Posted by: Christian | May 26, 2008

How did I miss this book? A Book Review of Buzkashi

Buzkashi: Game and Power in Afghanistan. By G. Whitney Azoy. 2nd Edition 2003, Waveland Press.

For many years I had delayed reading Buzkashi. I assumed it was merely an obvious metaphor that had been slapped onto a hopefully entertaining narrative of this Afghan “mounted goat rugby from hell” game. It is that, but it it also an excellent anthropological exploration of power and relationships in rural Afghanistan. Not only was I wrong, I was angry at myself for not reading this book sooner since it is such a valuable tool for understanding the politics and power struggles that happen beyond the elite circles of Kabul and, formerly, the jihadi party hang-outs of Peshawar (this book even covers those two “arenas” as well).

First of all, the book is a good read. And it is hard to find solid scholarship that is also entertaining. The real life characters are quite engaging. You really start to feel for the tragic figure of Habib, the champion player who played the film role of a tough rider who knocks Omar Sharif senseless at the beginning of the movie The Horsemen. Habib, a Hazara from a very modest background has Buzkashi, his family and nothing else. His immense skill on the playing field earns him the respect of the locals, and even a 1970s trip to France where he is found lost on the streets by some friendly French cops. Habib is left wondering why the police treated him so well, considering that he is Hazara. Later, Habib’s skill on the field start to diminish with age. And then he is pressured into voicing support for the Communists. Habib then tries to atone for his actions by aiding the mujahideen in secret. Many other characters fill the pages and provide anecdotes to illustrate the often changing power relationships in Afghanistan: the lowly, pathetic town crier who sings the praises of the riders; the Pashtun governor who humiliates a local Uzbek Khan and then has an assistant fetch his sawed-off shotgun in case the locals decide to make a move; the Khan whose preliminary organizing of a Buzkashi match is going badly, therefore reflecting badly on his level of respect in the area; etc…

Photo: if not a goat, then a calf.

For me, beyond the entertainment factor, is the valuable analysis provided by the book. The analysis of power and relationships in rural Afghanistan provided is very wide: the rise and fall of local Khans, the relationship between the central government and local power figures, the relationship between the local khan and his often fluctuating number of followers, the importance of respect and honor, the manifestations of power and lack thereof demonstrated in ways far too subtle to be noticed by a newcomer, the ephemeral nature of power in Afghanistan, the “intrusion” of the government into rural areas, the battle for resources, etc… I could go on for quite a while like this.

I could continue on with praise and further insight into the book. But I’ll cut it short and just say that I’ve read quite a few books on Afghanistan, and Whitney Azoy’s Buzkashi is in my top 5. Notice how works by anthropologists seem to be timeless?

And the good news is that at 151 pages Buzkashi is a quick and efficient read. Plus it is only $15 on Amazon.

Bonus feature! Sly Stallone plays buzkashi with “Afghans” before the game is rudely interrupted by the Soviets.


  1. I love that the Afghans in the pic are wearing Russian tanker helmets. Keep thinking of Odd Ball from Kelly’s Heroes.

  2. You may enjoy the video I made of Buzkashi in Kabul in 2004. As you can see in the video, it does involve major power brokers.

  3. Great video David. It is just a little more authentic that the Sylvester Stallone version ;)

    If I had been there I would have been watching Dostum and Fahim the entire time and taking notes.

  4. […] Superficial this is not. It’s the heaviest book on my shelf. Do you really need 700 pages to cover one small area within a 170 year period? You do if you want to write a book that will stand the test of time: 300 years from now historians will be reading this book as an authoritative source. Not that length automatically equals quality. But Lee’s book has both. (Note that I also recommend short books such as Buzkashi) […]

  5. […] isn’t the countryside buzkashi. It looks like a really weird version of government buzkashi. Check this book for the difference and the […]

  6. […] However, there is that rare book that is both a good read and good scholarship. For example, Buzkashi: Game and Power in Afghanistan. Today, I would like to point out two books by the same author that are both good and good: Heroes […]


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