Haji Mohammad Pahlawan waves his whip in the air, pulling his grey stallion away from the calf carcass he has just dumped in a goal to claim victory in a tournament of buzkashi, Afghanistan’s national sport.
A cloud of dust swirls around the heaving scrum of three dozen horses competing in the final contest on a vast plain in the northern province of Samangan, where buzkashi riders known an “chapandazan” are revered as heroes.
About 3,000 spectators – all men and boys – cheer, whoop and ululate as a beaming Mohammad canters over to tournament officials to collect his $500 prize, gathering his mounted teammates for their lap of victory.
Buzkashi – from the Persian words for goat (“buz”) and drag (“kashi”) – has been played in Central Asia for centuries, with Afghanistan’s neighbours Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan having their own variations.
Banned under the Taliban’s brutal regime of 1996 to 2001 for being “immoral”, there were fears the ancient game would again be barred after the Islamists seized power in August.
But not only have Taliban fighters gathered in the crowd after Friday prayers to watch this showpiece buzkashi tournament – a local commander is taking part, and Mohammad’s club is captained by a district governor.
“I’m walking away with the glory,” 29-year-old Mohammad said on the sidelines, still wearing his Soviet-era tank helmet, his face layered in the fine powder kicked up during the two-hour competition.
‘Like wine and kebab’
Flanked by mountains, the early-season tournament takes place at Qara Shabagh, just outside Samangan’s capital Aybak, where the Hindu Kush mountains meet the Central Asian steppe.
The objective is for the horsemen to haul the decapitated and disembowelled goat or calf carcass around a rock, before throwing it on a chalked central scoring circle called a “jor”, also known as the “circle of justice”.
Although buzkashi no longer draws the huge cash prizes dished out by warlords like the notorious Abdul Rashid Dostum, for these hardened chapandazan, winning is a matter of honour.
“One of my horse’s ears is like wine, and the other is like a kebab,” Mohammad’s brother Najibullah said, straddling his bay stallion.
“If you win, you get drunk, and if you lose, you get burned like meat on a skewer,” says the 35-year-old pre-tournament favourite from Samangan’s Feroz Nakhchir district.
When Mohammad and his five brothers who play buzkashi are not competing, they take care of the horses – including Khanjar (Dagger), Qara Bator (Brave Black), and Tyson – feeding them on grain, melons and grapes, and training themselves for the winter tournaments.
Standing at 1.92m tall and weighing 110kg, Najibullah is a hulking giant of a man with a bone-crushing handshake, but a disarming smile.
“Buzkashi is a really dangerous game,” he says, listing a cracked skull, broken thumbs, twisted legs, split lips and “one hundred broken teeth” among his injuries.
“But I still feel great and I’m not afraid,” grins Najibullah, whose family’s long association with the sport as riders and horse owners has earned it the title “Pahlawan” – wrestler.
Taliban crowd control
Spectators flock from across Afghanistan’s northern provinces, making their way on foot, bicycles and cars, or crammed into the back of pick-up trucks and rickshaws.
Some arrive early to see the chapandazan saddle their horses and pull on their mismatched outfits of padded judo jackets and trousers, welding gloves and cowboy boots in the afternoon sunshine.
Young boys balance packets of sunflower seeds on trays on their heads, calling out for customers, while others haul flasks of tea.
As the tournament gets under way, with the winners of early rounds claiming 1,000 Afghanis ($11) each, the crowd swells to create a huge rectangular pitch around the 50 to 60 horses and riders.
A wall serves as a main stand, where the event’s announcer whips up fans with a regular “Hey, hey, hey!” on the loudspeaker.
A rowdy group of several hundred fans are pushed back repeatedly by gun-toting Taliban fighters, although they are quicker on their feet when the pack of marauding buzkashi horses hurtle towards them as they wrestle for the muddied carcass.
The most excitable is 45-year-old Khasta Gul, who runs on to the dung-caked pitch to cheer on his favourite chapandazan, spraying water into the air and cracking jokes to other spectators. He gets a reward of 500 Afghanis ($5.50) from one rider for his unbending enthusiasm.
“I have a lot of passion for sport,” Gul said. “I support our riders and enjoy spurring them on.”
The buzkashi games are played at blistering speed, with the burly chapandazan using all their strength, guile, and some dark arts, to prise the carcass from one another.
Among the riders gripping their wood and leather whips between their teeth is local Taliban leader Abu Do Jana, aided by a young fighter called Osama – but they are no match for the winner.
Abbas Bromand, the head of the Feroz Nakhchir district and club captain of the team of brothers, congratulated Mohammad on his victory.
“Everyone should support sportsmen and riders,” he said. “We will try to make more tournaments around the country.”
Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers are yet to formalise a policy on sport but have indicated men and boys are allowed to participate.
And Mohammad says the hardliners have not created any problems during the tournament.
The rider said his combined winnings and bonuses for the day total about $800 – more than five times the average monthly salary in Afghanistan, which is facing a massive economic and humanitarian crisis.
The brothers will continue to play buzkashi each week throughout the winter, until April.
“Those who don’t have any hope are losers,” he says. “The season is looking great now.”