Long had I dreamed of seeing a buzkashi game, the iconic sport that epitomizes the Afghan spirit. Finally, nine days into our Afghanistan journey, we were heading to a match. The Director of the Buzkashi Federation happens to be a friend of our fixer, Najibullah, and he invites us to attend the match as his guests, and honor that not only eliminates complicated issues of checkpoints and security, but also provides a few other unexpected perks.
We meet Tashili in the dusty field behind Kabul Stadium where the horses for the Kabul team are housed. As we arrived, horses were being loaded into trucks and several were still tethered in the field waiting their turn. Tashili welcomes us warmly and asks if I like buzkashi. I reply that its a great honor to watch a game and a lifelong dream. He shows us the horses, and stopping in front of a white one, asks if I would like to get on. Thinking he is joking, that there’s no way would they let a woman on one of these treasured animals – there’s an Afghan belief that if a bride rides on one of the buzkashi horses that the horse will never compete again, and I wonder what happens if a foreign female rides one. Nonetheless, I am fairly bursting and tell him I would be greatly honored. He smiles broadly and gestures for one of the stable boys to remove the blanket covering the saddle and allow me to mount. A crowd materializes and an air of disbelief circulates through the crowd.
Not waiting to see if Tasili is pulling my leg, I hoist up my long skirt (I’m wearing jeans underneath) so that my foot can reach high enough to slide into the stirrups, and pray I can make this look graceful. Praise Allah for the strength built up in my legs from a summer of mountain bike riding. The crowd grows larger to witness the foreigner accepting the challenge and mounting one of their prized horses. A grin spreads across my face, feeling the strength of the animal beneath me, knowing that I’ll see this horse compete under the skill of one of Kabul’s chapandaz, the burly riders that compete in this iconic sport. A dream come true.
Regretfully, I dismount and allow the horse to be led to the trucks. Tashili leads me over to meet the President of the Federation, Aji Abdul Rashed. This man could have been a professional wrestler in another life. Heavy set and looking every bit as strong as one of the horses, he grins broadly and claps my hand in both of his. “You love buzkashi?” “You must buy some horses, and we will keep them for you.”
I laugh and say it would be a great honor to own buzkashi horses, but alas, I’m in no position to afford that.
“Not today, maybe in the future”, he insists.
“Inshallah”, I reply, and with that we shake again.
He’s enjoying himself and we talk about the state of the sport in Afghanistan, the horses, and of course, the legendary chapadaz themselves. He is riding himself today and I promise to follow his horse throughout the game.
Horses loaded up, we all walk back to the cars and load up, Tashili riding with us, for the hour long drive north of Kabul to the empty field on the Shamali Plain.
We get there just in time to be led through tight security, walk across the muddy field through horses and riders warming up and making adjustments to their mounts. Stone bleachers line one side and I realize I will be allowed to sit just inches away from the action.
The game starts with the riders of the four competing teams lining up across the back of the field, the headless cow tossed near the winner’s circle, and the ‘rodeo clown’ blowing the whistle. Riders surge forward to gain position and grab the carcass. They must then race down to the green flag at the end of the field before then can attempt to race back and drop the cow in the circle. The trick is…the cow is heavy and difficult to hold onto, and you’ve got forty or more riders chasing you trying to steal the cow, block you, or simply force you off course.
To say this game is a controlled chaos is an understatement. Its like a rugby scrum with horses surging forth into the pack, jockeying for position, blocking and maneuvering, until someone, somehow secures the cow and breaks free. More chapandaz score than I would have thought and each time the cow is released into the circle, cheers of “Hallal” go round the field. The rider then collects his cash prize from the stands and heads back out to try again.
Tony Di Zinno, sports photographer at large, enters the scrum to the delight of the crowd and the befriending of the ‘rodeo clown/ref’. His new friend encouragingly shoves Tony right into the action and quickly back peddles out of the melay. Caught up in the thundering of hooves and acrobatic acts from the riders, Najibullah and I quickly forgot that Tony was in amongst the hooves. He emerges periodically to get clear and catch his breath, before diving back in.
Three and a half hours later, the third cow is thrown in (the first two disintegrating under the constant tug of war under hooves of the horses). Tony shows me the frame posted above with a cat-that-got-the-canary smile. He’s pretty sure he’s got some good stuff. Its cold and we walk back across the field towards the gate. One of the chapandaz rides over and gestures that I could get on for a ride back to the gate. This draws a few cheers from the crowd and its with regret that I decline, as I see there is no space on top of the horse due to the size of this sturdy chapandaz. He grins and rides past.
All hail the new Secretary General!
One can dream…..and we have the images to prove it!
photo by Di Zinno