GoatBall Superstar, Afghan Hero
The afternoon sun slanted across the District Chief of Police’s office as he sat glowering at me in his oversized armchair, gnashing his teeth like some rabid, Pashtun muppet. Sitting in his line of fire, I smiled at nothing in my ridiculous Pakistani disguise, masterfully flaunting the Dumb Tourist Card.
“This is no place for tourists!” he barked. “Don’t you know that Chitral is a dangerous place?”
“Huh??” I showboated, “So. Am I safe???” I cried, clasping my forehead and turning to Zia, my ever-loyal and useless escort, who cowered in the corner, fidgeting with his machine gun.
The Chief sat back. “You’re fine. The police are currently in control of the situation,” he boasted, and lifted up my Permit Application Form. “You are coming from Kalash Valley?”
“Yes, sir, I saw the festival!“
“And you want permission to stay in Chitral for seven days?”
I nodded innocently.
He raised an eyebrow. “Why?”
I hesitated for a moment, before blurting, “I want to see buzkashi.”
The Police Chief’s face reddened, and a long, tense silence ensued. I was half expecting him to throw a paperweight at me, but suddenly his head snapped backwards and he began screaming with laughter.
I shrunk in my chair. “I… I want to see buzkashi,” I asserted again, and he crumpled over, shrieking even louder.
If you’re unfamiliar with the sport of buzkashi, or ‘GoatBall,’ it’s a popular pastime in Central Asia, and vaguely akin to Polo…
Except instead of a ball, they use a headless goat carcass.
Buzkashi is traditionally played with two opposing teams of dirty, bearded men on horseback, and the goal is to grab the headless goat, drag it across the field, and hurl it into the other team’s ‘circle of justice.’ Then, hopefully, you wash your hands. What makes buzkashi so challenging is that, while you’re dragging the smelly, headless corpse across the field, the opposing team is violently beating you with sticks, horsewhips, and in extreme cases, even knives. The thick-wristed champions of the match are awarded no trophies, but instead leather boots, turbans, cash, and rifles.
For obvious reasons, I needed to witness this.
My problem was that, while buzkashi remains the national sport of Afghanistan, here in Pakistan, it has lost popularity in recent times. Some blame the young generation’s refusal of traditional equestrian culture, while others point to the much broader ‘pussification’ of the modern world.
Today, Pakistan’s last great stronghold of buzkashi lies high in the Hindu Kush mountains, in the valley of Chitral, where a sizeable, goat-dragging refugee population has bled across the border from Afghanistan. It’s a volatile region, and visiting involves a mine-field of red tape—but as soon as the District Police Chief’s screams of laughter subsided, he signed my seven-day permit, gave me an emphatic thumbs-up, abruptly started laughing again, and then waved me off to start my quest.
In the dim light of the backroom, Zeeshan Iqbal slammed down his empty cup. It was only his first glass of ‘China Water,’ but he was already drunk and laughing, wrestling with the English language at triple decibels.
“Steve!” he shouted in his thick, Pashtun accent. “You are good man!” he said. “But there is no buzkashi! No buzkashi here. But you are very… very good person!” he cried. Zeeshan was about my age, a fair-skinned, blue-eyed Chitrali, with a booming laugh, an unorthodox, plaid pakol hat, and the alcohol tolerance of a four-year-old.
Zeeshan had abducted me as his guest after I stumbled into his (decidedly odd) clothing and refrigerators store. Three hours and one prohibited glass of rice liquor later, we were sitting in the dingy backroom of his friend Khan’s restaurant, picking through a mountain of kebabs with Zia and Khan himself.
I poured him another glass. “What do you mean there’s no buzkashi here?”
“It’s true,” pouted Khan. “We haven’t played buzkashi here in over five years.”
Zeeshan shook his head. “Times are hard. Goats are expensive,” he sighed.
We sat in silence for a long, gloomy moment as this reality sunk in. My heart sank. I would never know the joy of watching a headless goat being dragged across a field by a dozen haggard Afghans on horseback.
“Well then,” I turned to Zia. “The bus to Islamabad leaves in the morning… I guess you’re off the hook now,” I said despondently, and Zia frowned.
Suddenly Zeeshan screamed– “Ooh! Steve! We can go to Makhbul!! “
“YES!” cheered Khan. “Makhbul will know what to do!”
“The what…” I uttered.
“Makhbul is the Head of the Border Police!” Zeeshan preached, gazing wistfully into the distance. “Makhbul is the king of polo!”
