Taking a Break From War With a Game Anything but Gentle

Dexter Filkins continues to report from Afghanistan…


PUSHTESURKH, Afghanistan — Not every sport can boast referees who cradle assault rifles, or winners who eat the animal carcasses they have spent the afternoon fighting over.

But as the buzkashi match unfolded on a valley floor here north of Kabul, the vectors of politics and play seemed, for a moment, to intersect.

On the field, 15 horsemen, many of them wearing traditional Uzbek hats and robes, beat and savaged one another for control of the beheaded goat that is the object of the game. Men whipped their horses. Men whipped other men’s horses. Men whipped one another. Horses trampled spectators, stood on their hind legs, galloped with eyes bulging.

A crowd — men, warlords, boys — looked on, following the strange game with a sophistication handed down from the time of Genghis Khan, and which, in the madness, allowed them to discern victory from defeat.

“Bravo! Bravo!” cried the announcer into a bullhorn, a rifle strapped to his back in case things got of out hand, as they sometimes do. “Another goal for Isok!”

And Mr. Isok, show-off that he was, trotted his white stallion over to a man named Noor, one of the warlords presiding over the day’s match. Commander Noor was seated in a sort of throne at midfield, fingering a bowl of candy-coated almonds. He handed the horseman a wad of bills.

“Well done,” Commander Noor said. “You’re the best.”


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