From cockfighting to buzkashi, Afghanistan’s pastimes are as brutal as the country’s history.
At the top of a dusty hill in central Kabul, Hasan walks his dog, Diwana, alongside an empty Soviet-era swimming pool. The leash in his hand is doubled for strength and attached to a body harness made out of a heavy leather. It is fastened around the dog’s neck and waist as if for a horse to pull a cart. Above them, a giant Afghan flag flaps in the cold air at the top of a flagpole that stretches some 260 feet into the sky.
In a few hours, Hasan and Diwana will drive half an hour to the capital’s eastern outskirts, where the Afghan National Security Forces’ presence runs thin, ceding to local strongmen who pay gunmen to provide at least a sense of security.
When they arrive at the gate to the mud-walled compound, men in military fatigues carrying Kalashnikovs will pause their body searches as Diwana — 5 feet tall on hind legs, ears clipped, and with bloodshot eyes matching his henna-daubed coat — muscles his great frame out of the car. The men and boys waiting in line will turn to flatten themselves against the wall, giggling in excitable fear. They’ve come to watch Diwana fight.
It’s Friday in Kabul, the second day of the Islamic weekend — a day of peace, mercy, and blood sport.
Few countries have experienced the tumult that Afghanistan has in the past four decades. The 1979 Soviet invasion marked the beginning of more than 20 years of extreme violence and depredation. Following nearly a decade of bloodshed in which an estimated 1 million civilians were killed, the Soviet withdrawal in 1989 gave rise to a brutal civil war that ultimately saw the birth of the Taliban in the mid-1990s. Despite a new war raging in the hills and valleys of the provinces, the first decade of the new millennium was imbued with a sense of hope in Kabul and is telling of Afghanistan’s stamina in the face of violence. The optimism that came in 2001 was a first for more than half the young population. Afghan society and culture had been either hobbled or completely hogtied for more than two decades.
For many men in Afghanistan, sports — often violent in nature — as entertainment are as ingrained in Friday’s routine as prayer. In the post-2001 decade, friends could attend matches in public without fear of being arrested by the Taliban-era vice-and-virtue police or being strafed by Soviet gunships. Ancient blood sports were given tacit approval by the government and police. Betting and hash smoking went hand in hand with these events, but for the most part they remained incident-free.
In keeping with Afghanistan’s volatility in recent decades, however, things are changing. A new government with modern aspirations has something to do with it, as does its dubious grip on domestic security. With unemployment rife and an anxious malaise settling over the country as security and the prospects of a nation deteriorate, the appetite for public entertainment as escapism is as apparent as ever. In the current atmosphere, however, ringleaders and punters are being forced to adapt.
In parts of the country that continue to be contested by the Taliban, sports — in most cases seen by the insurgent group’s leaders as frivolous and un-Islamic — have provided numerous soft targets in recent years. With the large gatherings of civilians as well as government and security officials that some sporting events can attract to public places, security can be difficult to manage.
In 2008, in the Taliban heartland of Kandahar province, a suicide bomber blew himself up, killing 80 others, in an attack aimed at a prominent anti-Taliban militia commander attending a public dogfighting event. In November 2014, more than 50 people were killed in a suicide bombing at a volleyball tournament in Paktika province.
Of course, for resilient and resourceful Afghans, these are but minor impediments. The appeal of illicit or combative sporting pursuits perseveres. And, like the circumstances surrounding their origins and evolution, these sports provide a mirror of Afghanistan’s social and political climate, where money and power trump goodwill and historical alliances and where ethnic divides and tribalism undermine the most well-intentioned governance.
The referee’s assistant pulls back the green cloth that separates two ferocious dogs, and they charge at each other, colliding in midair. The sound of teeth meeting flesh and bone draws a cheer from the crowd. A few hundred men form a wide ring around the spectacle before them — the mongrel canines in veritable combat, snarling and tearing into each other’s neck and muzzle until small gashes appear and blood begins to stain the snow.
