Afghanistan’s buzkashi season begins, with Taliban at the reins

Nov 3, 2021: About 3,000 spectators, all men and boys, cheer, as Haji Muhammad Pahalwan waves his whip in the air, pulling his grey stallion away from the calf carcass he has just dumped in a goal to claim victory in a tournament of buzkashi, Afghanistan’s national sport.

Talking to AFP News Agency, 29 year old Muhammad who is still wearing his Soviet era helmet with a face covered in fine dust, says, “I’m walking away with the glory,”

Afghanistan is a country that revers the players of Buzkashi known as “chapandazan” as heroes.

Buzkashi itself stems from the Persian words for goat (“buz”) and drag (“kashi”), and has been played in Central Asia for centuries, with Afghanistan’s neighbours Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan having their own variations.

The ancient sport, initially banned for being “immoral” during the Taliban’s rule from 1996 to 2001, will be revived in a pleasant change after the group seized power in August this year.

For not only have Taliban fighters gathered to watch the showpiece Buzkashi tournament after Friday prayers, a local commander is also taking part, and Muhammad’s club is led by a district governor.

Surrounded by mountains, the early-season tournament takes place in Qarabagh, just outside Samangan’s capital, Aibak, where the Hindu Kush mountains meet the Central Asian plain.

As the tournament kicks off, the winners of the preliminary rounds claim 1,000 afghanis ($ 11), with the crowd forming a huge rectangular pitch around 50 to 60 horses and riders.

A rogue group of several hundred spectators is repeatedly pushed back by gun-wielding Taliban fighters, even though they are speeding on their feet when a herd of Buzkashi horses runs towards them while wrestling for a muddy corpse.

Riders holding sticks of wood and leather between their teeth include local Taliban leader Abu Do Jana, aided by a young fighter named Osama, but they are nowhere near the winner.

Mohammad says the group did not cause any problems during the tournament. Sawar says his combined winnings and bonuses for the day are about $ 800 in total, five times the average monthly salary in Afghanistan, which is facing a major economic and humanitarian crisis. The brothers will play Buzkashi every week throughout the winter until April.

Although buzkashi no longer draws the huge cash prizes dished out by warlords like the notorious Abdul Rashid Dostum, for the hardened chapandazan, winning is a matter of honour.

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