Buzkashi: buz = goat / kashidan = to pull – not for vegetarians! It’s the day after one of the guards, Rasoul celebrated his birthday with several cows, delivered in the guise of Shashliks (skewed meat) and Russian Vodka, and I am not feeling so good! The celebrations started tamely. The vodka sitting like a benign water bottle on the side table, I assumed, was for ‘the westerners’. Murodbek, one of the other guards, changed his clothes for the day into the white uniform of an experienced chef and showcased his genius by preparing a meal for all the staff in MSF. It was really a welcome break from the 4 weeks of hospital work where my emotions peaked and troughed like the Russian Mountains.
Anyway, back to the vodka. Rasoul asks me if I want a vodka and in jest I respond ‘’only if you have one’’, a response that I was sure would be ‘’no’’, given that we are in a relatively conservative country. Of course, my preconceptions were wrong; an empty glass was given to me and I was ‘encouraged’ to propose a toast. And there began the 2 hour journey into a different plane and the spirits were awakened and many lost into another plane. From friendship, to love, to memories, to further repetitions of the same for reasons of memory loss passed smoothly between the team, well at least the men in the team. The truth is, despite the difficulties that we face in this project with the mindless authority, the Tajiks we work with and the Tajiks that engage in our everyday lives, are warm, and the friendship and love and brotherhood that is developing is a natural one. I realize what I really like about working with MSF here in Tajikistan; that each person has a respected role but we are a cohesive ‘whole’ when it comes to this project. In the midst of the drinking, I am convinced to go and see a national sport the next day, called Buzkashi, by the logisticians, Tamas and Shavkat. I had never heard of it but being the new man that I had become after several vodkas, I agreed (as a man should in these situations - the vodka had clearly posted delusions of grandiose in my head). I had no idea about the venue, nor the time, but it was something to do with horses and a goat at around midday in a field outside Dushanbe. I was excited.
The journey from Dushanbe south to Khatlon leaves behind the tall buildings to give way to clear blue skies, green, carpeted fields and donkeys contemplating the world. I am with Ulogbek, the driver, Tamas, our trusted Dutch logistician, and two medical advisors, Sebastian (a modern day Che Gevara look alike) and Philipp who are visiting for a few days. An hour later, we arrive at the destination and park the car high up on the hills overlooking the valley. In the distance, men on horses pull on the reigns as a horn is trumpeted. The game is about to begin.
We walk to the top of the hill where the men are sitting. There are men and horses everywhere from Iran, Afghanistan and Tajikistan and thousands of people have come to watch the game. I ask Ulogbek what this is all about and patiently he explains ‘’there is a goat that is dragged from one end of the field to the other (about 1.5km) and back again to the final line. Each man, on horse, plays against each other and every time the goat is brought back, he wins a point. The man on a horse who has the most number of points at the end of the 45 minute game will get a prize (money or a car for example)’’. With two hundred men on horses and only one goat, I suspect there is likely to be danger!
The scene is like a film set, green fields with mountains silhouetted in the background. Some men wear Tajik tunics, some with long green warm tunics called ‘Joma’, black gumboots, and heads protected by traditional white cloth wrapped like a turban. Others wear a more modern version with Russian pilot hats and sporting jackets with stripes on the arms and logos of various countries on their backs. The men sit on wooden saddles balanced to allow an almost 90 degree bend to pick up the goat. There is a surge of horses towards us and we move higher up the hill. It is like a film set, but the protagonists are real, barbaric and extremely skillful. The men ride the horses at full speed and hit each other with sticks on the head, the leg or quite frankly anywhere exposed, to bend down and grab the goat in mid-gallop. The mass of horses follow until the ‘goal’ has been reached. It is so thick and I cannot see the goat.
Later, I ask one of the Tajik logisticians, an experienced spectator, how this sport originated. Shavat is a man of knowledge and given that he has helped translate a film about this sport, I trust his words. (I will tentatively try to use his words here to describe the origins but I cannot express his excitement when he talks about it and wish that he could write them himself) “When Ghengis Khan and his Mongols made their way through Central Asia, they brought with them shepherds and goats. In the middle of the night (here, he lowers his voice), the wolves would try and attack them, so the shepherds would mount the horses and grab the back of the wolves (he raises his voice) and strike the wolf against a rock to kill it. The shepherds enjoyed this and it became a game.” And that is how it all started!
The spectators are mainly Uzbeks and Tajiks but quite different looking from the Iranian looking people of Dushanbe. The influence of Ghengis Khan in both the sport and the visage of the people, with the Mongolian features, is striking. I also notice that many have flat occiputs (a flat back of the head) and my medical advisor tells me that babies are laid on a wooden decorated cradle for the first few months of life to look beautiful, although perhaps the people here were more advanced in their thinking as we know now in the western literature that babies left lying on their back are less likely to die of cot death.
The game is over and we head back to Dushanbe. With a picnic of Indian food, friends and family (only men allowed though), I could watch it again. The freedom of space, the movement of horses and the shaded mountains is not a bad setting for a man, even for a vegetarian! As for the goat, well, I think he will have a better life next time.