture at these games for about as long as they have been played in Kabul. He will sing a rider's praises if he has been tipped first. After one impressive score, he yelled, "Asaq pounces like a lion, he sprints like a deer. Asaq is the greatest rider without equal." It was a description given to many riders during the long, dusty afternoon.

Buzkashi - pronounced "bush ka shee" - originated in the steppes of Central Asia among nomadic societies where the horse was paramount. Skillfully handling a powerful stallion bestowed on a young male the admirable qualities that later generations would seek by speeding in fast cars.

"The Central Asian steppes were sort of like our prairies," says Robert Canfield, an anthropologist of Afghanistan at Washington University in St. Louis. "A prairie culture developed there that involved control of the horse that made it possible to win at battle and was crucial to the survival of anyone living out on the steppes."

Nazif Sharani, an anthropologist at Indiana University, says that originally buzkashi - which basically means goat-snatching - had no teams and almost no rules. The carcass - it was once that of a goat, now usually a calf - was dropped on a huge field and perhaps hundreds of horsemen began battling over it with only a few common-law rules governing what could be done to one another in pursuit of the carcass.

"It was a free-for-all game," Sharani says. "It displayed the ability of a horseman to break out of a large congregation of horses and horsemen, to snatch the carcass, run a good distance, and drop it anywhere."

At that point, a new scrum formed around the dropped carcass and the game essentially began again. Buzkashi games were held to mark feast days and important celebrations among extended families. Those who demonstrated their skills were presented prizes by the wealthy hosts.

In the 1950s, the Afghan king proclaimed buzkashi the country's national game, though it was virtually unknown among Afghantistan's majority Pashtun population who probably knew more about cricket - the game of choice in neighboring Pakistan - than this battle on horses that was native to tribes from the north.

Buzkashi was chosen in part to help weld a society out of the disparate parts that made up Afghanistan. And, Sharani points out, though the game is played in other Central Asian countries, it was a part of Afghanistan's attempt to carve out a post-colonial identity.

"It was part of so-called nation building," he says. "All post-colonial societies had to make themselves into nations, and nations had sports. The idea was not only to have a flag that was different from someone else's flag, but also to have a sport. People are always looking for what is unique in their society or culture that they could put forth to the world."

Scholar Whitney Azoy argues in his book Buzkashi: Game and Power in Afghanistan that the game is a metaphor for that country, not just because the violent chaos on the field mirrors Afghan history, but also because the games are put on by wealthy landowners, who control stables of horses, as a demonstration of their power.

"I think it's a bit of a reach," says Canfield of that thesis. "If you take one sport like baseball as a national sport and try to figure out what that says about a people, you can use it as a metaphor, but that's about all."

Sharani agrees. "It's a very interesting analogy about Afghan politics today, but it is a simplification," he says. "Games are games. They are entertainment and fun."

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