On Kabul’s southwestern outskirts — where a weathered road sign points the way to Kandahar, via other insurgent-hotbed provinces to the south — one will find the district of Char Asiab, a sprawling dust bowl of stockyards and walled compounds hemmed in by high peaks to the south. It is here that Commandant Sabur, a former mujahid, runs weekly dogfights. He charges 50 afghanis (approximately $1) per person to enter this private arena, secure in a walled compound manned by armed guards. It is a relatively safe place for a crowd as large as this one to watch a dogfight.
In recent months, some provinces (such as Wardak) have announced official bans on public dogfighting. The bans have nothing to do with animal rights but rather were put in place because dogfights can be magnets for human conflict. And though the fights are attended by Afghans from all ethnic backgrounds, clearly definable clusters of Tajiks, Pashtuns, Hazaras, and Uzbeks — Afghanistan’s four dominant ethnic groups — make up the mix, and disagreements between rival dog teams will often escalate into ethnically influenced violence. In 2014, in Qasaba, in Kabul’s northwest, four men from Panjshir province were stabbed and killed by rivals from Kandahar after a trainer failed to pull his dog away when the Panjshiri dog showed the signs of submission that would ordinarily end a fight. Even Hasan, Diwana’s owner, was jailed for a month after knocking out six teeth of a rival who then revealed a knife, and stabbed the young Kabuli in the hip and wrist.
Mir Gul Qayum Miri, 61, has been watching dogfights for 30 years. As an education advocate working in the Ministry of Education, Miri laments that there is little alternative entertainment in Afghanistan. For children, who often attend the fights with their fathers and older brothers, “even dogfighting is still fighting, and it’s bad, but there is nothing else for them to do.”
Hasan has his own memories of watching dogfights as boy, ones that make him laugh. The Taliban was in power, and he and a friend, Khalil, went to a clandestine dogfight. Not long into a bout, Taliban police arrived and the boys ran in all different directions to escape. Khalil was the only one who didn’t get away in time. His punishment was to face off against one of the dogs himself. He still limps from his injuries.
While the crowd jeers in the arena, Diwana stands on his hind legs and pulls his lead taught against stems of rebar protruding from an unfinished wall, all the while barking viciously at other dogs tied up on the periphery of the makeshift arena. With Hasan unable to find an agreeable match, Diwana won’t fight today.
Hasan takes him home, where eggs and milk await. Despite not fighting, after the excitement of the morning Diwana eats first. Hasan explains that “when [the dog] is hurting, so am I.”
When asked why they like to own or train animals for fighting or to simply watch any one of the various combative sports here in Afghanistan, the common refrain is simply “[because of] shoqe” — it is their passion.
Of the combat sports unique to the region, buzkashi is the only one that Afghan officialdom sanctions. Its origins are poorly documented, but it’s believed the sport began around the time Genghis Khan and his merciless Mongol horsemen trampled large swaths of Central Asia. It is said that the Mongols lived and died in the saddle and that buzkashi was their favorite of all games.
The game has changed little over the centuries, despite its many variations (which depend on who is playing and where the game is played). Buzkashi is played by two teams typically of between 10 and 20 chapandazes (horsemen) who fight over a headless goat or calf carcass. Despite ostensibly being a team sport, ethnic allegiance often trumps any illusion of teamwork, and reward is individual rather than collective, with each chapandaz collecting tattered afghani bills from wealthy spectators after scoring. To score, the carcass must be gathered from the ground, galloped around a flag at one end of the field, and placed in a circle marked in white chalk powder at the other end — always in front of the VIPs.
The games are violent, with the chapandazes and their horses unforgiving. With whips gripped between clenched teeth and blood smeared across the flanks of their rearing stallions, these warriors look every bit the wild cavalrymen of another time. Tales of buzkashi being played with the heads of retreating British soldiers of the 19th century are hard to verify.