Makhbul was something of a local Afghani hero, as I later learned; a household legend in Chitral, a celebrity of great influence. If there was any hope for my impossible dream to come true, it apparently lied in the hands of a great and honorable Makhbul.
The next morning, Zeeshan insisted on buying breakfast for Zia and I, before closing his shop early to take us out to the Friday polo game, to meet Makhbul.
Quite unlike what I imagined, Makhbul was just a cantankerous, scruffy-bearded old man, with a cigarette pinched in his permanent scowl. Sitting in the wooden bleachers amongst his devotees and gazing pensively across the dusty polo field to the icy mountain peaks beyond, he looked like some irritable, chain-smoking Jesus.
Makhbul listened and nodded as Zeeshan passionately explained my mission, and when the story finished, Makhbul dramatically raised up his arms.
“We shall arrange buzkashi for you…” he dramatically declared, “If you will buy the goat and pay us two-hundred dollars.”
Everyone turned to me.
“Oh, wow…” I blanched, looking away. “That sounds really great,” I started. “But unfortunately, I don’t have that kind of cash to spare.”
Makhbul shook his head and the crowd muttered. He suddenly raised up his arms again.
“We… shall arrange buzkashi for you,” he stammered, “If you will buy the goat… And arrange dinner for us! With musical performance.”
At this, the crowds’ eyes lit up as they buzzed with excitement.
“Okay. And how much would that all cost me?”
Makhbul thought for a moment. “Maybe two-hundred dollars.”
“Hmmm…” I muttered.
The villagers stared in silent suspense. Makhbul looked eager too. I could tell they all really wanted to play buzkashi, regardless of whether a dinner party was involved.
I decided to bluff.
“Thanks so much, but I’m sorry. I think I’m going to head back to Islamabad in the morning. Thanks anyways though.”
I rose to leave, but Makhbul lifted up his arms in prophetic announcement once more. “We shall arrange buzkashi for you,” he cheered, “If you will only buy goat!”
A grin crept across my face. “Okay,” I nodded, and warily shook his hand.
The terms of the bargain were agreed as such: Makhbul would summon the best buzkashi players from all the surrounding villages, as well as arranging the venue and providing the horses.
As for my end of the deal, I needed to buy a ‘medium-sized’ goat (somehow) and bring it to the field by Wednesday—preferably headless, but no fuss, it’s an easy fix.
The entire town was invited. Everyone was thrilled. Assuming I could produce a goat, the villagers of Chitral would get to play buzkashi again for the first time in over five years. As if that wasn’t enough pressure on my shoulders, I was terrified to learn that there were several hundred Afghans who thought I was some sort of philanthropist hero. Watching their sad, refugee eyes light up with joy over the possibility of frolicking with a headless goat carcass while beating each other with sticks again was simply heartwarming. I resolved that I couldn’t let them down.
I just needed a goat.
Days passed; an awesome blur of beards, kebabs, and concrete huts. Each early morning, I drank tea as strong as rocket fuel, watching the sunrise over the peaks of the Hindu Kush. In the afternoons, I usually strolled the dusty bazaar with Zia, until eventually Zeeshan would close his clothing and refrigerator shop early, and we’d all drive around the valley, meeting Zeeshan’s friends and pigging out on variants of grilled mutton.
One afternoon, while Zia and I sat on the porch, chatting nonsense and smoking apple sheesha, he invited me to his home, and I met his jovial, younger brother, Shaquille. I came to know Zeeshan’s family as well, and it was his older brother, Farooq, who eventually took me to find my goat.
The goat we picked was about ‘medium-sized’ (by our approximations), with wispy, white hair and dumb, empty eyes. His name was Trevor Ahmed III, and he liked walking in circles and chewing on nothing. May he rest in peace.
I wish I could end my story here, with me victoriously walking back into town, carrying my goat as different voices shout my name—the dabbah-wallah who sells me breakfast, the old Pashtun electrician who fixed my laptop for free, the friendly clerk at Gohar’s Mobile Shop, who used to be a trekking guide. If I ended on this cheery, upbeat note, this would be one of the coolest (or most ridiculous) travel stories I’d likely ever tell.
But another title for this story could have been, ‘The Great GoatBall Tragedy.’ I chose the more optimistic title, but the outcome is just as bleak…
Wednesday morning was warm and sunny—a beautiful day for buzkashi. Zia and I sat on the porch, waiting for the afternoon game, when Zeeshan stumbled up the stairs in his conspicuous plaid pakol cap. For the first time, he wasn’t smiling. He looked pale and shaken.
