Sunday, November 9, 2008

Buzkashi, the mountain metaphor

Buzkashi, the mountain metaphor

A frentic crowd of 10,000 gathers in the shadow of the Hindu Kush. A few fruit trees display the first pink and purple blossums of spring.. The crowd includes the President of Afghani-stan, Burhanuddin Rabbani and his Defence Minister, Ahmed Shah Masood and a handful of diplomats. To get a better view of "the game of the year" many people stand on the top of buses and trucks while the more daring cling to the high branches in nearby trees. The land-scape is spectacular, basic, rugged and elemental like the game. The Hindu Kush encircles the northern quadrant of the rough field, less than five kilometres away. Fresh avalanche debris score the mountain faces.

Many of the spectators like myself left Kabul early this morning, some 90 kilometres south where the sound of outgoing mortars and aerial bombing by the government against the Tali-ban militia south of Kabul could be heard. And while one war continues another is about to start, one which epitomises the Afghan warrior spirit. " It constantly reminds the sedantary farmer of his former nomadic ancestry, and helps the nomad relive the greatness of his past cavalry victories," wrote Loius Dupree. He continues, " Buzkashi, like baseball to the Ameri-can, cricket to the British, and soccer to the French, characterizes and often caricatures the es-sence of Afghan culture."

Buzkashi is a game which originated on the plains of Mongolia and Central Asia where it was believed that they used prisoners of war instead of goats or calves and is played primarily by Uzbeks, Turkomen and Tajiks. The Persian name Buzkashi means "goat-pulling" and is played on horseback by two opposing teams. The rules vary a little from the north, the home of Buzkashi where there are few rules, to the south in and around Kabul where during the King's time the Afghan Olympic Federation tried to clean up the game with the introduction of more rules and a referee on horseback. The game embodies the Afghan's love of horses and the oneness he developes with his trusted stead.It takes years of training to reach the necessary skills to play the game safely. The Af-ghan proverb " better a bad rider on a good horse than a good rider on a bad horse" sums up the need for the horse to be well trained. When a good rider and horse are one, a chapandaz is born.

It is March 21 1996, Nawruz, the first day of the Afghan New Year, the start of the Buzkashi season. The best horses from the Panchjer valley, the plains of Parwan, Kapisa and Kabul provinces Most of the players are Tajiks, many mountain Tajiks. The finely trained horses and proudly trot towards the grandstand as each team of upwards of 15 players are introduced to the President. The headless goat (sometimes a calf) is placed in the circle close to the stand. At the shout and whistle of the referees the chapandaz (master players) try to grab the goat out of the circles while the rest of the team hover round. The experienced players try to rear the horses, who snort, bite and kick as a melee developes. Riders slash the opposition horses and riders with their whip as the experienced chapandaz try to grab the goat and pull it up to-wards the pommell and then tries to break clear of the melee. Once free he is hotly pursued and rides furiously to the first corner turning post. The game is at its best as the horsemen with his goat heal steadily races across the face of the mountainous landscape pursued by op-position riders who try to wrest the goat from his grip. The object is to ride around the corners posts of the field and to drop the the goat in the circle When the chapandaz breaks free there is a magical moment of oneness, man, horse and landscape merge. All else is forgotten.

It's a quiet Thursday afternoon in Kabul. Today and tomorrow Kabul celebrates the 3rd anni-versary of the Islamic revolution. It was in April 1992 that the various mujehadeen factions overthrew the communist-backed Kabul government.

This morning we were invited to the Kabul Olympic stadium where the celebrations started with a Bushkashi game, the toughest sporting game in the world. I think I've explained in pre-vious letters that is a cross between polo, rugby, wrestling where whipping opposing horse riders until they bleed from the face is quite common. Instead of a ball you have a headless goat or calf, and the object is to wrestle, ride, fight until someone gets the carcass clear of the melee and the gallops to the goal (circle) in front of the grandstand and drops it in. I was per-mitted to go into the arena and film whatever I liked. Imagine 50 highly trained horses with their aggressive riders divided into two teams, the Hindu Kush and the Pamirs. The main game lasted one and a half hours and was a highly competitive contest. On a number of ocas-sions I got too close and I found five or more galloping horsemen in my viewfinder heading towards me with hooves flaying, less than 10 metres away. I got out of the way once, but the second time I was jammed between 10 horses and the crowd watching from seats a metre above the playing field. I was grabbed or plucked by the spectators to safety and managed to get some great action shots of the fiery struggle for the headless goat. During the half-time break one man dressed in traditional black and white Pahtoon (Pathan) clothing, came in front of the grandstand and asked for two knives. He then danced, working himself into a frenzy with swirls and wheels and with each movement the knife grazed his throat. Before long an-other ten men joined him and a small band started up providing umpah-pah music. The crowd was clapping and chanting and the stadium reverberated with laughter and joy. I was so heartened to see people enjoying themselves after so many years of suffering.

Three days ago Ahmed Gizo came to join me in Kabul. Ahmed is our finance, administration delegate and is from the Sudan where he worked for more than 10 years as Deputy secretary General. He comes from the border region of Sudan where it bordersChad. His father is a tribal chief and Ahmed inherits the title. Tall, graceful. chiefly and wearing a long white cot-ton gown and turban, heads turn where ever he goes. We went to the Buskashi match yester-day and everyone looked at him.. I walked at his side and felt like the King's aide as we took our seats in the VIP box.

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