In a private arena on Kabul’s northern outskirts, toward provinces famous for buzkashi, like Parwan and Panjshir, a cloud of dust follows the pack of horses as they charge along a brick-walled boundary that doubles as spectator seating. Their riders pull up on the reins as they run out of field and a mess of sweaty hides thud against each other and the walls that hem them in. The dust cloud catches up to the tangle of beasts as the chapandazes wrestle their steeds into within reach of the carcass that has fallen to the ground. From amid the melee a rider rights himself and hooks his leg around a limb of the headless calf in order to secure it in his possession. Teammates on either side shepherd his exit from the pack until he breaks free and charges into the open field.
American anthropologist Whitney Azoy, who spent several years chronicling the game from the mid-1970s until recently and who authored Buzkashi: Game and Power in Afghanistan, said in an interview via Skype that he knew a mujahideen commander from Baghlan province who, when asked about the time he was rumored to have played a game with a Soviet prisoner in place of a goat carcass, remained silent but “smiled quizzically.”
A couple of miles from Hasan and Diwana, on a main road that leads to Kabul’s international airport, a hundred or more mostly middle-aged or older Hazara men are converging on a barren lot between two apartment buildings. Both are under construction, not nearly complete, and rise from the ground like two great concrete skeletons. Dozens of domed wooden cages, covered with colorful shrouds that conceal clucking partridges, are already scattered across the fallow expanse. Abdul Hussein, 75 years old and from central Afghanistan’s Bamiyan province, arrives with his bird. He is too old and weak to make his own way, so his middle-aged sons drive him here and pick him up an hour or two later. They don't like the kauk (partridge) fights.
While dogfighting and buzkashi might require a certain amount of money to compete, perhaps the animal most commonly kept by Afghans is the kauk. Baz Ali, 61, caught his first kauk with a snare in the mountains of Baghlan, north of Kabul, when he was a boy. He now owns three kauks that, he says, range in price from $100 to $10,000. Baz Ali comes to the barren lot in the Salim Karwan area of central Kabul most Fridays, sometimes to bet on fights but mostly just to be with friends, whom he otherwise sees little of in the wintertime.
The kauk fights have a more jovial, less foreboding atmosphere than dogfights. And the birds, rotund and silvery brown with ketchup-red beaks, are a far cry from the killing-machine cockerels.
Yakob Ali, 37, is the referee at the weekly kauk fights at Salim Karwan. His job, however, appears to be as much about rousing the crowd as it is about enforcing the rules. The birds jump, flap, and tumble over each other in a comedic fashion that draws collective chuckles from the crowd. The bird that displays absolute domination is declared the winner.
Cockerels, on the other hand, while loved by their owners, are bred solely for fighting. At the fights they’re coddled and thrust toward the foreigner’s camera with pride. It is the only one of Afghanistan’s blood sports that often ends in the death of one of the two competitors. It is almost always a result of a fatal blow from a cock’s hind spur — a naturally occurring defense mechanism that is sometimes removed and replaced with an artificial one (though still made of bone) that can be sharpened for greater lethality.
Most cockfights are held in private arenas that charge a modest entry fee. Half an hour’s drive from the city’s center, not far from the pockmarked ruins of the century-old Darul Aman Palace — one of Kabul’s few remaining symbols of the destruction wreaked upon the city by the early 1990s civil war — is the capital’s premier amphitheater for cockfighting.
Tiered seating is occupied by four parties — one group of owners, trainers, and supporters on each side — the groups not necessarily divided along ethnic lines as they tend to be during dogfights. Each party might have several birds that have been conditioned for battle over the preceding two to three months.
Between bouts, the birds, which can grow as high as 3 feet tall, are held beneath their owner’s dust-colored woolen shawls, with their immense prehistoric claws dangling between the owners’ knees. During these pauses in fighting, wagers of up to 50,000 afghanis (nearly $1,000) are haggled over throughout the ring in scenes reminiscent of the trading-room floors of yesteryear.
Salim Khyumi, 27, of Parwan province, doesn’t fight his cocks for the money, though. “The main purpose for me, because I have another good source of income, is not about the money. It’s about going somewhere safe on the weekend. It’s about shoqe.”
