Afghanistan's Sporting Life

November 9, 2008

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps  </span>
    The object of buzkashi is for a member of two competing teams to pick up the carcass of a decapitated calf or goat from the ground, carry it around a flag, and return it to a circle in front of the judges. Photo: Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps
  <span class="field-credit">
    Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Wrestling is one of Afghanistan's most popular sports. Photo: Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps

Weekends fall on Fridays and Saturdays in Afghanistan, and our stalwart guide Zalmi decided this weekend was the time for us to take in some local culture here in Kunduz.

Our first stop was in a huge sandy clearing in the southern part of the city, where thousands of people had turned out for a game of bozkashe. This ancient sport involves dozens of men on horseback vying for possession of a headless, limbless calf carcass.

The rider with possession of the carcass has a couple of different ways to score points: ride as fast as he can carrying the calf to a green flag at the far end of the playing field, or go to the other end of the field and drop it in the middle of a circle known as a "vat" or the "Circle of Justice." All the while, the carcass-holder has to fend off the other competitors, all of whom carry small whips to beat their opponents or scare off other horses if and when the calf is dropped.

It's a surreal sport, but rather thrilling — especially when a rider really picks up steam and tears away from the pack, visibly straining under the weight of the carcass he's hauling. The sport can be a little scary, too, since there are no real boundaries to the playing field. The action came very close to our vehicle on more than on occasion.

Next we drove into the city proper to attend a pahlwani match. This is another age-old sport that is essentially a form of wrestling. Two competitors are pulled from the throng of people ringing the muddy field, put on a special garment, and then attempt to strike each other around the shoulder blades or drop the other to the ground.

The fighting, while quite restrained by Greco-Roman standards, had moments of surprising fierceness, leaving many competitors gasping for air after a particularly heavy throw.

We sat on the field to watch and — as you might imagine — drew a fair amount of attention. Mohammad Anwer, a pahlwani trainer, made a point of coming by our spot on the ground to welcome us. At one point, he even pushed to have Zalmi get me in the ring for a round. Tempting as that might have been, I thought it best to try to avoid an international incident or, at the very least, a broken bone to carry with me for the next 13 days.