Grandstand politics

A combination of brutish horsemanship and iron-clad nerves, buzkashi, a time-honoured Afghan sporting contest, is a chaotic test of life and limb, a pepped-up polo for the masses.

There is little subtlety or refinement in the modern traditions of Afghan sport. Take the Afghan Olympic squad, a five-person team inclusive of a boxer, a wrestler and an exponent of judo. From a country moulded through the defence of the homeland and the absolute defeat of opponents, these Olympians come ably qualified in the skills of engagement, resistance and the blunt use of force.

A combination of brutish horsemanship and iron-clad nerves, buzkashi, a time-honoured Afghan sporting contest, is a chaotic test of life and limb, a pepped-up polo for the masses. The game, a staple fixture on the events calendar, pays homage to the marauding Mongol armies and their mastery of man over beast and is likely derived from the tradition of the hunt. Buzkashi, literally ‘goat grabbing’, is in essence, barely legitimised combat fought by only the most hardened and courageous riders.

Teams from Afghanistan’s northern provinces are regarded as the countries finest, riders feted with the same passion usually reserved for fallen military and political leaders. Arriving in the stadium atop male stud horses, cloaked in heavy quilted coats, fox-fur hats, leather whip clenched tightly between their teeth, they appear impervious to fear or the notion of defeat.

While historically played on vast open plains with small cavalries for teams, matches are now frequently held in the provincial capitals, and are contested with at least a semblance of restraint and order. Two teams attempt to score points by carrying the ‘boz’—the leaden weight of a dismembered goat or calf—the length of the field, looping a wooden marker then attempting to drop it in a chalk circle at the opposite end of the pitch. The primary impediment is of course the opposing team who have licence to stifle the run of the ‘chapandaz’ (master rider) by any and all means available. The game therefore pits the smaller, speedier
horses against the massive frames of the larger breeds, with the riders skilfully pulling the reins.

As the game progresses, the rules become secondary to the grinding scrimmages and the dash of open play. Crowds are appreciative and knowledgeable; the intricacies of stirrup work, strenuous turns and blinding bursts of speed are not lost on even the youngest potential apprentice. The spectacle can continue for hours, though the game rarely deviates from a breakneck pace. At full gallop, riders two and three abreast will grapple side-saddle over the remains of the ‘boz’, till the immense strain or threat of fall rears them upright. Once clear and with the prize securely aboard, riders will rally an offensive posse and attempt to penetrate the goal circle. As horses become entangled in the throng, the ‘boz’ is often lost requiring a designated rider to reach among the clambering hooves to retrieve the booty. He then forces an escape with several stabbing blows of the horsewhip, muck like a gritty rover from the pack. As the horses are trained for years prior to competition and are specially conditioned in the lead-up months, they rarely buckle or feign an encounter. Most often the riders bear the scars of battle, though they will generally resist leaving the field even with the direst of injuries.

Other characters play bit parts in the spectacle; the hopeful umpire, the roving jester-like commentator, and the diminutive groundsman who reapplies the boundaries of the scoring circle with lime chalk as it is routinely trodden into the earth. Often the crowds become unwitting participants themselves as the action spills over into the unprotected stands with riders tearing at the bloodied carcass as if it were lined with gold.

Goals are greeted with furious applause, though the expectant crowds rarely gift the rider’s acclaim. Competitors are rewarded handsomely for scoring and are heralded by supporters as they make self-congratulatory runs along the spectator stands. At more esteemed tournaments, successful riders are plied with gifts of cash, clothing and weaponry in lieu of a trophy or sober presentation. More precious however is the acclamation among one’s peers, the value of the steed and the honour of the ‘chapandaz’.

Though over recent decades, steps have been taken to standardise the rules of the game, principally by the fledgling Afghan Olympic Committee, the game still renews traditional rivalries and plays out power struggles like medieval theatre. Grudges are borne, deals are made and challenges laid down in the customary manner of Afghan politics.

Aspects of the Afghan struggle are punctuated through the heroic leadership of the chapandaz and the desire to wrest control of the ‘great game’. Across generations of Afghan families, tribes and communities, these realities remain both stark and poignant.

Though not likely to challenge the gentility of international equestrian events, buzkashi delivers more than a sporting contest should; winners, heroes, repercussions and the remnants of the ‘boz’ for the true fanatic. 

Ben Fraser has worked in Afghanistan for several years as a project manager for national and international NGOs.

 

 

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