Masthead graphic based on a painting by Gudrun Thriemer.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Aryn Baker, "Afghanistan's National Pastime," TIME Magazine, November 26, 2006.

Buzkashi is a chaotic, violent game with no rules, no teams, and no real boundaries where everyone fights over a calf carcass - a perfect reflection, in other words, of Afghan political life.

To understand Afghan politics, the theory goes, just go to a game of Buzkashi. After a few hours on a muddy field north of Kabul, watching three-dozen men on horseback charge each other to gain possession of a disemboweled calf carcass, the axiom starts to make sense. The game is simple enough: grab the calf from the ground at one end of the field, hoist it over the saddle bow, circle the flag at the opposite end of the field and drop it back in the original chalk circle to score. What makes it difficult is that every other man on the field — and at big events they may number in the hundreds — will do anything to prevent that from happening. I've met quite a few politicians in Kabul who identify with that horseman hauling the calf around.

It's not just that there are no rules in Buzkashi — there aren't even teams. The game ends when the calf falls apart and no one can pick it up anymore. The boundary markers are mere suggestions. Often the scrum for the bloody calf spills into the stands, scattering spectators with peals of laughter, hoots and screams. Hooves fly, and so do elbows. Teeth — both human and horse — are bared.

Anyone who has spent time in the country's brand new parliament will recognize the scene. Sure, there aren't any horses in the House, but speakers are often jeered, shoved or pelted with water bottles. Those that stay standing, and manage to make their point, gain respect.

"Buzkashi is the best way to understand Afghanistan in this new era," Whitney Azoy, author of Buzkashi: Game and Power in Afghanistan, told me. "It's all about unbridled competition for power, and the fact that no one can hold it for very long. Individuals rather than institutions are still the prime movers, and here individuals constantly shift sides and make new alliances."

Buzkashi has actually always been a political game. It's not the horsemen who are the stars, but the sponsors of the event—those who put up the prize money, invite the guests and field the best string of horses and palawans, or wrestlers, as the riders are called. The game originated hundreds of years ago in the north of Afghanistan, hard pressed against the central Asian steppes. There it was the Khans, or great leaders, who demonstrated their power and influence by holding games and settling the inevitable disputes. Political rivalries were played out on the field, and the sponsors closely watched for reactions. At the end of every day each play was discussed in minutia over multiple cups of green tea. Names rose and fell; so did reputations. "This is how leadership was decided," says Azoy.

In the '50s, what once used to be a uniquely northern game became nationalized in the name of a cohesive Afghan identity. There was even talk of promoting Buzkashi as an Olympic event. And national leaders, from the king to the presidents, held games to consolidate power and weaken their enemies.

This year, for the first time, President Karzai is fielding his own string of horses. The season has just started, and today's game was merely a selection round to identify the best wrestlers to represent the presidential palace. For the past five years Karzai has been running the country as if he were a western politician, and it has earned him little respect. Perhaps this new initiative will turn his reputation around. Instead of being laughed at as the "mayor of Kabul," as his detractors often call him, he could be known as a great Buzkashi sponsor. And in Afghanistan, that's a leader worth following.
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