Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Headless Goat Men

As the crowd of panicked spectators slammed into me and jammed me against the barricade, I spun around to try to get a look at the herd of horses that was galloping toward us.

This was a bit closer to the action than I would have liked.

The day had given no hint that I was going to be putting myself in this kind of danger. A group of expats had decided to take in the annual Buzkashi event at Hissar, about an hour outside of Dushanbe. Timed to coincide with the annual Navruz or New Year’s celebration, the Buzkashi is staged at different sites throughout Tajikistan and other Central Asian countries, and its reputation as an unmatched spectacle makes it an irresistible draw for local people and foreigners alike. The roots of the Buzkashi date back centuries, when horses were the only mode of transport available. In order to prove their prowess as riders, men would engage in a series of games on horseback that evolved into the Buzkashi or “goat grabbing”, which may give a hint at the objective of the game.

The rules of Buzkashi are fairly simple. A rider must pick up a goat that has been beheaded before the game, carry the goat on horseback around a marker at one end of the field and then travel the length of the field in order to throw the goat into a scoring circle at the other end. Challenging enough, but the real catch comes with the other thirty riders who are trying to do exactly the same thing. Beyond such severe fouls as attempting to trip another rider’s horse, anything is considered fair play to get one’s goat (so to speak), including whipping the other riders, prompting many of them to adopt the leather helmets that were fashionable among footballers in the Roaring Twenties. In the past, games carried on for days, though a shorter limit is favoured in modern times, perhaps in recognition of the fact that most participants have day jobs. At the end of the event, the best riders are rewarded with prizes of money or valued items like carpets.

The Buzkashi is also notorious for observing few physical boundaries on the playing field. The focus of the riders on grabbing and carrying the goat is so intense that their momentum often carries them into rivers, parking lots and crowds of people. I suppose this should have been a warning signal to me, but as I stood at a safe distance on the crest of a hill overlooking the preparations for the Buzkashi, I also felt completely disconnected from the event and the local people watching it. Bidding farewell to my fellow expats and to my common sense, I left to find a spot closer to the field of play.

The riders and their horses had already started to assemble at the far end of the field, as had a sizeable crowd perched on the side of hill. I decided this would be the place for me. A sturdy metal bar that stood shoulder high seemed to provide adequate separation between the riders and their audience, so I lined up behind it with the other spectators. The thought did occur to me that a horse travelling at full speed could probably jump the obstacle without much problem, but I assumed if this had been the case, no one would put themselves in danger by choosing this spot, so I felt relatively secure. A police officer repeatedly admonished people for getting too close to the bar and ordered them to retreat, which probably was another sign that I should have heeded. But by that time, the goat had been tossed and the crowd was on its feet, so I stayed put.

The participants came together in a rugby-style scrum to battle for the goat, horses and riders joining together in an amorphous mass that seethed with yells and curses. The breath of the horses clouded the cold air above them as they collided with one another. Arms brandishing whips flew indiscriminately and struck riders and horses in equal measure. The group surged back and forth as one, belying the chaos that took place at its heart. Suddenly, a rider and his charge broke from the pack with goat in tow and the chase was on! Tearing across the field, he made for the first marker while the other riders tried in vain to strip the dead animal from his grasp. Making the turn, he charged across the field at full gallop as the crowd roared its approval and propelled him toward the scoring circle on the other side. The onlookers assembled in front of the circle scrambled for cover as the horses thundered toward them, barely getting out of the way before the first rider tossed the goat into the circle for the score. The crowd rewarded its champion with shouts of appreciation and applause.

This scene was repeated for the length of the match – a scrum followed by a breakaway and a mad chase. True to its reputation, though, the Buzkashi remained dangerously unpredictable. Only when the horses and their riders were a safe distance away did you dare to take your eyes off the field, for fear of being caught unaware that the game was coming your way at top speed. The sight of horses coming toward them caused people to scatter even when they still had half a field between them. I still enjoyed a measure of security thanks to my iron bar standing fast, though I still backed away when the game came to me. All in all, though, I still counted myself lucky to be so close to the action without having to worry about being trampled. It would have taken something entirely unpredictable to happen for me to be in danger. Which is, of course, what happened.

At the halfway point of the match, another rider carrying the goat made his final charge for the scoring circle and steered his horse up the side of the hill. The pursuit was a close one this time, though, and he enjoyed no space to slow down before tossing the goat, so half of the herd charged up the hill. Reaching the top of the hill, the horses turned and raced along its edge behind me. Spectators perched at the top who thought their position was a safe one suddenly were faced with the horses coming at them, so they jumped up and dashed down the hill to avoid the stampede, knocking others out of their way as they ran toward the field. And me. There was no time to avoid the wave of people coming my way, so I went with the flow until we came up against the barrier. With nowhere else to go, the crowd piled up on one another and we had no choice but to turn around and face the horses coming toward us in the faint hope that we would be able to avoid them.

Except there were no horses to avoid. Whether by luck or the skill of the riders, the horses had steered straight along the edge, rather than coming down the hill behind us. Finding a bare spot on the hill, the horses charged down to the field to rejoin the competition, and the group piled up against the barrier released its collective breath and shook our heads at the close call. As the crowd dispersed, most returned to their places on the hill or resumed their posts on the rail. For me, I had had enough of seeing (and being) the action, so with shaky legs, I walked past sympathetic police who allowed me access to the VIP staircase to move away from the field and rejoin my group farther down the field to watch the rest of the match in relative safety.

Other spectators weren’t lucky enough to avoid collisions. On a regular basis, people in the crowd were clipped by horses as they passed by. The most foolhardy, the ones who wandered out on to the playing field for a closer look, were often rewarded by a hit that sent them tumbling across the turf. Riders also took their share of lumps, falling off their horses while reaching for the goat or getting knocked off while on the chase. Such spectacular spills were met with an appreciative roar from the crowd that would have done the Roman Coliseum proud. Amazingly, all of the people knocked down were able to pick themselves up again and walked off the field to an equal amount of applause and taunts for their troubles.

After two hours, the weather turned and the temperature dropped as the sky opened up. Despite dressing for the cold, the wind still sent a chill through me, so I gladly accepted the invitation to go for a walk to warm up and see some of the other sports taking place. Though the Buzkashi is the marquee event, it shares the day with a number of other popular attractions, including wrestling. Walking over to the next crowd of people, we found pairs of men trying to knock each other down in the mud that was growing deeper by the minute. The wrestling techniques of the combatants seemed to have been learned outside a pub after last call. Plenty of pushing and grabbing each other’s shirt, followed by hugging and “I love you, man”. Of course, I might have the translation wrong.

Finally, the time had come for us to leave. The crowd had thinned somewhat because of the weather, but we could still see the horses and riders still furiously competing as we walked toward the van. Some riders could be seen on the sidelines proudly displaying their hard-earned prizes and accepting congratulations from their friends and fellow competitors. With only one opportunity to see the Buzkashi, I’m glad I was able to take it all in. It certainly lived up to its reputation as a dangerous and unforgettable spectacle.

The Buzkashi