Haji Mohammad Pahlawan waves his whip in the air, pushing his gray stallion away from the calf carcass he has just thrown away in an attempt to win a tournament in buzkashi, the Afghan national sport.
A cloud of dust swirls around the agitated melee of three dozen horses competing in the final competition on a vast plain in the northern province of Samangan, where Buzkashi riders known as “chapandazan” are revered as heroes.
About 3,000 spectators, all men and boys, cheer, shout and yell as a beaming Mohammad rushes to the tournament officials to collect his $ 500 prize, rallying his teammates on horseback for their victory lap.
Buzkashi, Persian words for goat (“buz”) and drag (“kashi”), has been played in Central Asia for centuries, neighboring Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kyrgyzstan. Kazakhstan having their own variants.
Banned under the Taliban from 1996-2001 for being “immoral”, there were concerns that the old game would be banned again after the group seized power in August this year.
But not only have Taliban fighters gathered in the crowd after Friday prayers to attend this buzkashi tournament, a local commander also participates, and Mohammad’s club is run by a district governor.
“I’m leaving with the glory,” Mohammad, 29, told AFP news agency on the sidelines, still dressed in his Soviet-era tank helmet, his face covered in fine powder lifted during the two hours. competition. .
Flanked by mountains, the start-of-season tournament takes place at Qara Shabagh, just outside Samangan’s capital, Aybak, where the Hindu Kush mountains meet the Central Asian steppe.
As the tournament kicks off, with the winners of the opening rounds claiming 1,000 Afghan Afghanis ($ 11) each, the crowd swells to create a huge rectangular field around the 50 to 60 horses and riders.
A rowdy group of several hundred fans are repeatedly repelled by armed Taliban fighters, though they are faster on their feet when the marauding pack of buzkashi horses rush towards them as they fight for the muddy carcass.
Most exciting is Khasta Gul, 45, who runs the manure-covered field to cheer on his favorite rider, spraying water in the air and making jokes on fellow spectators.
He gets a reward of 500 Afghanis ($ 5.50) from a horseman for his unwavering enthusiasm.
“I have a great passion for the sport,” says Gul. “I support our runners and I like to encourage them. “
Among the horsemen holding their wooden and leather whips between their teeth is local Taliban leader Abu Do Jana, aided by a young fighter called Osama, but they are no match for the winner.
And Mohammad says the group didn’t create any problems during the tournament.
The runner claims his combined earnings and bonuses for the day total around $ 800, more than five times the average monthly salary in Afghanistan, which is facing a huge economic and humanitarian crisis.
The brothers will continue to play buzkashi every week throughout the winter, until April.
“Those who have no hope are losers,” he said. “The season is looking good now.”