Buzkashi, the Afghan National Sport
January 1, 2002 2:06 PM   Subscribe

Buzkashi, the Afghan National Sport "In Buzkashi, a headless [goat or calf] carcass is placed in the center of a circle and surrounded by the players of two opposing teams [on horseback]. The object of the game, is to get control of the carcass and bring it to the scoring area..." It's in the news now, including my favorite photo.
posted by tippiedog (41 comments total)
Waiting for PETA supporters to wet their collective pants over this.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 2:15 PM on January 1, 2002

Hot damn, that looks like fun. I'll bet that soldier is a former calf-roper, as you have to be a hell of a horseman to keep your seat with those guys. Central Asians are some of the toughest cowboys on the planet, and could ride Prince Charles into the dust underneath their feet.
posted by nance at 2:26 PM on January 1, 2002


That American has to be CIA, yes? Which of the branches of our Armed Forces allow goatees?

posted by mr_crash_davis at 2:37 PM on January 1, 2002

A goat eh? That sounds like a good idea. I've played several versions of that game and just can't find the right species. Cats, dogs, rabbits, squirrels... if it's living I've tried to use it in 'ole Buzkashi, but oddly never a goat.

I remember playing this at Yale in 1922. We were playing with a lynx against Harvard, whom at the time were up to their usual cheating tactics. To make a long story short I made the final score after Harvard's team captain, a strapping young lad named John Buchannon, fouled out by throwing the lynx by the tail (which was illegal at the time). And that's how I won the '22 Buzkashi championship and how the phrase "got the cat by the tail" came to be.
posted by geoff. at 2:44 PM on January 1, 2002

geoff, did you have an onion tied to your belt, as was the style at the time?
posted by mr_crash_davis at 2:58 PM on January 1, 2002

And that's how I won the '22 Buzkashi championship and how the phrase "got the cat by the tail" came to be.

...and I really didn't feel a thing you see, because I'm afraid that I was very, very drunk.
posted by MrBaliHai at 3:01 PM on January 1, 2002

As I was preparing a snide, morally superior comment, I started to wonder, is this any better or worse than bullfights or fox hunts?

In a way, it's probably better. Beheading is supposedly painless, (but who are you going to ask?) Using the carcass is essentially the same as the "egg toss" at an elementary school fair; both are sports using food.

Compare that with bullfighting where the slow, painful and tortured death of the animal is essential and celebrated. In a traditional british fox hunt, the animal is usually released, then chased for hours until it is finally caught by the hounds and torn apart. While this has the pretense of "natural", it's still a slow, terrified and painful death for the animal.

Personally, I find it all rather repugnant.
posted by joemaller at 3:59 PM on January 1, 2002

To quote Jon Stewart- "Is there anything in this country that isn't fucked up?"
posted by Aikido at 4:07 PM on January 1, 2002

Far be it from me to challenge the authority of the Animal Rights Network, but the foxhunters I know in the States describe a far different game, joemaller. For starters, the vast majority are "drag" hunts -- two guys go out and drag a bag soaked with fox pee over hill and dale, and the hunt commences when they get back. I guess you could wonder how the fox pee is collected, but no actual live fox is involved -- everybody gallops around and goes back to the barn.

The live hunts are different. It may come as a surprise to many animal-rights supporters, but horsemen love animals, even foxes. The live hunt closest to me lost most of the foxes in their territory to the usual suspect -- habitat loss. So they went up to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and paid the state DNR about $75 a head for a few dozen wild foxes, which they released in territory which had been prepared ahead of time for their presence. The kennelmen have an arrangement with a local egg farm to take dead chickens off their hands, which are dropped regularly throughout the country for fox chow. Thus fed and housed, they are hunted twice a week. And here's how that goes:

Foxhounds pursue scent -- i.e., urine marks (which foxes leave just like dogs). They're nocturnal, and hunts leave early in the morning, at or not long after first light, looking for a night's evidence of fox activity. The hounds pick up the scent and follow it. It's fairly unusual to see a fox running ahead of a pack. They're much smarter than foxhounds, and don't often allow themselves to be caught in the open like that.

