Horsemen of Afghans' near apocalypse

The `game' of buzkashi explains a lot about a chaotic country, writes Tim McGirk in Mazar-e-Sharif

"If he smiles at you, it means you're a dead man." That was my introduction to Rasool Pahlawan, a warlord in the Afghan city Mazar-e- Sharif, who goes by the appropriate nickname "Butcher of the North".

Among the many perks of being a warlord in Afghanistan today are the toys: tanks, armoured personnel carriers, helicopters, and bodyguards who carry a quiverful of rocket- propelled grenades. But no possession means as much toRasool as his buzkashi horse.

Buzkashi is Afghanistan's national game, in which hundreds of horsemen whip and fight each other for the pleasure of grabbing a headless calf. It is a dangerous game, one at which Rasool, a large and powerful man, excels.

Buzkashi is as close to warfare as any game on earth. Brought down ages ago by the Mongol hordes (they still call him "Mr Genghis" in Mazar-e- Sharif), the horsemen are said to have used humans instead of dead calves to play buzkashi.

Louis Dupree, a historian of Afghanistan, wrote that these nomads "used prisoners of war instead of goats or calves, dismembering the hapless creatures and reducing them to masses of hominid jelly during the play". (With buzkashi in their blood, Afghans were never keen on cricket when the British brought their genteel sport over the Khyber Pass.)

Buzkashi has few, if any, rules. I saw a game held to celebrate the circumcision of another warlord's son. It took place in a rainy field near jagged blue mountains. The game was so fierce, so anarchic, it was impossible to tell if there were two teams or whether it was a free-for- all with every man for himself. It is a bit like politics in this country; the participants never know whose side the others really are on.

The object of the game is to steal the carcass, carry it around a flag about 400 metres away, dump it into a chalked-out ring, and collect the prize money. It may sound easy, but keep in mind that there are anywhere between 50 and several hundred horsemen trying through every means short of murder to separate the rider from the carcass. (Guns and knives are banned, but whips are allowed.)

And the dead calf is nearly impossible to hold. It weighs about 100lbs and is slimy from being dunked for several days in cold water. Adding to the mayhem, every so often, dozens of men on donkeys, clowning around, will ride into the middle of the game, carrying animal carcasses killed on the roadwhich they sling into the ring and demand the winner's prize.

The best buzkashi players, says Roland Michaud, a Frenchman who studied the game, have lyrical names such as Murad the Cunning or Muki the Hawk. Now Rasool the Butcher (though nobody dares call him that to his face) tops the list.

Afghans say: "Better a bad rider on a good horse than a good rider on a bad horse," and Rasool is a good rider on a good horse. In between matches, when the riders stop for water, they all seem the best of friends. But once the game starts the laughter stops and they fall on each other like wolves fighting over a kill. Then, after the game, they are friends again.

But Rasool Pahlawan is different. He likes to win at buzkashi. And if he does not win he gets angry. And then perhaps he will smile at the rider who snatched away his prize. So now, when Rasool gallops out onto the field, there are few men brave, or stupid, enough to challenge him.

The elders, who wear circular hats lined with fox fur to protect themselves against the winter rain, complain quietly that it was never like this in the past, that any horseman could prove his skills at buzkashi without having to worry about the clan leaders taking revenge. But this new generation of warlords and commanders, say the elders, have lost respect for many of the old Uzbek civilities.

In buzkashi legend, the son of one clan chieftain fell in love with the daughter of his father's buzkashi rival. The rival promised his daughter to the lover if he switched sides and competed against his own father in buzkashi. He agreed, and the game ranged over many miles. So intent were the father and his son at winning that they rode their horses over a cliff. Even in mid-air, hurtling to their deaths, they were still wrestling for the carcass.

If chess is the game for the Western military strategist, and go for the East, then buzkashi, with all its savagery and single-mindedness, is perhaps the only way of explaining why the Afghans have inflicted so much war and devastation on their country, and why a warlord's smile can mean death.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
From Mean Girls to Mamet: Lindsay Lohan
theatre
Sport
Nathaniel Clyne (No 2) drives home his side's second goal past Arsenal’s David Ospina at the Emirates
footballArsenal 1 Southampton 2: Arsène Wenger pays the price for picking reserve side in Capital One Cup
News
Mike Tyson has led an appalling and sad life, but are we not a country that gives second chances?
peopleFormer boxer 'watched over' crash victim until ambulance arrived
Arts and Entertainment
Geena Davis, founder and chair of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media
tv
News
i100
Travel
travelGallery And yes, it is indoors
Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
The Tiger Who Came To Tea
booksJudith Kerr on what inspired her latest animal intruder - 'The Crocodile Under the Bed'
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer
film
News
Alan Bennett criticised the lack of fairness in British society encapsulated by the private school system
peopleBut he does like Stewart Lee
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Account Executive/Sales Consultant – Permanent – Hertfordshire - £16-£20k

£16500 - £20000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: We are currently r...

KS2 PPA Teacher needed (Mat Cover)- Worthing!

£100 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Crawley: KS2 PPA Teacher currently nee...

IT Systems Manager

£40000 - £45000 per annum + pension, healthcare,25 days: Ashdown Group: An est...

IT Application Support Engineer - Immediate Start

£28000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Software Application Support Analyst - Imm...

Day In a Page

Syria air strikes: ‘Peace President’ Obama had to take stronger action against Isis after beheadings

Robert Fisk on Syria air strikes

‘Peace President’ Obama had to take stronger action against Isis after beheadings
Will Lindsay Lohan's West End debut be a turnaround moment for her career?

Lindsay Lohan's West End debut

Will this be a turnaround moment for her career?
'The Crocodile Under the Bed': Judith Kerr's follow-up to 'The Tiger Who Came to Tea'

The follow-up to 'The Tiger Who Came to Tea'

Judith Kerr on what inspired her latest animal intruder - 'The Crocodile Under the Bed' - which has taken 46 years to get into print
BBC Television Centre: A nostalgic wander through the sets, studios and ghosts of programmes past

BBC Television Centre

A nostalgic wander through the sets, studios and ghosts of programmes past
Lonesome George: Custody battle in Galapagos over tortoise remains

My George!

Custody battle in Galapagos over tortoise remains
10 best rucksacks for backpackers

Pack up your troubles: 10 best rucksacks for backpackers

Off on an intrepid trip? Experts from student trip specialists Real Gap and Quest Overseas recommend luggage for travellers on the move
Secret politics of the weekly shop

The politics of the weekly shop

New app reveals political leanings of food companies
Beam me up, Scottie!

Beam me up, Scottie!

Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

Beware Wet Paint

The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
Sanctuary for the suicidal

Sanctuary for the suicidal

One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world