Buzkashi is a traditional Central Asian sport with an intriguing political significance. Benjamin Clarke recounts his experiences at a match in Afghanistan.
I stepped out of my hotel in Mazar-e-Sharif on a Friday morning and breathed in the cool, crisp air of the Afghan winter. The busy streets were vibrant under a clear blue sky and a passer-by grinned at me cheerfully. The city felt very different than it had the previous night, when packs of wild dogs roamed the muddy, potholed streets and the few people out moved furtively in the shadows. I walked through bustling markets to the grounds of the famous Blue Mosque where families sat in the gardens. After buying breakfast from a roadside vendor, I approached a taxi driver about my mission for the day.
“Mikham be jaa-ye buzkashi beram,” I said in halting Dari. I want to go to the buzkashi place.
The Blue Mosque in Mazar-e-Sharif (source: author)
I soon found myself on the edge of the city, where I followed men on horseback to the entrance of an enormous dirt playing field. A defunct Soviet bread factory dominated one side of the field, while on the other dusty plains stretched into the distance before rising into barren mountains. The guards searched me for a suicide vest and then warmly welcomed me inside, refusing to let me pay my spectator’s fee. I had arrived early, but already an anticipatory buzz was rising from the growing crowd.
I was curious to find out more about this bizarre-sounding sport where hordes of horseback riders compete to drag a headless goat carcass into the goal. Buzkashi is more than just a spectacle, however. It holds a special social significance throughout much of Central Asia, where the sport can be traced to the time of Genghis Khan.
In modern-day Afghanistan, buzkashi is big business.
In a country where the average salary is US$1,300, a professional buzkashi rider can make $15,000 a year on top of bonuses like houses and cars. One rider returned from a single match having won $17,000, earrings for his wife, two camels and five AK-47s.
But the real money lies higher up, in the network of politicians, businessmen and warlords who spend vast sums on acquiring the best horses and riders, sponsoring matches and offering prizes.
Afghan society highly values strong men who can attract a loyal following, exert influence and dispense wealth. Buzkashi is one way those with ambition for power can earn such a reputation. A good buzkashi horse is expensive and requires careful training, but big figures in the sport own dozens. Victory on the field gives social capital to rider and owner alike.
Hosting a buzkashi match also enhances the reputation of the sponsor. Organising a match in turbulent Afghanistan requires social, economic and political abilities, and by successfully running a match and navigating the pitfalls he demonstrates his worth as a resourceful and capable leader. Conversely, reputations can be ruined if an event fails and descends into violence – something which occasionally happens as feuds and rivalries boil over. A less risky prospect is putting up prizes for top performances, a display of wealth and generosity which appeals to the traditionally patrimonial society.
Few of these political undercurrents were apparent to me as the game got underway. About a hundred horses milled around on the field as riders wrestled for control of the bedraggled goat carcass. At times gameplay was slow, with riders tactically positioning their horses and jostling to get in a position which would enable them to pick up the goat and make a break for it. When somebody succeeded in leaning down from the saddle, taking hold of the goat and evading attempts to snatch it away, the crowd roared as the rider galloped free, standing up in the saddle and leaning heavily to one side to balance the weight of the goat.
Buzkashi match underway in Mazar-e-Sharif (source: author)
The object was to carry the goat around a stick at one end of the field and then deposit it in a chalk circle at the other end, all without letting it fall to the ground. Other than that, few rules were enforced. Whips were used liberally on horses and opponents alike and occasionally a rider crashed to the ground. Shoves and insults flew back and forth. When a rider scored, he would make a celebratory lap and accept the appreciative applause of the crowd.
The audience was entirely male, but of all ages. Boys walked around selling bags of peanuts and canned drinks. At the goal end of the field there was a small grandstand where the notables gathered, flanked by police vehicles. The match lasted for hours so I walked around the field, occasionally getting into conversation with spectators or being questioned by suspicious police officers. A biting wind began to blow across the field from the mountains so I sheltered by the grandstand where traditional Afghan music blared from loudspeakers, the upbeat rhythm seemingly providing a cadence for the game.
A time-honoured sport in an ancient land, buzkashi is fascinating to watch and offers an intriguing insight into Afghan society.
Video of buzkashi in Mazar-e-Sharif (credit: Lukasz Laszczynski)