In this photograph taken on December 15, 2017, Afghan horsemen compete during a game of the traditional sport of Buzkashi in Mazar-i-Sharif. (AFP / Farshad Usyan)

Dust days

Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan -- Suddenly all the heads in the stands at a stadium in northern Afghanistan turned and zeroed in on us.  

It’s not that the event was forbidden for women, at least not formally. Simply, Afghan women do not attend buzkashi games -- a full contact horseback sport where men play polo with the carcass of a headless goat or calf.   

So would a woman, a foreigner at that, be able to attend a match? The question would even make the president of the northern buzkashi federation blush.

Buzkashi spectators in Kabul, December 2017. (AFP / Wakil Kohsar)

The crowd stirred as I walked through the stands, but as soon as the carcasses entered play the focus returned to the vast, dusty pitch on the edge of Mazar-i-Sharif in northern Afghanistan’s Balkh province.

Dust clouded the air as hundreds of hooves pounded the sandy field to the sound of leather whips cracking and neighing cries. The crowd moved between laughter and shouts as a musician belted out the names and exploits of the day’s riders like a football commentator to the rhythm of his dembera, a guitar-type instrument popular in Central Asia.

"Gulbuddin scored! He pockets 1,500 afghanis (22 dollars) and a telephoooooooonne!" he wailed.

The sound of rhythmic drum beats echoed as dust swirled and sweat coated the horses’ necks while the breath of the game’s history and legend unfolded, conjuring up images of Joseph Kessel’s epic novel "The Cavaliers".

Captivated readers would later flock to Afghanistan as if on a pilgrimage to see the sport. Or was it because of the appeal of Omar Sharif, eyes lined with kohl at full gallop under the gaze of his father (Jack Palance), in the film adaptation -- “The Horsemen” -- by John Frankenheimer.

Buzkashi, Mazar-i-Sharif, December, 2017. (AFP / Farshad Usyan)

Looking back, I am not sure what preconceived images I had of Afghanistan when I arrived -- dry, sheer mountains that felled the Soviets, sharp profiles of mujahideen fighters and the abomination of the burka.

I envisioned seeing Afghan roses, perfumed and varied, everywhere including at checkpoints manned by ragged soldiers. But I also had foggy memories of watching the thundering hooves of the "Cavaliers" in the cinema.  

What I like most about our job, really the most, is the incredible freedom it gives to satisfy curiosity -- to just pick up a phone and ask: "Hello, when can I meet you?"

An additional privilege here as a foreigner includes the ability to forgo the myriad restrictions placed on women who continue to be marginalized and barred from most public spaces.

It was under these circumstances that we were able to meet Haji Mohammad Sharif Salah -- president of Balkh’s buzkashi federation -- on a clear morning in November over a breakfast of tea and dried fruit in his garden in Mazar while observing his horses.

The mounts -- stallions, known for their competitive spirit -- can be worth tens of thousands of dollars and are objects of enormous care and attention, with many better fed than their groomers who brush and wash them with feverish devotion in a drought-hit country where showers are rare.

This photograph taken on December 1, 2017 shows Afghan spectators watching horsemen compete in the traditional sport of Buzkashi on the outkirts of Kabul. T (AFP / Wakil Kohsar)

The president, donning a silk chapan -- a gown similar to the coat worn by ex-President Hamid Karzai -- and fingers bejewelled with rings of ruby and turquoise, was a charming host who came with a hand-copied poem in tow praising the glory of his horses.

After unfolding the poem, he began reciting a litany of the horses’ physical characteristics and things to watch out for.  

"If he has three white legs, especially, keep going," he explained, as he described horses that should be avoided.

As he read from the script, his chestnut stallion struck a pose in front of our photographers, Rateb Noori and Farshad Usyan, slightly raising one of his hooves like a dancer.  

"He has style, it's good", gushed Salah, explaining that the horse was part of the family, like a child, before being hoisted onto a saddle on top of his mount standing at 1.85 m high.

