Buzkashi is an ancient sport of Central Asia. Translated from either Dari or Pashto (sources differ; I assume they share the same root language), it means 'goat grabbing'. No, that's not a dirty term. It is very literally what Buzkashi is.

Okay, think of it like this. Buzkashi is the Central Asian equivalent of polo. Guys on horseback doing weird shit, right? Except they don't have polo clubs. Sometimes, they are bare-handed; sometimes, they hold heavy whips. And you can do ungentlemanly things such as using said whips on the other riders in the most painful manner possible. And you have to grab the ball and carry it back to the scoring area.

Oh, yeah, the ball is a decapitated, dehooved goat. Hence the whole 'goat grabbing' thing.

The rules themselves are quite simple. Stick a number of horses and riders on a 2-acre plot. Drop some cold, stinking meat somewhere near the center. At the go signal, everyone rushes for the carcass, at which point they have one of two goals, depending on the ruleset : the first is to just carry the carcass out of bounds, and the second is to carry it around a flag on the far side and end up with it back near the starting line. The person or team that accomplishes this 'wins'; the person or teammate that possesses the goat at the goal will sometimes get a traditional serenade from a local bard, extolling the fine and varied virtues of the victor.

There's quite a bit of honor in it, actually, at least concerning love and care for your steed. At least in times ancient, the horses were your most necessary possession, and cultures built up around them; think of it as a more utilitarian and personal version of the car-care industry, lots of buffing and brushing and hugging of the horse. But the riders, anywhere from 24 of them on up, vying for manual control of a flimsy corpse, whipping and yanking each other around, they get beat all to hell. It's a very 'manly' game to play, I gather, in the endurance you must display. And it takes great skill, determination, and horsemanship to hang with the big boys. I mean, you're having to lean down off of a horse, scoop up 80 kilograms of dead weight, and protect it from the advances of the enemy. Most of the successful riders have spent half a lifetime gaining enough skill with a horse to be successful.

For most scholars,this game seems to have originated from the time that Genghis Khan's troops swept through the land; it's awfully reminiscient of the legends telling of his horde galloping through the streets and spiriting away anything that could be used for food from horseback. One reference claimed that it descended from skills learned by Afghan soldiers fending off Alexander the Great's troops; they did resist him for two years, so maybe there's a grain of truth to that. At any rate, anyone who watches the game can draw casual connections to training methods for combat on horseback. It's really that intense.

Also of note that this sport really isn't pickup-game material; you won't find the youth having backyard games of Buzkashi in any era. It's usually a part of 'ritual' - not anything big, just the sort of thing that happens during wedding ceremonies or other special events. Also, rich folk tend to be those with the best horses, and in centuries past as well as now, they would pay riders to play Buzkashi and spread the inimitable reputation of their powerful steeds. I'm fairly certain that at least one old hand has probably complained about all the younger generation of the sport 'selling out'.

I don't know the State of the Game right now; even though there's references to Buzkashi being played from Iran to Turkey, to Uzbekistan to Pakistan, the one country that featured the heaviest and most frequent contests is undoubtedly Afghanistan, and I've read that due to recent troubles in that area, the sportsmen have taken up residence in Pakistani border towns.

To most people, the fact that buzkashi is played with a goat corpse instead of a ball is the single most fascinating part of the sport. Very special care is taken in its preparation for the game. Faridun Popalzai Khan, an Afghan expatriate who was a former buzkashi horse breeder, told me this about the goat:

(this is a hastily translated transcript of the recording of an interview - can you say that ten times fast - I did with him in 2007 in Fremont, CA)

Me: So, in buzkashi, how do you make the goat ready to be used? Is it butchered in a halaal way? I heard it gets soaked in water first to make its skin tough.

Khan: We always made the goat halaal, but you don't eat it. It's just that is the way all animals are slaughtered, ok? And then we must cut off the head. The head, some people, they eat it, but, not me. And the legs (are) cut off too, but you see how long the legs are is different to different places.

Me: So the head is cut off all the way, and the legs are just cut shorter?

Khan: Well yes, but they are sometimes longer.

(this led to a small tangent here due to confusion about "legs". There is no differentiation between "feet" and "legs" in Pashto without taking some care to specify which you mean. It was determined that normally the feet are cut off, and the amount of "leg" left on as a "handle" was largely a regional preference. In some places, the legs are off completely and the corpse must be grabbed up by the hair or tail alone, or simply manhandled up off the ground)

Me: So, how else is it prepared? Are the cut parts left open?

Khan: No, they are sewn up, and if the body is too light you will put sand inside before it is sewn. But then you must soak it, usually for one night before the buzkashi. The water is very cold.

Me: So it has to be heavy enough, and why is it soaked? To make the sand wet and heavy?

Khan: Well yes, but also to toughen up the skin like you thought. This is because, if a horse steps (on) it, or if it is dropped, and often because there will be (he made a grand physical gesture of tugging back and forth while saying:) HAH! HAH! HOA! HA!

Me: So, it's a very rough game, then? The rules say that there's no hitting the other players, but does nobody follow the rules?

Khan: If the rules were followed like that then who would wear the clothes?

(he is referring to the many layers of clothing worn by players, even in the dead of summer. Often special quilted garments and leather armguards are worn underneath regular attire.)

Me: Yes, well, well, what about deaths? How many are, killed, by the horses?

Khan: Well you see this happens, but if it did not then where would be the danger? Once you know I saw a mine explode a buzkashi game. Nobody was killed but a lot of horses and men were hurt and two horses were killed (murdered).

Me: Well, is it true that the best players are older?

Khan: Well yes, it takes twenty years to be a good buzkashi player.

The interview wandered away from buzkashi at this point.

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