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Afghani national sport celebrated in Queens kabab house

by Rebecca Sanchez, Iranian Beat Reporter —

An ancient game that involves men on horseback beating a goat carcass is making a comeback in Afghanistan, where it is the country’s national sport. Buzkashi even has its admirers in the New York borough of Queens.

Several photos of Buzkashi games line the walls of the Balkh Shish Kabab House.

Two of its enthusiastic promoters are Mohammad Nasim and Abdul Gabbar, brothers who own the Balkh Shish Kabab House on 31st street in Astoria. Their restaurant doubles as a Buzkashi shrine. Woven Afghans and framed photographs line the worn red walls. Abdul Gabbar, the Persian-speaking older brother of Mohammad, releases a hearty laugh when I ask about the impassioned Afghani pastime.

“You know Buzkashi? It is a beautiful game, I will tell you all about Buzkashi,” he says with a thick accent.

Some say Buzkashi is like Polo. Maybe so, if Polo were played with a headless, limbless goat carcass that has been disemboweled, soaked in ice water, and packed with sand. In Buzkashi, the field is set for a war-like match, which is only slightly regulated by a referee and could last for days. There is a circle drawn in chalk on one end, and a flagpole pierced into the earth on the other. There are two teams—each consisting of 25 men, each man on a horse and bearing a whip. The object of the game: steal victory by getting the goat out of the circle, around the pole, and back to the team’s area outlined in chalk. The winning team barbecues the game goat for a celebratory feast.

In the photos that adorn the kabab house, the horses’ hooves provoke helical hazes of dirt and dust. The men extend each appendage in an effort to wrench the goat carcass away from one another, while maintaining form and balance atop their galloping comrades.

The game requires impeccable skill. Extreme speed, strength, and precision can only be attained through years of training under severe conditions—intense heat, cold, fatigue and hunger, the brothers explained. In contrast to other sports, players, known as chapandaz, do not reach their peak until they are in their mid-forties, an age at which most athletes are retiring.

Abdul Gabbar was once a chapandaz, too. He sits with his younger brother, nostalgically recounting the few games he played back in Afghanistan. Although he never played in the major league, he said that his horses did. Abdul Gabbar owned several horses, he recalled, which were named according to the color of their coats, that were ridden by famous athletes. He trained and cared for them, and says he misses watching them play. The games are currently not broadcast internationally, so Mohammad and Abdul Gabbar watch pre-recorded games on DVD for entertainment.

Videos of older Buzkashi games can also be watched on Youtube, and the sport has already made inroads into American pop culture through Hollywood. One scene in “Rambo III” depicts Sylvester Stalone as Rambo, playing in a Buzkashi match with mujahedin, meaning warriors of God. Buzkashi scenes can also be seen in a 1971 film called “The Horsemen,” starring Omar Sharif.

While the chapandaz represents a fierce symbol of the warrior in Afghan society, Mohammad says the horses are equally trained, skilled, and essential to the game. He says each horse is coached for five years, and knows how to help its rider.

Abdul Gabbar describes the training of the horses, using the photo behind him.

“They cannot talk but they can learn each individual word that you are saying. They know—even if the rider is making mistakes, the horse will cover the mistakes,” he said.

Abdul Gabbar says that Buzkashi is just as much about the beauty of the horses’ movement, its muscle structure glistening through a healthy, shimmering coat.

“There is an old saying in Afghanistan about Buzkashi. He says that if you know that you have two days of your life to live, you can have one day horse riding, and the second day you can get married,” Mohammad said, translating for Abdul Gabbar who spoke it in his native tongue.

Buzkashi, literally meaning “goat grabbing,” has been played since the time of Genghis Khan. It was deemed immoral and forbidden under the Taliban’s rule but never quite went dormant—it only moved underground.

Tribesmen rode down from the mountains to play on Friday evenings after prayer and drew enormously indiscreet crowds of hundreds, sometimes thousands, of spectators. The Taliban deemed the game immoral, but Mohammad says the people refused to accept that.

“For us, for the Afghani people, the Taliban was not an official group, so we don’t believe in them. We don’t want to just follow what they say. It’s the national game, people love it. We don’t acknowledge them as the restriction of something. If you’re not acceptable your order is never accepted,” he said.

For Afghanis, Buzkashi is not only intended for pleasure. It is intrinsically woven into national pride and the enduring warrior spirit. Athletes are men of battle—the horses are intelligent, courageous beasts.

When the U.S.-backed Northern Alliance forced the Taliban out of power in 2001 following the events of 9/11, the game was formally resuscitated and pronounced the national sport of Afghanistan.

Although there is currently still no way to follow the winter sport from the United States, the possibility of one day seeing it in the Olympic Games gives Mohammad and Abdul Gabbar hopes of reconnecting with it soon.

When asked if he missed watching the games and participating in the celebratory feast, Abdul Gabbar expelled a very serious “yes”—first in Persian, then in English.

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