In the center of what one might call Kabul’s unofficial sporting precinct sits a vast, open expanse of hard-packed dirt fenced in by high brick walls and a faded steel fence. Bars from the fence have been removed to allow access to the otherwise locked public space. On one side of the field is Ghazi Stadium, the home ground of Afghanistan’s increasingly successful cricket team. Due to security concerns, no foreign cricket team has traveled to Kabul to compete. At the northern end is Kabul’s Olympic Stadium, which is rarely used nowadays. But those like 28-year-old Haroon, from Kabul province, remember the Olympic Stadium from their youth, during Taliban times. In fact, it’s part of the reason he would go there — so he wouldn’t forget the dark times.
On Thursdays, the Taliban would make its official announcements about the following day’s event, the message broadcast over loudspeakers scattered throughout the city. One Friday after midday prayers, Haroon and a small group of friends made their way to the stadium. He remembers how the crowd had gathered in stilted silence and how the tanks that drove around inside the stadium churned up clouds of fine, suffocating dust. For entertainment on this day, the Taliban executed a woman. Haroon doesn’t recall the crime she’d been accused of.
Now, late on a Friday afternoon, Haroon stands watching on the periphery of a ring of a few hundred men across the road from the Olympic Stadium, on the enormous field — Chaman-e-Hozori — where thousands of boys and men play soccer and cricket with fierce delight. Undefined boundary lines overlap, stray balls arc across the pale sky, and fights break out. Elsewhere, opium addicts, crumpled beneath filthy shawls, squat in small bunches inside the outer walls, while thieves scan the crowd of thousands from behind greasy scarves, searching for their next target.
In the far corner of Chaman-e-Hozori, two thick-set men are circling one another inside the ring of spectators, sizing each other up like boxers. They are wearing thick, open-chested cloaks like kimonos. Each has a scarf tied loosely around his waist. They are competing in pahlawani — a brand of Afghan wrestling that dates back to the fourth century B.C. and the time of Alexander the Great. It was appropriated by villagers in the modern-day province of Badghis, which borders Turkmenistan to its north. Badghis remains the cultural home of pahlawani, and even in Kabul, it is the language of the Turkmen that many here today at Chaman-e-Hozori are speaking.
Once Alexander’s army had continued east after conquering Persia, pahlawani would often be used as a way of resolving disputes between tribal groups. Instead of entire villages coming to blows, the leaders alone would face off. In extreme cases, the defeated wrestler would be beheaded and his men arrested and put to work by the victors.
The stakes in the modern incarnation of pahlawani, fortunately, are less severe. The shame for the loser, however, is not to be underestimated in a country where pride is central to a man’s standing in the community. All-in brawls between teams from opposing provinces that travel to Kabul for the day are not uncommon.
Haroon doesn’t like pahlawani. He thinks its popularity in informal settings like here at Chaman-e-Hozori, beneath a pair of incongruous rugby goal posts, “stems from a lack of education.” That, as per the common — if simplistic — refrain, in a war sense, “if there is an education system, they will be able to escape from fighting.”
Hazizullah, a lean, broad-shouldered 23-year-old originally from Jowzjan province, has just won a match against a wrestler from Faryab (both provinces border Turkmenistan) by flailing him to the ground in a tangle of legs and arms and pinning his shoulders to the ground. Hazizullah makes his way around the inside of the human perimeter, collecting donations — bakhshish — from appreciative spectators. He’s less philosophical about the game, saying that he comes here every Friday for entertainment and to wrestle, not because of the money but “for shoqe.”
As the sun breaks through a low cloud above a gaudy office building of mirrored blue windows across the road, men unfurl scarves to layer them on a patch of ground and kneel for the afternoon prayer. It’s the first sign of spring.
Haroon makes his way past an entrance gate in the corner of the field. The locks and chains that bound it shut have long since rusted and seized together. He chuckles to himself as he waits his turn to scale a section of high wall with a gap in the fence above. “In Afghanistan we have a saying: The main door is often closed but a forbidden door is always open.”