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Buzkashi in Afghanistan: bread, games and money

His fresh stitches between his eyes didn't stop him from getting hurt. buzkachi rider Sarwar Pahlawan to win with his team the final of a sport that is always violent but now financed in Afghanistan by investors.

At almost 40 years old, including 20 in tournaments, one of the best “tchopendoz” in the country welcomes the recent developments in this equestrian sport at the heart of Afghan identity, practiced for centuries in the steppes of the North, and which now also inflames the South.

“The game has changed completely,” he explained to AFP in his home in Mazar-e-Sharif (north), after the recent victory of his Yama team in front of an exclusively male crowd, the women being banned from stadiums.

Buzkashi in Afghanistan: bread, games and money

© AFP – Atif ARYAN

“Before we were paid with rice, oil, a carpet or a cow”, but today the tchopendoz have professional contracts, up to 10,000 dollars (9,150 euros) per an.

Yama's teammates, after their victory, also shared 35,000 dollars, three camels and a car offered by sponsors.

In addition, each goal contributed to its author 100 dollars. That is to say when, after a bitter melee of raised hooves and whip blows, a rider manages to throw to the ground, in the “circle of justice”, the 30 kg leather bag which now replaces the carcass of a goat.

The rustic bouzkachi has become gentrified.

“Before, after a tournament, cold water was poured on our shoulders, now we have hammams and saunas,” explains Sarwar.

Similarly, riders no longer hang from trees or split wood to build muscle: they lift iron in gyms.< /p>

Buzkashi in Afghanistan: bread, games and money

Buzkachi rider Sarwar Pahlawan (C) with his children at his home in Mazar-e-Sharif, northern Afghanistan, March 9, 2024 © AFP – Atif ARYAN

“My life has changed a lot”, says the tchopendoz, only 1.65 m tall but whose power has earned him the nickname “lion”.

“Now I have a car. I had almost no sheep and I have many, I had no land, and I have one. I had no house, and I have two”.

But Sarwar remains “a simple man”. Between two tournaments, he raises his sheep.

– One million dollars –

Oil tycoon Saeed Karim, who divides his life between Mazar- e-Sharif, Dubai and Istanbul, is the biggest financier of the new buzkachi.

He set up the team which bears the name of his company, Yama Petroleum, he five months ago.

Buzkashi in Afghanistan: bread, games and money

Oil tycoon Saeed Karim (2nd L), boss of the Yama Petroleum team, attends the final of the buzkashi tournament, March 8, 2024 in Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan © AFP – Atif ARYAN

He acquired the two best tchopendoz in the country (including Sarwar) and around forty stallions, some in Kazakhstan or Tajikistan, whose price can reach $100,000.

“We invested a million dollars in horses, riders, stables and equipment,” he explains.

L he entrepreneur owns four properties in Turkey, including a four million dollar house in Istanbul. How many does he have in total? “I didn't count.”

“I just want to serve my people,” he said. “When my team wins, it’s an honor.”

The Taliban, returned to power in 2021, had banned this “immoral” sport during their first reign ( 1996-2001).

But “buzkachi is the passion of this nation. The Taliban know that it makes people happy, that's why they authorize it “, estimates the president of the Bouzkachi Federation, Ghulam Sarwar Jalal.

They also collect taxes on tournaments.

A national league was created in 2020 and the buzkachi became professional.

Before, each team played an unlimited number of horses, “today it's six each, these are international standards”, explains Mr. Karim.

Likewise, a little order has been brought into these brutal fights, and yellow or red cards rain down in the event of a mistake.

But above all it is the arrival of silver which transformed the buzkachi.

Buzkashi in Afghanistan: bread, games and money

Riders from Team Yama Petroleum (in orange) compete with Team Baghlan during the final of the buzkachi tournament, March 8, 2024 in Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan © AFP – Atif ARYAN

“The fans come in more numbers because they know there are more good horses and good teams in the field,” says Yama's owner.

But “with 40 horses, it takes 300,000 dollars per year” for 15 riders, 20 grooms and the care of the magnificent stallions fed on barley, dates, eggs and fish oil.

For the comfort of his men, who often have broken legs, ribs or fingers, Mr. Karim had a vast ranch built where they planted pear trees imported from Turkey and almond trees, already in flower.

– “Like football” –

Ten thousand men crowded into the Mazar-e-Sharif stadium for the final, braving Taser shocks or beatings from the guards who channeled the crowd, and screaming when a horseman grabbed “the goat” and rocketed away at full gallop.

Buzkashi in Afghanistan: bread, games and money

Spectators watch the final of the buzkachi tournament in Mazar-e-Sharif, northern Afghanistan, March 8, 2024 © AFP – Atif ARYAN

Among the spectators, Mohammad Yama Razaqyar. He works for one of the sponsors of the final.

“The investment of businessmen is good for the game. The organization is perfect”, he rejoices, while insisting on the fact that “spectators can come without fear”, with the end of the deadly fighting since the return of the Taliban.

At the Federation, Mr. Jalal is a happy president.

“This year, 20 entrepreneurs have helped us contacted. Four or five million dollars will be invested in new teams.”

Buzkashi in Afghanistan: bread, games and money

Rider Sarwar Pahlawan (c) of the Yama Petroleum team carries the trophy after winning the final of the buzkashi tournament, March 8, 2024 in Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan © AFP – Atif ARYAN

“We want to make (bouzkachi) a sport like football or cricket”, a “commercial” sport, says the president.

Before the return of the Taliban, there were 100 to 200 Chopendoz in Afghanistan.

“Now we have at least 500. The bouzkachi attracts young people”, he says.

All rights of reproduction and representation reserved. © (2024) Agence France-Presse

Teilor Stone

By Teilor Stone

Teilor Stone has been a reporter on the news desk since 2013. Before that she wrote about young adolescence and family dynamics for Styles and was the legal affairs correspondent for the Metro desk. Before joining Thesaxon , Teilor Stone worked as a staff writer at the Village Voice and a freelancer for Newsday, The Wall Street Journal, GQ and Mirabella. To get in touch, contact me through my teilor@nizhtimes.com 1-800-268-7116