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Friday, July 21, 2006

"Wait a minute, wait a minute. You ain't heard nothin' yet!"
~ The Jazz Singer, 1927.
Wide World of Pashtun Sports

Naiza bazi, a game involving riding horses and throwing spears, is a sport enjoyed among the Pashtun. Some Pashtun also have rock-throwing competitions. Of course, this is a sport popular with politicians in this country. Pashtun in the northern regions of Afghanistan enjoy buzkashi, or "goat pulling," a game in which men on horseback compete for possession of a dead goat or calf. (Wikipedia)

Buzkashi was played to celebrate the election of Parliment

Okay. Let’s hold it right there.

When I first read this, I needed some clarification so I googled Buzkashi (pronounced just like it looks) and got some good information from Middle East Travel Guides "BootsnAll"

Mr Ginger writes:

The Game of Buzkashi
"Buzkashi" is an ancient game played in Afghanistan and dates back to the days of Ghengis Khan (called Chingiz Khan in Afghanistan). The Mongols who originally played it on the steppe, lived and died in the saddle. It is played mostly in the north of Afghanistan in the provinces of Maimana, Mazar-i-Sharif, and Kataghan. As a rule, women are not allowed to watch. (Oh? And I wonder why?)

The game is played thus:
The carcass of a calf is soaked in cold water for 24 hours before the game so that it may be tough enough for the horsemen. Usually, a calf is beheaded, its four legs are cut off from the knee, and its insides emptied before soaking. Sand is sometimes packed inside for extra bulk. When there is no calf available, a goat is used in the same manner. A hole is dug just so deep and the calf put in it so that it is level with the ground. Nearby a circle is drawn with quicklime - this is called hallal, which means "circle of justice" in Turkomen. To the right of the hallal is a pole and to the left another. There is no set distance for these poles but the spectators would not want the action to be too far away to see. (I feel this way at a baseball game, so I can relate). In olden days, the game was played on the steppe and riders would gallop all day, however modern day rules restrict the size of the field (maybe a mile apart). The riders would encircle the pit containing the calf and on a given signal, would attempt to grab it and gallop away around one post then the other before depositing it in the "circle of justice". Meanwhile the other riders try to prevent that by attacking the rider and trying to steal the calf. The rider who deposits the boz (the calf) into the "circle of justice" is considered to be the winner - he may not have circled either post and may have stolen the boz a few yards from the "circle of justice", but anything goes in this sport.

The riders, or chopendoz, wear high leather boots, a quilted (padded) jacket over a long chapan and a fur hat traditionally made of fox or wolf skin. They carry short whips which are made up of a handle attached to a piece of wood about a foot long encased in leather. The chopendoz not only whip their horses (this would never be acceptable in the US, but also the other riders (this would) - especially the one carrying the boz. In olden days the whips were different and were made up of a handle attached to thongs tied to balls of lead (a bit like a cat-o-nine-tails used in the British Navy in the days of sailing ships). The chopendoz of old also carried a knife and sometimes stabbed an opponent's horse or even its rider when attempting to steal the boz. It was not unknown for chopendoz to be killed in a fiercely competitive game. Nowadays it is a little more civilized (but not much, there is still the goat carcass) and riders still get hurt, but they are a tough breed of men. Often a chopendoz will get one arm or leg broken and mount their horses as soon as the fractures are bandaged. An injury does not stop the horsemen from continuing the game (Tell this to NFL players).

The Buzkashi horses (the true heroes of the game) possess special qualities. For instance, when the rider falls off the horse, it waits there for the horseman to mount it again. Some of these horses gallop with a terrific speed as soon as the horseman snatches the carcass of a calf as they have already learned the tricks. Those who train Buzkashi horses feed them special food such as eggs and butter at regular intervals as well as their normal feed of oats and barley. When the horse gets too fat, they have to undergo the kantar which means standing in the sun for hours, bridled and saddled every day for weeks. The sun not only burns away the fat but teaches the horse patience. (Sounds a little like band camp).

According to unwritten rules of the game, nobody can tie the carcass to his saddle (that would be cheating) or hit his opponent on the hand to snatch the calf (that would also be cheating). Like-wise, tripping the opponent by using the rope is forbidden; however, these rules are not strictly observed in local matches (cheating is often overlooked). A player who is thrown can use a riderless horse to continue the game. When horsemen are carried away by their excitement, they ride their horses into the crowd to beat their opponents but they are still chased by other riders. Sometimes, they choose a site for a pitch near a river and a few horsemen conspire to get their opponents drowned (I am not certain, but I don't think we have any American sport that includes drowning unless it is golf).

Winners (if anyone is still left) are awarded prizes of chapan, turbans, cash or rifles. Not all horsemen may own their horses - actually, most of the Buzkashi horses belong to rich men who can afford to buy them and hire trainers (these men are too smart to actually ride these horses). Horses can sell for as much as $US 2,500. Usually, the owner of the horse also awards the horseman a prize, as his horse gains much fame in this manner. A chopendoz is treated with great respect and considered to be an honored member of Afghan society. His fox fur hat is the highest honor for a player. Serious Buzkashi players (and I think you would need to be very serious) train intensively for years and many of the masters (called chapandaz) are over forty years old. Playing well also requires specially trained horses that know to stop still when a rider is thrown, and to gallop forcefully when their rider gets hold of the calf/goat.

Thank you, Mr. Ginger, it is all perfectly clear now.

Hold your horses right there, if you will excuse the poor pun. If you have never heard of Buzkashi, don’t blame Hollywood.

•A game of Buzkashi is featured in an early scene of Rambo III.
• The game is the core and subject of a novel by French Novelist Joseph Kessel titled Les Cavaliers (aka Horsemen) as well as of the film of the same title featuring Omar Sharif.
• The game is also a key element in the book Caravans by James Michener and the film of the same name starring Anthony Quinn. A scene from the film featuring the King of Afghanistan watching a game is in fact Mohammed Zahir Shah. The whole sequence of the game being witnessed by the king was filmed on the Kabul Golf course where the national championships were played at the time the film was made.

For me this puts the phrase "I got your goat" in an entirely new light.

(No goats were injured in the making of this blog)

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