Thursday, May 5, 2011

Afghanistan's Goat Grabbing Game...

The ancient sport of goat grabbing,' known as buzkashi, which involves riding on a horse to capture a goat carcass, is Afghanistan's national sport and has turned into a big business in the northern part of the country.

Sitting an the top his horse, buzkashi star Jahaan Geer surveys the scene at a recent goat grabbing' competition in Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan. The ancient sport of tussling for a goat carcass from horseback is popular in northern Afghanistan.

Like most buzkashi players, Mr. Geer comes from a farming family that could barely afford to eat meat once a week. Now, buzkashi stars earn a monthly wage, receive cars as gifts and save enough to afford a second or even third wife, the ultimate sign of prestige here.

Mazar-e-Sharif holds some of the most competitive games across the country. Every Friday, thousands of spectators gather at the city's buzkashi field, eating red-dyed hard-boiled eggs and sharing bags of opium and hashish joints.

Children with fistfuls of fifty- and hundred-dollar bills crisscross the bleachers to place bets with the bookie. Occasionally, the spectators drop everything and flee from the area as a stampede of horses goes astray, trampling onlookers while the players fight for possession of the goat.

The objective of the game is to fight through a mob of horseback rivals and drop the goat carcass into the circle of justice,' a circle drawn into the earth around a pole that acts as a goal.

During the Taliban regime, buzkashi, like most sports, was banned because it was considered immoral. After the U.S. ousted the Taliban in 2001, the new Afghan government proclaimed it the national sport, organizing tournaments across the country. Here, a player drags the goat carcass.

Now, the Afghan Buzkashi Federation wants the game to go global, and says it's considering applying for Olympic status. Although there are no regional games, buzkashi is played across central Asia and even in parts of India and Pakistan, much to the dismay of animal-rights activists.

After the match, whatever remains of the goat carcass will likely be cooked and eaten by poor spectators in a festive after-game meal. The wealthier fans will collect their bet winnings.

Afghans believe the game originated about 800 years ago with the invading Mongol armies of Genghis Khan, whose skilled horsemen pillaged villages, stealing sheep and other livestock at full gallop. Afghans villagers developed the same tactic to steal back their livestock.

More recently, buzkashi has been played with a dead calf because the flesh is stronger and the carcass lasts longer, players say. This recent game used a goat, though.

Today, warlords, wealthy businessmen and some Afghanistan corporations, such as national airline Kam Air, sponsor players. Here, a player collects a cash prize after winning a match.

Fans greet Mr. Geer, center, after the match. I used to practice buzkashi on donkeys, now I drive a Lexus!' the 33-year-old champion chuckled. He used to play for warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum but recently switched to play for Kam Air.

A competitor checked his horse during a break in the match. Proponents say they love their horses, despite the rough nature of the sport.

Men watched videos of matches at the Kam Air offices. Some older fans of the sport complain that the game has become too much about money, taking the passion out of the sport. It's become a game for the rich to gamble,' says Jabar, a 65-year-old buzkashi-arena cleaner.

All photographs by Bryan Denton for The Wall Street Journal.

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