Buzkashi, the centuries-old Central Asian sport in which men on horses fight over a decapitated, disemboweled goat or calf carcass, is surely one of the world’s strangest spectacles. Although it’s been described as “polo with a headless goat,” the comparison doesn’t really hold up. The rules vary by country, but most buzkashi matches have no teams, no clock, and no clearly defined playing field. It’s a war of all against all in which the winner is the horseman (traditionally, only men play the game) who successfully carries the carcass past some defined point or throws it in a certain area.
From the moment she first heard of this extreme sport, Spanish photographer Anna Huix knew she wanted to shoot a match. She finally got her chance in March 2018 on a two-week trip to Tajikistan, a mountainous, landlocked former Soviet republic bordered by Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, and China. “I’m fascinated by traditions, and buzkashi is a very old tradition,” Huix says. “I was also interested in the fact that it barely has rules. There seemed to be something wild and raw about it.” The fact that she was six months pregnant at the time was no deterrent to her curiosity.
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So it was that Huix, along with a South African journalist she was traveling with, ended up among the several thousand spectators at a buzkashi match held in a dusty valley on the Central Asian steppe. As two of the only women there, and the only non-locals, Huix and the journalist were treated like VIPs by the crowd, invited to stand on the back of a truck (prime viewing position) and offered food and drinks. “I asked the older men why there were no women, and he told me that in Tajikistan men like buzkashi and women like weddings,” Huix says. “They liked the fact that we were interested.”
Once the game began, Huix found it hard to keep track of the action—not surprising in a game with 80 or so horsemen all fighting over the same animal carcass. In the Tajik version of the game, every time someone manages to fling the carcass inside a marked circle, they win a prize and the game restarts. Prizes include sheep, rugs, cars, and sometimes a house. Some of the players own their own horses; others are hired by the horse’s owner or agree to split any winnings with the owner. As far as Huix could tell, anyone who wanted to play was welcome to join the scrum.
The game Huix observed lasted several hours and only ended when so much dust had been kicked up by the horses that it became impossible to see. After the match, many of the contestants happily posed for the photographer in their traditional sporting gear, including old-fashioned leather helmets. Throughout, Huix found herself simultaneously appalled and fascinated by the sport.
“I found it so brutal—I mean, they are playing with the dead body of an animal,” she says. “Then again, I’m from Spain, where we have bullfighting. So many of our traditions seem to involve making animals suffer.”
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