“Kya wa?” asked Zia.
“A boy. Next to the field,” Zeeshan stuttered. “He’s dead.”
“What? What happened?” I blurted. “Did you know him?”
Zeeshan nodded. “His name was Munna. He was my age, same class. He was very sick…” he muttered. He shifted his weight. “Steve?”
“He lived with his family next to the horse fields. Where we play buzkashi. They’re laying out his body today, and I think, maybe, well—“
“They probably don’t want us playing buzkashi outside their son’s wake?”
Zeeshan frowned. “I’m very sorry, Steve. Bad luck. I’ll talk to Makhbul. We can play the day after tomorrow.”
“No,” I shook my head. “My permit only allows for seven days. Tomorrow I need to leave for Islamabad.”
Zeeshan’s gaze fell.
“Well… I need to get back to the field,” he finally said. “Come to my shop after lunch.” And with that, he trotted off, vanishing down the street.
For a long time, Zia and I said nothing. We just sat in our chairs, lost in thought, quietly staring out at the mountains.
That afternoon, we found Zeeshan quietly reorganizing his shop. “I only stayed at Munna’s for a little while,” he said gloomily. “It made me very sad.”
“I’m sorry,” I offered.
“That’s life,” he shrugged
The door swung open as two of his friends arrived, and a few minutes later, the shop closed and we piled into their car. With no particular destination, we just drove, up into the mountains, higher and higher, until Chitral was only a tiny glimmer of grey on the valley floor. Eventually, a fallen tree declared the end of the road, and after glaring at it challengingly for a few minutes, we abandoned the car and continued on foot.
We collapsed on the ground upon reaching the grassy plateau, and after Zeeshan produced a diabolical bottle of China Water from his jacket, a bonfire materialized. Liquor flowed, and the sun sank in the sky, painting the snowy amphitheater of peaks in a fiery hue of orange.
“I’m going to miss Chitral,” I said, looking up at Zia, who grinned in the firelight.
Zeeshan took a long and reckless swig of rice liquor. “Next time you are come to Chitral, you will be stay with me and my family for one whole month!” he informed me, wiping his chin with a sleeve. “You will come, and so good going to Chitral Gol at nighttime and National Park and kya ker rahe ho! Shooting markhor mountain goats and GOOD FUN, and we—“
“What?” I blurted, and the Pakistanis fell over giggling.
“My no good English is… eeeeeeee,” Zeeshan snorted, peeling the label off the China Water and flicking it into the fire. “You are good man, Steve,” he decided, and took off his plaid pakol cap. He nodded and held it out for me to take.
“What,” I said.
“Gift,” he insisted, shaking his cap.
I rolled my eyes. “Stop it. Finish your booze.”
Zeeshan laughed, and then tossed the cap onto my head, where it awkwardly drooped over my face. “Very beautiful,” he bellowed. “Now you look like real Chitrali!” and the Pakistanis crumpled over in another giggling fit.
The next morning, Farooq intercepted me on my way the bus stand. Apparently, I had forgotten about Trevor Ahmed III, whom was still tethered to a pole outside the Iqbal residence.
Farooq handed me back my money. “We’re sorry there was no buzkashi. But don’t worry… I will find someplace for the goat,” he ominously promised.
After endlessly thanking him, he added, “If you still want to see buzkashi, we will call our friends in Gilgit who run the polo games. When you get there, they will arrange buzkashi for you free of charge,” he smiled. “I’m sorry we wasted your time.”
“I forgive you,” I smirked and we hugged goodbye, before I turned to catch up with Zia.
Truthfully, I was disappointed that I didn’t see buzkashi, but my week spent in Chitral was anything but a waste of time. On the contrary, it was indispensable.
When I look back at two incredible months in Pakistan, the one sight that I reminisce most fondly about isn’t a mountainscape, or ruin, or monumental palace. It’s a tiny, wooden shop just off of Naya Bazaar, brimming with colorful t-shirts and plastic-wrapped refrigerators, presided over by a goofy Chitrali in a plaid pakol cap.
To read my first misadventure with Zia (a run-in with the Taliban), check out “Walnuts & Machine Guns: A Taliban Tale“
For a similarly farfetched quest into the Long-Necked tribal villages of Burma, check out “The Human Zoo“
To see the Kalash Valley Festival that preceded my trip to Chitral, check out the Photo Travelogue, “The Joshi Festival of the Black Kalash Tribe”