Horses have increasingly become symbols of power in Afghanistan, according to Louis Meunier, a talented French rider and admirer of Kessel who arrived in the country to work with an NGO in 2002, while nurturing dreams of buzkashi glory.

This photo taken on November 8, 2017 shows an Afghan man, who takes care of horses used to play the traditional sport of buzkashi, walking with a horse in Mazar-i-Sharif. (AFP / Farshad Usyan)

He may be the only foreigner -- to my knowledge at least -- to have played as an equal with a team of Afghans on the buzkashi pitch.

"The horse has become an object of speculation, a political tool to show strength," he explained regretfully, as strongmen favour buying massive steeds meant to impress as “beasts of war”.

To play buzkashi, a calf or goat must first be decapitated, eviscerated and filled with sand. The resulting carcass usually weighing in around 50 kilogrammes, that will be snapped up by a mounted rider aiming to drop it in the "circle of justice" -- after doing a lap of the field at a full gallop.

As they race toward the circle, fellow riders armed with whips rush their adversary as they attempt to tear away the prize. Their horses do not hesitate to join the melee, unleashing their hooves and teeth to cut a path through the stampede.  

After a brief delay due to unseasonably warm weather, the first buzkashi kicks off in mid-November. About a week ahead of the game, we followed the horses’ groomers as the steeds trotted along in the blue dawn, lifting fine clouds of dust at the foot of the Hindu Kush, whose cliffs separate Mazar-i-Sharif from Kabul, via the Salang pass.

The youngest rider of the day, who was also one of the president's sons, amused himself, making his father's chestnut rear up into the backlight to please us.

The chief groomer -- the wise Amir Khan -- knows the horses well enough to be wary of them.

“O brother, these horses are evil!" he exclaimed.

Before the game, the horses were led to the field in a slow trot, with no galloping allowed to keep their nerves steeled before the match.

Near Kabul, December 2017. (AFP / Wakil Kohsar)

Hundreds of horses were corralled into the pitch with their noses quivering in the air as they galloped, swallowing mouthfuls of dust while red ribbons tied to their manes to ward off bad luck waved in the wind.

In the quarry next to the field past the checkpoints, small groomers riding horses at a gallop dreamed of one day becoming a chopendoz -- the renowned buzkashi riders -- as they raced the steeds with their feet pressed forward in the stirrups while leaning back.

The stallions joined in the fracas, kicking and biting. It’s wild. Tough.

In front of the grandstands on the pitch, the riders approached, bare chested under their thick Afghan chapans tied like a Japanese kimono.

Their fleece pants are tucked into their boots of hardy leather with heels to keep riders snug in their stirrups as they lean toward the ground. Some slide boards in their boots to guard their shins.

To add a bit of flair, riders wear their own headgear, ranging from turbans to traditional Afghan hats made of Astrakhan wool and even Soviet tank helmets made of grey nylon with their earpieces removed. Here, memories are long and forgiveness is scarce.

In this photograph taken on December 15, 2017, Afghan militia soldiers walk as horsemen compete in the traditional sport of Buzkashi in Mazar-i-Sharif. (AFP / Farshad Usyan)

Falls are rare but blows frequent with riders and horses emerging from the three-hour contests battered, bruised and cut. When a rider is thrown to the ground into the madness of the scrum surrounding the carcass, the music cuts and the game comes to a brief halt.  

The same does not occur should a rider come under a hail of whips, as there is no penalty for such behavior. I did see a referee attempt to interject during one such instance, but no one listened to him.

As the game continued, the president saw us enter and greeted us from afar, he knows we have honored his invitation and our promises to come back in the winter. In the stands, our presence no longer sparked any bewilderment.

This blog was translated from the French by David Stout in Islamabad.

This photo taken on November 8, 2017 shows an Afghan man, who takes care of horses used to play the traditional sport of buzkashi, sweeping a horse stable in Mazar-i-Sharif. (AFP / Farshad Usyan)