Buzkashi – For the sake of the game
11 December 2009 – It is a clear winter day in Mazar-i-Sharif.
The first snows of December have covered the nearby mountains white, on which a clear sky reflects its blue colour. On this cold Friday, the city sounds joyful. Today we play a game of buzkashi.
At around 2PM the residents of Mazar move towards the playing ground which is located opposite the old Soviet silo, some singing, some dancing to the music blaring out of the passing cars.
This day, a public Buzakshi is being held and a large crowd has gathered to watch the colourful array of tchopendozs, the buzkashi horsemen, who are playing Afghanistan’s most popular and oldest game, which people here insist originated in this province.
Musharraf Palwan, trainer for the Balkh Buzkashi team, is walking around the field with confidence. He has four sons playing today and his son-in-law is the referee. He is a respected man: players and spectators, alike, come to greet him. His sons kiss his hand with deference. No guard dares intervene while he wanders around the playing field oblivious to the danger of the horses and men fighting close by.
Buzkashi is like a fight. Horsemen fight for the headless carcass of a goat or a calf. Once one of them has seized it, he travels the distance to a flag at one end of the field, then back to throw it into a scoring circle at the other end. It allows the tchopendozs to show their strength and agility. Wealthy businessmen and – a concession to modernity – and private enterprises teams which count 12 horsemen.
Musharraf Palwan refutes the story that Genghis Khan invented the game in the 13th century. He insists Buzkashi dates a lot further back, nearly 3000 years ago, when Alexander the Great invaded Afghanistan.
“At that time, 500 horsemen called tchopendoz fought Alexander’s army for two years around Samarqand. The tchopendozs succeeded in taking hostages and Alexander had to negotiate.” The game is said to celebrate their victory.
Musharraf explains the specifics of this game: “During a public match, nearly 100 tchopendozs participate. This is not a championship between two provinces or two teams. Trainers then select the best men for their team. Those who score also get cash rewards.”
To the sound of live Afghan music and the cheering crowd, players whip their horses and gallop their way to the carcass of a calf. Holding it by a stirrup, in the midst of battle, the tchopendozs attempt to lift it from the earth before rushing to the flag pole and the goal. All along the way, they must bypass other players, trying to seize the precious trophy from them.
Buzkashi players are not young, they need strength and experience. Asked about the qualities that make a good tchopendoz, Musharraf responds with one word: training.
As for the horses, the response comes as easily: a laconic: “race.”
Among the spectators, 50-year-old Ramin, one of the most respected men in Mazar, is smiling. For nearly 30 years, he has trained buzkashi horses. Hassan, the son of Musharraf, is riding one of them.
After the match, Musharraf is proud to stress that one of his sons, Hassan, a local Buzkashi hero, scored the first and the last goal, while another also scored. He explains his ultimate dream: “I wish to see buzkashi played all over the world, with French, American or German teams.” To do so, Musharraf welcomes visitors and takes them through the magnificent journey of a game.
The training of buzkashi horses is a lengthy process that starts when the horse is three-years-old. To reach the standards of strength and stamina required for a three-hour long game, training must take place daily during the buzkashi season.
Later, Rahmin walks among horses in their stables, protected from the freezing winds of December. He is particularly proud of one of them. “This is a 7-year-old mare,” he explains.
“Once, visitors saw her among other mares and asked me: ‘what is this stallion doing with your mares?’ I laughed and responded that, even if she is taller and stronger than many males, she is a mare – a buzkashi mare. They hardly believed it,” he adds.
Slowly, the sun falls below the steppe. The stables are now quiet. The horses, like the tchopendozs, deserve rest until next Friday, when the muddy earth of Mazar-i-Sharif, Maimana,. Faizabad or Kunduz will start to vibrate again. For honour and for passion. And for the sake of the game.
By Alexandre Brecher-Dolivet, UNAMA