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By Marcus Stern
Copley News Service


MAZAR-E-SHARIF, Afghanistan -- On the outskirts of town, on a patch of dirt the size of 20 football fields, 200 horsemen gathered on a recent Friday to play Afghanistan's national pastime: buzkashi.

A centuries-old Afghan tradition banned by the Taliban, buzkashi has made a comeback in the past four years.

The 200 horsemen gathered that day outside Marzar-e-Sharif were the Balkh Province's team. They were practicing for an upcoming national tournament.

Buzkashi, as played that day, is not for the faint-hearted.
Riders positioned themselves around a chalked circle. A headless, eviscerated calf carcass was dropped inside the ring and a scrum of horses surged in around the carcass, urged on by their riders who brandished whips designed specifically for buzkashi.

It was like a rugby scrum except it was horses -- not men -- crashing, shoving, charging against one another as the horsemen tried to position their steeds and themselves so they could roll from their saddles low enough to snatch the carcass from the ground and bolt from the crowd.

Horses whinnied, their nostrils flaring. Some bucked as riders applied their whips. The eyes of the horsemen were fierce and intense. The eyes of the horses were more dubious. It was not a Humane Society moment.

As the scrum of horsemen wobbled slowly from the chalk circle, other horsemen positioned themselves in outer rings. They waited patiently for someone to break from the scrum with the calf. At that point, they would drive at the horseman in an effort to steal the carcass.

The idea was to grab the carcass, take it to the far end of the field, around a marker, and back to the chalk circle, where it would be deposited.

The horseman who deposited the calf in the chalk circle then went to the reviewing stand where his name was announced from a loudspeaker powered by a car battery. He also received a cash prize, sometimes $100, sometimes $50.

Then the melee would begin again.