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Afghanistan: Kabul Residents Gather For A Game Of 'Goat-Pull'

Traditional forms of entertainment are returning to the Afghan capital, Kabul, following the defeat and ouster of the Taliban militia. One of the most unusual -- and irreverent -- is the Afghan national sport of Buzkashi. In the game, men on horseback battle for possession of a decapitated goat. The sport draws big crowds to Kabul's stadium on Fridays, when matches are held. RFE/RL correspondent Dan Alexe was in Kabul for a game and files this report.

Kabul, 4 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- A crowd howls with excitement as it watches a game of Buzkashi on a now-typical Friday in Kabul.

Buzkashi is the national sport of Afghanistan. In the game, men on horseback battle for possession of a decapitated goat.

Buzkashi means "goat-pull" in Persian -- although today the goat is usually replaced by a calf, which cannot be dismembered as quickly by the horsemen who pull on it from all directions.

In this unbridled competition, there are virtually no rules except to remain firmly astride the horse. The greatest shame is for a player to tumble from the saddle. A fall could mean instant death if the unfortunate player is trampled under the hooves of the horses.

The game is not traditionally known in the capital Kabul, but was brought in from the north in the 1950s. It is Turkic-Mongol in origin and many Central Asian peoples, especially Uzbeks and Kyrgyz, claim it as their own.

The game's origins can be seen in its technical terms, which rely on a mixture of Turkic and Persian-based languages. "Qarajay," which means "Black Place" and refers to one of the forms of the game, has one Turkic and one Persian syllable in its name. The English word "team" is used to designate a group of players.

The Taliban militia outlawed Buzkashi, together with dogfights, cockfights, partridge fights, and even camel fights. Perhaps in reaction to this prohibition, these forms of entertainment have come back with a vengeance.

Shokor, a huge man who ekes out a living by working as a guard in a hotel -- but whose dream was to become a professional basketball player -- explains.

"Buzkashi is one of our traditions, but also a kind of sport. Being Afghans, we are proud of the one who is winning."

Younger generations are less familiar with the game. Fahim is a 16-year-old boy who confesses his total ignorance of Buzkashi.

"I am too young to have seen the Buzkashi until now; during the five years when the Taliban ruled Kabul they had prohibited the game."

At today's match, children swarm up and down the aisles of Kabul stadium, selling sweets and imitating the shrill shouts of adults.

Most of Kabul's older residents know the rules and are proud of the tradition.

Najibullah, a taxi driver, spends his day off, Friday, at the stadium watching Buzkashi. He explains the rules and origins of the game.

"Buzkashi is one of the historical traditions of our country. It is celebrated from old times. According to one player, the rules of Buzkashi are as follows: A player wins one point if he grabs the calf or the goat from the ground, circles around the playing field and brings it back to a circle called the 'hallal.'"

Hallal is an intrusion of the religious into the most irreverent of all cultural events of Afghanistan; for hallal is nothing less than the Koran's designation for all that is ritually clean.

In principle, each team gains the points obtained by the individual players, but this is a modern conception of the game. It is not rare for a game to end in complete disarray, even the arbiter confessing his ignorance as to who has won the most points.

The crowd howls and boos nevertheless, delighting in the show.