Overwhelmingly, fox hunts end in a draw -- the fox "goes to ground," or returns to its den (no earthstoppers are used). In the old days, when the hunters were protecting local hen houses, this is when the terriers would be released, and they would enter the den and drive the quarry out. But no one uses terriers when fox are so scarce, so the whippers-in (the guys who control the pack) call off the hounds, and the field (the riders) go off to find another trail.

Occasionally a fox will be caught out and have no means of escape. The whippers can call the hounds off, or let them kill the fox. They try to allow at least one and no more than two kills a season, to keep the hounds interested in their job. "We lose many more hounds in a season," he told me. "Almost all to cars."

This isn't as dramatic as the idea of a bunch of drunk rich people stampeding the countryside for the thrill of a cheap and bloody spectacle, but it's the way they do it around here. Careful husbandry of the quarry, thoughtful care of a scarce resource. An antique sport in a modern world. If I didn't have a child to raise and neck vertebrae to keep intact, I'd love to try it sometime.
posted by nance at 4:27 PM on January 1, 2002 [1 favorite]

I'm afraid I'm absolutely with PETA on this. They're savages. All hunters are savages. Playing with an animal's dead body is a desecration of life. Fox-hunting may be worse, but who cares about the niceties of gradations?
What did the goat do to them? Why don't they play with a fucking rock, if they're so manly?

Human beings who enjoy killing are beneath contempt.
posted by MiguelCardoso at 4:43 PM on January 1, 2002

Why don't they play with a rock? Because like many sports, buzkashi has its origins in real life. Lots of Central Asians were nomadic herders. Their enemies would try to steal their goats, not by herding them away, but by snatching them one by one -- you can get away faster that way, and it's a mind game to show the guy you're stealing from what a bad-ass horseman you are.

So the sport grew up around the idea of keeping the goat carcass away from the other team.

What did the goat do to them? Nothing, but it probably fed everybody after the game was over. I can't pass judgment on people who have little else to eat.
posted by nance at 4:50 PM on January 1, 2002

Nance - thanks for the explanation but you shouldn't play with your food either.
posted by MiguelCardoso at 5:05 PM on January 1, 2002

"All hunters are savages."

(Breathing deeply) Let this one go...let this one go...
posted by mr_crash_davis at 5:08 PM on January 1, 2002

Fox Pee, anyone? In heat or family style... it's e-pee.
posted by rodii at 5:35 PM on January 1, 2002

Big Buck Nite on Detroit public television looks just as absurd to someone who's not a deer hunter.

There's a scoring system for antlers, dependent I think on the span between the branches and the number of points on the antlers. Watching this parade of people proudly holding their severed deer heads while the host oohs and aahs about what a marvelous eight pointer they bagged was one of my strangest TV viewing moments of the past year.
posted by TimTypeZed at 6:09 PM on January 1, 2002

They play in Kazakhstan, nearby, but there it's called Kokpar and can consist of a thousand horsemen at once, apparently. They also play a game where girls ride around on horses whipping boys. Sounds like a good time to me!
posted by whatnotever at 6:27 PM on January 1, 2002

Mr. Crash:

That American has to be CIA, yes? Which of the branches of our Armed Forces allow goatees?

Probably just run of the mil SF. A lot of teams over there have been growing beards to "fit in" with the locals. They tend to get away with whatever they want when they're that far from the flagpole.
posted by mtstover at 6:29 PM on January 1, 2002

Origin of the game, from the MSNBC article: The game was invented in Central Asia and was popularized by none other than Genghis Khan, although it is reputed that instead of a goat, the headless bodies of slain enemies were used.

I think this debate points out some important cultural differences. While many Americans might find this type of playing with food deplorable, we ask the people of Afghanistan to be understanding when we kill people with food. I know that the deaths of the mother and child were accidental and the killing of the goat is not. Imagine, though, what it would be like to live in a world where death is so common and random. Your sensibilities would necessarily be toughened. I think it would be interesting to go to Afghanistan right now and try to keep a straight face whilst asking one of the villagers to have more compassion for the goat.
posted by colt45 at 6:57 PM on January 1, 2002

All hunters are not only savages, they are all merely cowards who hypocritically insist they are "sportsmen".

