In the traditional Afghan sport of buzkashi, athletes and horses sponsored by the most powerful men vie to break out of a brutal scrum and into the open while carrying a headless goat or calf carcass; rivals often form temporary alliances to prevent the strongest players from gaining control.
In traditional Afghan politics, it can be the same thing — only minus the goat, the horses and the players.
"The thing is a metaphor for Afghan politics in the sense that people in Afghanistan are always trying to gain control," says G. Whitney Azoy, a cultural anthropologist and author of the 1982 book "Buzkashi: Game and Power in Afghanistan," recently revised and republished.
"When it seems as if you're going to do it, everybody gangs up on you," he adds. "When it seems you're a little weak, everybody gangs up on whoever seems strong. And that's exactly what happened in Afghanistan in the 1980s and 1990s."
Life Can Become a ‘Buzkashi’
Scholars, including Azoy, warn against going too far in broadly using native sports as Freudian metaphors for a country's character. For instance, one sports historian has heard and questioned foreigners' assessments of American football as showing American imperialist attitudes or repressed sexuality.
But in the case of buzkashi, unlike many other sports, Azoy says, separating the rules of the game and the society can be difficult.
"It is a game, but it's more than a game for the Afghans," Azoy says. "Buzkashi sort of stands in their mind, the way they use the word, as when the veneer of predictable, essentially civilized, essentially cooperative, amicable [life] is cracked. Then, it is as if this stuff lies underneath and it bursts forth, and life becomes a 'buzkashi.'"
The most emotional contests can go way beyond rivalries as American sports fans understand them — such as baseball's New York Yankees-Boston Red Sox rivalry.
"What happens on Friday night or over the season between the Yankees and Red Sox pretty much stops there," Azoy says. "It doesn't alter the balance of power between the two cities, or between the mayors of the two cities."
Because buzkashi players represent the most powerful citizens and rivals for political power, disputes on the field actually may reflect disputes in the real world. And the person who can calm the disputes may gain off the field, too.
"It's actually an arena for politics," Azoy says. "Whoever can make himself heard and calm the situation gains enormous prestige. And whenever there's a row in the real world, people will think back."
Check the related stories box to find more about buzkashi and other unusual sports.
Two Types of Buzkashi
There actually are two different types of buzkashi — a wilder, free-for-all game played for centuries on the steppes of northern Afghanistan and in neighboring Turkic-speaking areas, and a formalized team version organized and endorsed by the Afghan government five decades ago.
"In 1953, the Kabul-centered government of Afghanistan decided that they would try to co-opt the game and use it as a symbol of Afghan national identity," Azoy says. "So they codified rules, not terribly binding, and transferred it over the mountains into the Kush, to Kabul."
The version organized by the Afghan national Olympic committee created a sport with time periods, scoring systems and two teams of 10 or 12 players trying to place the decapitated carcass in circular goals.
"The fact that the thing was brought off without the risk of running amok was considered proof of the government's ability to control things," Azoy says.
Azoy, who lives in Spain, has been writing occasional columns for the Bangor Daily News in Maine that use buzkashi as a metaphor for the progress of U.S. efforts to help steer Afghanistan from a state of chaos, and how America is regarded by those jockeying for power.
"To deny that Afghan society has this explosive, anarchic quality is to kid yourself, as we have all learned," Azoy says.
However, he is wary of overusing the buzkashi metaphor.
"I hope it won't make Afghanistan seem all the more like a kind of violent freak show," he adds. "Buzkashi is part of Afghanistan. It does serve as a metaphor in some ways, but the culture does have a dignified and civilized history."