September 13, 2011

A LAND OF ENDLESS WAR:

Rider in the storm: Since 9/11, Afghanistan's national sport of buzkashi has become as complicated as the country itself (Carl Hoffman,Sept. 19, 2011, ESPN The Magazine)

There aren't a lot of bats, balls or rackets in northern Afghanistan. There are goats, horses, men and dusty plains, and they have been there ever since Genghis Khan and his Mongol horde swept into the neighborhood in the 13th century. Their game, then, is simple. Men on horseback grab a goat from a chalk circle, carry it around a pole and drop it into another circle. No downs, innings, line judges or refs. Sometimes there are teams, and sometimes there aren't. Sometimes the field is 200 meters by 200 meters, and sometimes it isn't. And the goat? The goat might be a calf, but it's always dead, just lying there with its head and hooves cut off.

Grab the goat, bring it around the pole and put it in the circle. That's buzkashi.

The game sounds simple until you hang out with Mohammad Hasan Palwan. "Palwan" means strongman in Dari, the Persian language of Afghanistan. That's what people call him. The strongman. For a strongman, he's hardly big like American athletes, not like Ndamukong Suh or Blake Griffin. He's tall and wiry with brown-green eyes and a neat mustache. For an athlete at the top of his game, he's old -- maybe 42 or 43. He's not sure because he doesn't know his birthday. His hands, though, are giant and covered with a thousand small scars. His fingers are crooked, knobby and gnarled, like a pair of moving ginseng roots. Palwan has broken them all. And his ribs. And his arms. And his legs. And his jaw.

Palwan is one of buzkashi's great "chapandazan" -- the men who play Afghanistan's national sport, men who have been riding horses since they were boys, just like their fathers and grandfathers and great-grandfathers forever back in time. In Mazar-e Sharif, the sport's heartland located 200 miles north of Kabul, Palwan has been the champion 11 times -- four short of his father, who is regarded as the best chapandaz ever. Is Palwan the best in the country? It's hard to say. There is no Super Bowl or Stanley Cup that decides these things.

Buzkashi is played on Friday afternoons from November through February or so. I saw my first match in December 2008 in a barren field on the edge of Mazar. Musicians in turbans wailed as hash wafted over a crowd of thousands of men watching from the sidelines. (Women do not attend.) There were no tickets or uniforms, and anybody could play. That day, more than 100 horsemen wearing Soviet-era tank helmets and hand-worked, knee-high leather boots fought leg to leg in a scrum of horseflesh and cracking whips to pick up a headless goat weighing 150 pounds from the backs of their 1,100-pound stallions. Horses reared, men whipped each other, and spectators fled when the action got too close. Horse owners in the audience offered prizes for the victors: It could be $20; it could be $3,000; it could be a horse or a car. Egos often take over, and the pots become enormous. Palwan remembers riding home from a match 20 years ago with $17,000, earrings for his wife, two camels and five AK-47s.

The game is a microcosm of the country, a tangled web of patronage and allegiances, of great wealth, chaos and brutality. It is anything but simple.

"It is," says Palwan, "war."


Posted by at September 13, 2011 1:16 PM
  

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