Yeah. Tearing up the wilderness with an SUV, slaughtering a terrified creature from a distance with a chemically propelled piece of lead. That's really sport. That really takes intelligence and balls.

Then posing with the cravenly killed animal afterward for the inevitable "trophy shot." Hold its head up for the camera, boys. Play with the dead animal. Why not just kick it around for a while? You've already sunk as low as possible. What's a little deer rugby among people as low as hunters?
posted by fold_and_mutilate at 8:05 PM on January 1, 2002 [1 favorite]

I think it is safe to say that if hunting were as easy as you make it out to be, f&m, nobody would bother.
posted by kindall at 8:11 PM on January 1, 2002

The only hard part of hunting is buying the equipment; it's an unsport like golf, but more brutal.

Seriously, though, I'd have no problem with hunting if it were at all necessary. Last season I overheard a local hunter bitching about how hard it is to carve a coyote's teeth out. I don't get this.
posted by skyline at 9:55 PM on January 1, 2002

You may recall that you can watch a round of buzkashi in Rambo III, where Sly is taking on some Soviets in Afghanistan.
posted by MonkeyMeat at 9:56 PM on January 1, 2002

crash, mtstover is right. In Black Hawk Down (the book, anyway) there is a discussion of how the Army Rangers had to obey regs, but the Delta Force guys could grow their hair out. (Among other departures: they also eschew salutes and rank insignia, and wearing uniforms off-duty. When encountered in a bar, they claim to be "consultants" -- and by their level of education you wouldn't be able to tell different.) If they have to go undercover it helps them blend in better. Here, obviously, beards were also a good idea.

Buzkashi and similar sports are said to be the origin of polo. In Huston's The Man Who Would Be King -- fun movie! Connery/Caine -- set in Kafiristan (get it? kaffir?) north of the Hindu Kush, the locals play polo with the recently-used heads of their enemies.
posted by dhartung at 10:12 PM on January 1, 2002

The problem with hunting deer and coyote, in the midwest anyway, is there's not enough of it being done. There are way, way too many deer. The deer cause a lot of damage to property, especially to vehicles after a deer-auto collision on roadways. In some areas of Michigan and Ohio, it's nearly unsafe to drive on country roads at night because of so many deer encounters. The deer in Ohio don't have any natural predators anymore. "Man's" expansion has caused a loss of habitat for the bobcat and bear and allowed the deer population to explode over the last 40+ years. For some, deer are nothing more than big, goodlooking rats.

The majority of the coyote in Ohio are rabid. Their reintroduction, whether planned or done illegally, has been a disaster and that's why there is an open season on them. You would think the coyote might go after the deer, but no. Why chase down a deer when a coyote can just raid someone's garbage, eat a farmer's chicken or someone's pet?

I don't care if hunting is a sport or not or if it's on TV. I'm all for the elimination of coyote in Ohio and the reduction of the deer population.
posted by munger at 10:38 PM on January 1, 2002

I am sure MiguelCardoso and fold_and_mutilate would have no problem rectifying all US hunting issues with supporting the re-release of wolves into your local national forests, greenbelts and parks.

So we loose a sheep, cow, dog or small child every week or so.. at least we aren't savage hunters!

I think all the so called animal lovers in the world need there facts straight before they go off judging situations on face value. Hell if I did that I would think every peta supporter was a extremist moron...

oh wait
posted by vincentmeanie at 11:35 PM on January 1, 2002

I don't see what peta has to do with this. I'm all for any bread that can be separated easily into two layers to form a tasty sandwich pocket.

oh wait
posted by internook at 1:12 AM on January 2, 2002

People are dying. I can't get worked up over a few goats here and there, to be honest. Lots of people, who had the incredible bad luck to be born where they were, are dying. Some of those people may well be cruel and barbaric by some standards, but the fact is that humans everywhere are cruel and barbaric.

