Buzkashi: Game and Power in Afghanistan by G. Whitney Azoy
183 pages, $26.95 list
eBook availability
Game and Power in Afghanistan
Third Edition
Much has happened since Buzkashi: Game and Power in Afghanistan first appeared in 1982; the past three decades have devastated Afghanistan. What began as the ethnography of a game has grown into a study recognized worldwide as the preeminent analysis of Afghan political dynamics. Replete with significant updates, including a new chapter featuring interviews with warlords regarding their sponsorship of buzkashi, this richly illustrated Third Edition remains the first and only full-scale anthropological examination of a single sport, as well as a beautifully written longitudinal case study about the game’s social significance.

A master storyteller, Azoy first shows how the game of buzkashi is played and introduces readers to its rich history, its roots in tradition, and the implicit and explicit meanings attached to it. Next, readers learn how the author shifted from his Kabul diplomatic life to rural fieldwork in northern Afghanistan and a 40-year journey toward understanding the complexities of this ancient “wild card” game. Vivid with firsthand descriptions, Azoy’s book reveals buzkashi as a metaphor for chaos and an arena in the struggle for political control. “This new edition,” as one reviewer puts it, “turns a great book into a classic.”
From Rory Stewart, British Member of Parliament and author of The Places In Between and The Prince of the Marshes: And Other Occupational Hazards of a Year in Iraq:

“Whitney Azoy is a great inspiration: a scholar, an adventurer, whose love of Afghanistan and Afghans—and his deep understanding of the place—runs through everything that he does.”

From Ahmed Rashid, author of Taliban: The Power of Militant Islam in Afghanistan and Beyond and Descent into Chaos: The U.S. and the Disaster in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia

“Azoy has been master of the game ever since this book was first published. Nobody can understand Afghanistan without understanding buzkashi and nobody can do that without reading Azoy.

“Power rests on personal reputation and performance—that is the criteria for politics in Afghanistan and for the game buzkashi which best reflects that. Azoy has bought his brilliant analytical skills to study a game through which we can decipher Afghan history, politics, and the present US occupation of that country.

“Over the decades, this book has held its ground amongst all the learned tomes that have been published on Afghanistan. The reason is that Azoy was the first and the best at understanding what makes the country tick—a game of the headless goat.”

From Thomas Barfield, President of the American Institute of Afghanistan Studies and author of Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History:

“Buzkashi is the definitive description of this Central Asian sport in all its complexity. Although ‘only a game,’ the strategies employed in organizing buzkashi competitions transfer so readily to Afghan politics that the book constitutes a veritable ‘Afghan Art of War’ in which personal competition, reputation-building, lavish spending, and alliance building are keys to success and survival. In this new and revised edition, Azoy’s interviews with the most powerful commanders who fought Afghanistan’s wars in the north demonstrate that the buzkashi model has lost none of its power in explaining today’s Afghanistan.”

From Ronald E. Neumann, former US Ambassador to Afghanistan, President of the American Academy of Diplomacy, and author of The Other War: Winning and Losing in Afghanistan:

“Full of a master storyteller’s love of Afghanistan, Whitney Azoy’s book transcends its subject of the game of buzkashi to reach a deeper sense of today’s Afghan culture where institutions no longer exist and reputations, the only currency to gain followers and political momentum, are constantly in flux. Fun, heroic, and frequently sad, the latest edition of Buzkashi provides a window of understanding on a human level into what Afghanistan has endured and become.”

From Frederick H. Damon, Professor of Anthropology, University of Virginia and co-editor of On the Order of Chaos: Social Anthropology and the Science of Chaos:

“This new edition of Buzkashi turns a great book into a classic. Once again we witness subtle political analysis, a mapping of the political into ritual that stays current with our daily lives, and a rendering of human passion that adds a final touch to the height of drama—the reading of a tragedy. Buzkashi, the game and the spirit, a ritual enactment of a tradition that once tied together the Euro-Asian landmass, now enters our studies and classrooms with all the majesty, human resilience, and folly our world can allow.”

From Edward Girardet, author of Killing the Cranes: A Reporter’s Journey Through Three Decades of War in Afghanistan and co-editor of The Essential Field Guide for Afghanistan:

“At a time when the international community is realizing that it cannot resolve Afghanistan’s conflicts, it is crucial to understand if not interpret what is going on. Azoy’s new edition of Buzkashi provides an unusual insight into the true nature of Afghan politics, much of it based on personal reputation as a means of controlling events and getting things done. For anyone even mildly interested in this country with its lack of solid institutions and where everything is constantly up for grabs, or for those intent on exploring realistic new options for peace, Azoy’s analysis of this rugged and highly symbolic game is more than just an indispensable read.”

From Charles Lindholm, Professor of Anthropology, Boston University and author of Generosity and Jealousy: The Swat Pukhtun of Northern Pakistan and The Islamic Middle East: Tradition and Change:

“The previous edition of Azoy’s work on buzkashi was already a classic. This new edition has been substantially updated and is even more relevant and engrossing. It is a must-read not only for anyone interested in Afghanistan but also for anyone interested in the relationship between sports and culture—or for anyone who loves a ripping good yarn.”

From Nazif M. Shahrani, Professor of Anthropology, Central Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, Indiana University and author of The Kirghiz and Wakhi of Afghanistan: Adaptation to Closed Frontiers and War:

“A masterfully woven narrative depicting the changed game of buzkashi and the lives of its old practitioners as well as the pretentions of its new sponsors. The third edition of Buzkashi is the fruition of a lifetime and ethnographic labor of love by Dr. Whitney Azoy, a former American diplomat turned professional anthropologist. It is the most serious and sustained longitudinal study of Afghanistan’s national sport. A spectacularly wild and woolly game, the sport is played by legendary horsemen contesting control over the carcass of a goat or a calf for the glory and fame of the horse, the horseman, and their owner /sponsor. The book is an intimate, deeply personal, and subtly analytical account of a power game and its larger analogical significance for understanding the unpredictable, dramatic games of power politics in the vastly changed local, regional, national, and global contexts since the mid 1970s when the initial research for this book was undertaken. Written with passion, wit, and insights, Buzkashi is a welcome addition to literature on a form of deep play and its recent transformations unique to contemporary society and politics of war torn Afghanistan. It is highly recommended for the curious, the academics, and the policy makers.”
Table of Contents
1. The Laughable Game
Buzkashi Game and Sport / Play, Paradox, and Possibility / Commemoration, Metaphor, and Arena

2. Reputation and the Unruly Afghan
Four Ties that Do Not Always Bind / Khans and Qaums / Individual Reputation as Political Resource / Where You Sit Is Who You Are

3. The Buzkashi Tooi
Preparation / Festivities / Aftermath / Two Toois—Success and Failure

4. Buzkashi in Provincial Town and Capital City
Buzkashi in Provincial Centers / A Kunduz Season / Kabul's October Tournament

5. A Goat between Two Lions
Names at Risk / The Marxist Tournaments / "How Can I Stop?"

6. For Real: Marxist-Era Buzkashi
Marxist Buzkashi / Peshawar and Two Rival Buzkashi Khans / Other Players and a Season's First Buzkashi / Camp Khan's Stadium Inauguration / Charges, Counter-Charges, and a Bomb Threat / A Scholar—Gasp!—Takes Sides / Slide Show

7. Brave New Buzkashi: 1989 Onward
Buzkashi under the Taliban / Reconstruction Buzkashi

Epilogue: Habib