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A dead black calf is dumped from the back seat of a Toyota Corolla. The game ball, in other words, has arrived. All the intestines have been yanked out and the head and hooves sawed off, to avoid cutting the hands of the 40-odd horsemen warming up their stallions for a buzkashi battle, here on the bone-dry steppe of northwestern Afghanistan. Jahangir is a 38-year-old champion from Shiberghan, a sprawling district of 160,000. He steps down from the grandstand into hard sun.
Draped in a silk riding robe and clean-shaven but for a faint mustache, he walks with the bull-necked swagger of a man known to all by his first name. The arena floor—the size of three football fields, walled off to keep the horses from bolting—is beaten down from five months of play. Jahangir’s groom unfurls a blanket and helps him change into match attire: quilted gray jacket and pants, layers of wraparound padding, and high leather boots reinforced with wooden stakes, to keep his shins from snapping under the force of the one-ton beasts that will soon be crashing into him. He swaps his turban for a telbek, the fur-trimmed hat favored by his Turkic ancestors. An AK-47-wielding bodyguard, a war veteran on crutches, and several boys watch the ritual in rapt silence.
Download the for your iPhone to listen to more longform titles. Swinging onto his mount, Jahangir struts out to join the ragged mix of riders donning secondhand judo jackets and Russian tank helmets. They line up and pay their respects to local VIPs and fans (all male), then implode into a horse-powered meat grinder, fighting to get within arm’s reach of the calf. To win a cycle of buzkashi, a player, while remaining on horseback, must bend down into a maelstrom of thrashing legs and teeth and snatch the roughly 100-pound carcass from the ground, sprint around a flag at the far end of the arena, and drop it inside a chalked circle, all while opponents do everything they can to steal it from his grasp. Sometimes teams compete head-to-head, but usually it’s every man for himself.
Matches last about two hours or until the supply of calves runs out. Deaths are rare, but fractured limbs and nasty cuts are inevitable. During today’s match, one of the first players to score approaches the stands with blood seeping from his eye. The announcer shouts “Long live Gholam!” into a megaphone.
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The player nods, tucks a $20 cash prize into his jacket, and turns back toward the scrum. The game is rumbling again at midfield, folding into itself and spitting riders back out, only to see them whack their horses’ flanks, rear up on hind legs, and thrust once more into the chaos of flesh and bone. This is Buzkashi, the national sport of Afghanistan. The word means “goat grabbing” in Persian, but goats are seldom used anymore because of their tendency to tear apart. Though buzkashi is, easy analogies don’t fit.
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