Human beings who enjoy killing are beneath contempt, I agree, Miguel. Unfortunately, they're everywhere. And if we are to be consistent, we must value their lives too.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 2:29 AM on January 2, 2002

Footballs are made of leather.
posted by jpoulos at 7:53 AM on January 2, 2002

I'm behind on my news reading. When's the last time we lost a small child to a wolf attack? Or was that just hyperbole and fearmongering?
posted by rodii at 9:18 AM on January 2, 2002

I may be alone here, but I don't regard all hunting as savagery(although any meat-eater who disses hunters is a blatant hypocrite, at least our blaze-orange wearing freinds have the stomach to kill what they eat themselves). The SUV driving fish-in-a-barrel types F_&_M describes notwithstanding, there is an element of sport in true hunting and if using a rifle seems unfair, what about bowhunters?
Now there may not bee too many deerhunters among us, but I'm sure there are a few fishermen among the MeFites, is reeling a trout out of the water with a hook in its tongue savagery too?
Besides, many hunters believe it or not, are enviornmentalists or at least conservationalists. The last thing they want is their hunting ground turned into stripmalls. In his memoir "Confessions of an Eco-Warrior," Earth First! founder Dave Forman describes with relish his experiences hunting elk with a knife and bow. And Ted Nugent(believe it or not) has led efforts to preserve the Michigan wilderness he hunts in. So maybe the issues not as simple as it seems.
posted by jonmc at 9:39 AM on January 2, 2002

That was hyperbole and fear-mongering. More people die from lightening strikes in a year than have died in wolf attacks over the past two hundred years. More people die in a day from car accidents than... well, but then, people just hate having to deal with the statistical realities of risk, don't they?

The goat had its head lopped off: a pretty quick way to die.

Meanwhile, the soap, shampoo, and shaving companies in the USA continue to squirt caustic chemicals into caged bunny's eyes.

Meanwhile, the egg industry continues to grow immobile laying chickens in little boxes. Poor fuckers never get to move in their lives.

Cruelty? It ain't the goat-sport that's cruel, folks.
posted by five fresh fish at 9:50 AM on January 2, 2002

I'm (almost) there with you, jonmc. i find hunting a very nasty hobby, and i even lived four years as a vegetarian, so i'm no apologist for the hunters. But the fact is that the mcdonalds burger you had for lunch--or even the chicken in that innocuous-looking bowl of soup--was treated far more cruelly than the deer my brother shot last month.

Feel free to despise hunting, or buzkashi, or goose-down pillows. I pretty much agree with you. But coming out against hunting, while ignoring the more outrageous horrors that aren't so visible, is a real half-ass argument.
posted by jpoulos at 9:52 AM on January 2, 2002


I'm fairly certain that there have been no recorded attacks by wild wolves on humans in North America in at least the last fifty years. The usual argument against wolf reintroduction is the possibility of farmers losing livestock, which can certainly be a problem but a problem that can be minimized.

I absolutely support the reintroduction of the wolf into the wild wherever possible (city parks notwithstanding, vincentmeanie, let's be reasonable with our arguments). As I pointed out here, deer herds that are allowed to increase unchecked ultimately end up dying off in huge numbers when the population exceeds the available food supply. Reintroducing a natural predator back into the ecosystem would provide another check against overpopulation leading to mass starvation. I'm all for it.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 9:52 AM on January 2, 2002

All hunters are savages.

Human beings who enjoy killing are beneath contempt.

Uninformed, sweeping horseshit merchants should all be enjoyably killed. I'm sorry, is that savage?

That's a bit over the top, but not much compared to some of the idiocy that's being bandied about here. My father fed our family by hunting deer and elk while I was growing up. No kill = no dinner (yes, we had a garden too). I'll make sure to let him know that he fucked it badly and that he was a gleeful, sadistic Bambi mercenary.

Why does everyone assume that people hunt only for sport? In fact, in the hunting community that I have known (I do not include myself, as it happens), most "sport" hunters are regarded as dilettante wussies.
posted by Skot at 10:05 AM on January 2, 2002

One doesn't need to reintroduce a wolf or coyote directly into a city park, actually -- they tend to find their way there all by themselves. A year or so ago there was a wolf wandering around downtown Chicago's Grant Park, apparently having made its way there through the rail corridor.

