Haji Mohammad Pahlawan whips his grey stallion away from the calf carcass he has just dumped in a goal to claim victory in a buzkashi tournament, Afghanistan’s national sport.
A cloud of dust swirls around the heaving scrum of three dozen horses competing in the final contest on a vast plain in the northern province of Samangan, where buzkashi riders are revered as heroes as “Chapandazan.”
A crowd of about 3,000 men and boys cheer, whoop, and ululate as a beaming Mohammad gallops over to tournament officials to claim his $500 prize, then gathers his mounted teammates for their victory lap.
Buzkashi, derived from the Persian words for goat (“buz”) and drag (“Kashi”), has been played for centuries in Central Asia, with variations popular in Afghanistan’s neighbors Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan.
The ancient game was banned under the Taliban’s brutal regime from 1996 to 2001 for being “immoral,” and there were fears it would be banned again after the Islamists took power in August.
But it’s not just Taliban fighters who have gathered in the crowd after Friday prayers to watch this showpiece buzkashi tournament — a local commander is competing, and Mohammad’s club is captained by a district governor.”I’m walking away with the glory,” Mohammad, 29, tells AFP on the sidelines, his face layered in the fine powder kicked up during the two-hour competition.
‘Like wine and kebab’
The early-season tournament is held at Qara Shabagh, just outside Aybak, Samangan’s capital, where the Hindu Kush mountains meet the Central Asian steppe.
The horsemen’s goal is to drag the decapitated and disemboweled goat or calf carcass around a rock before throwing it on a chalked central scoring circle known as a “jor,” also known as the “circle of justice.”
Although buzkashi no longer attracts the large cash prizes handed out by warlords such as the notorious Abdul Rashid Dostum, winning is a matter of honor for this hardened chapandazan.
“One of my horse’s ears tastes like wine, and the other tastes like a kebab,” Mohammad’s brother Najibullah says, straddling his bay stallion.
“If you win, you get drunk, and if you lose, you get burned like meat on a skewer,” says the pre-tournament favorite from Samangan’s Feroz Nakhchir district, 35.
When Mohammad and his five buzkashi brothers are not competing, they tend to the horses, which include Khanjar (Dagger), Qara Bator (Brave Black), and Tyson, feeding them grain, melons, and grapes and training for the winter tournaments.
Najibullah is a hulking giant of a man with a bone-crushing handshake and a disarming smile, standing at 1.92 meters (6 foot 4 inches) tall and weighing 110 kilograms (243 pounds).
“Buzkashi is a really dangerous game,” he says, listing among his injuries a cracked skull, broken thumbs, twisted legs, split lips, and “one hundred broken teeth.”
“But I still feel great and I’m not afraid,” laughs Najibullah, whose family has a long history with the sport as riders and horse owners, earning them the title “Pahlawan” — wrestler.
Taliban crowd control
Spectators travel from across Afghanistan’s northern provinces on foot, bicycles, and cars, or crammed into the backs of pick-up trucks and rickshaws.
Some people arrive early to watch the chapandazan saddle their horses and put on their mismatched outfits of padded judo jackets and trousers, welding gloves, and cowboy boots in the afternoon sun.
While others haul flasks of tea, young boys balance packets of sunflower seeds on trays on their heads, calling out for customers.
As the tournament begins, with early-round winners receiving 1,000 Afghanis ($11) each, the crowd swells to form a massive rectangular pitch around the 50 to 60 horses and riders.
The main stand is a wall, where the event announcer rouses fans with a regular “Hey, hey, hey!” over the loudspeaker.
A raucous crowd of several hundred fans is repeatedly pushed back by gun-toting Taliban fighters, though they are quicker on their feet when a swarm of marauding buzkashi horses rushes towards them as they compete for the muddied carcass.
Khasta Gul, 45, is the most animated, running onto the dung-caked pitch to cheer on his favorite chapandazan, spraying water into the air and cracking jokes with other spectators.
One rider rewards him with 500 Afghanis ($5.50) for his unwavering enthusiasm.”I’m very passionate about sports,” Gul tells AFP. “I cheer on our riders and enjoy encouraging them.”
The buzkashi games are played at breakneck speed, with the burly chapandazan employing all of their strength, guile, and dark arts to pry the carcass from one another.
Local Taliban leader Abu Do Jana, aided by a young fighter named Osama, is among the riders gripping their wood and leather whips between their teeth — but they are no match for the winner.
Abbas Bromand, the Feroz Nakhchir district head and club captain of the brothers’ team, congratulated Mohammad on his victory.
“Everyone should support athletes and riders,” he says to AFP. “We’ll try to organize more tournaments across the country.”
Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers have yet to formalize a sports policy but have indicated that men and boys are permitted to participate.
And, according to Mohammad, the hardliners have not caused any problems during the tournament.
According to the rider, his total winnings and bonuses for the day are around $800, which is more than five times the average monthly salary in Afghanistan, which is in the grip of a massive economic and humanitarian crisis.
The brothers will continue to play buzkashi every week until the end of the winter, in April.
“Those who have no hope are losers,” he claims. “The season is looking fantastic right now.”