You don't find too many vegetarians in farming communities. It's a function of the separation from how one's food is brought to the table, which seems to make it a suburban phenomenon. I grew up around farmers, and hunters. When I was a kid, I had a real attitude problem about some of this -- which I blame on my urbanized academe-liberal parents. Since then I've tried to reform. I can't say I knew anybody who killed simply for the thrill -- one family waited every year for the return of mouth-watering venison. They'd fill up a freezer and spread it out over six months. One year, they had enough to share with us.
posted by dhartung at 10:09 AM on January 2, 2002

... bandied about ...

you don't hear bandied very often anymore.

oh, and on topic (sorry) i believe that instead of worrying about a few sport hunters or whatever you want to call them (i don't hunt myself); you could instead be more concerned about the horrors of the meat industry.... much like jpoulos already said.

okay, thanks.
posted by bliss322 at 10:37 AM on January 2, 2002

Finally, a sport which makes going to a NY Yankees game seem attractive and compelling (by comparision).
posted by ParisParamus at 3:48 PM on January 2, 2002

The strangest thing about people complaining about this is that americans play several games with balls made out of animals (usually leather). Granted we don't take a cow to the football game, skin it and stitch the ball right there, but I'm sure them southerners would like it.
posted by QrysDonnell at 3:58 PM on January 2, 2002

I don't hunt, but I've been along on many hunting trips, and I wonder how many of the people who think that hunting is a sport for lazy simpletons have ever rolled out of a sleeping bag at 4am to hike for two hours in the snow so that you can be crouching on a mountainside by dawn, in sub-zero weather, trying not to breathe too loudly. I've seen people (my dad) track the same animals at dawn and dusk from friday to sunday and never actually see them firsthand. I'm a 'liberal academe' and even I can tell you that hunting is a sport, and it requires endurance, patience, persistance and intelligence.

And that's without mentioning that it serves a necessary role in preserving the ecosystem. Yes, it's only defined as 'necessary' in relation to US, but it is still considered an act of conservation. Here's an easily misrepresentable soundbite: In most contexts hunting is the moral equivalent of trapping for mice.

Anyway, on to the topic. The article didn't say whether or not the goats were killed humanly, but one would assume that the decapitation was as quick and clean as it could be. Unless the goat was tortured first, I'm not sure I can see any objection on the grounds of animal cruelty. The article also didn't say whether or not the goat would be treated as food afterwards, but again the presumption is that in a country like Afghanistan, it would be unwise to waste an entire carcass, especially if it's already been tenderized. So, except for the visceral response evoked in our delicate sensibilities by seeing a dead body flung about, all we're talking about here is killing a goat, and maybe eating it. I fail to see how this is so deplorable, considering the other things going on in Afghanistan; atrocities we are both preventing and committing.

Further, while Buzkashi seems to violate the principles we in the west stand for, we're actually not alone in our disgust. The Taliban banned Buzkashi, for, one would assume, the same reason they banned kites and lipstick.

The games that are being played now are the first (in Kabul) in five years. People are free to play them because the Taliban has been overthrown. We go over their with high-minded purposes like ridding the world of oppressive terrorist regimes, and pat ourselves on the back when we see expressions of freedom like dancing in the streets, or muslim women throwing off their burgas. Well, Buzkashi is an expression of freedom too. If this is not another case of cultural bias, then why not cheer when we see them playing their national sport?
posted by Hildago at 11:51 AM on January 3, 2002

I was going to set forth my opinion about all this, but I realise now that I'd just be flogging a dead goat.
posted by walrus at 5:12 AM on January 7, 2002

I have no time here in the UK for the whining soap dodgers I keep seeing disrupting one of the country's most traditional sports. Foxhunting has it's roots embedded in a culture of land management and conservation. If people want to expend their energy on something, campaign for road safety. In fact, they would probably save more foxes if they campaigned for fences by the side of motorways. Every day I see a fresh dead fox on the road. Yum.

....and also (*adjusts trousers and stands back-straight on soap box*)

Coming home at 4am in West London I saw no less than 5 foxes roaming about. I guess that is pretty cool that these animals can survive in the city, but then, I don't own a cat.

"Have you seen my cat Butterscotch?" Nope, but I wouldn't fret. I'm sure she didn't suffer as she was ripped to shreds by that poor dear persecuted fox and his buddies on Ealing Common.
posted by Frasermoo at 5:41 AM on January 7, 2002

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