In land scarred by violence, dogfighting makes a comeback
KABUL, Afghanistan: In a dingy butcher's shop reeking of slaughter, a half-dozen sheep's carcasses dangled from hooks, and two men spoke of dogs.
"My dog is younger than his dog, I have the advantage," said one of the men, known as Abdul Sabour, 49. "And my dog is more energetic than his dog."
"He's lying," grumbled the other man, Kefayatullah, 50. "His dog is old. He's just here wasting his time. How many dogs has my dog beaten? Sixty! My dog has been a champion for three years!"
The men were arranging a dogfight, largely in the international language of trash-talking. They represented two groups of bettors. The purse, they said, was $50,000, a fortune in this impoverished country and one of the biggest prizes here in recent memory.
Afghans like to fight. They will boast about this. They will say that fighting is in their blood. And for all the horrors of three decades of war, they still find room to fight for fun, most often through proxies: cocks, rams, goats, camels, kites.
The sport has even experienced a resurgence in the south, where the influence of the Taliban is strongest, though the crowds have thinned somewhat since February, when a suicide bomber detonated himself at a dogfighting match. About 80 people were killed and more were wounded.
Here in the capital, there are two tournaments every week, both on Friday, the day of prayer. The bigger one unfolds in the morning in a natural dirt amphitheater at the bottom of a craggy slope on the city's outskirts. It draws thousands of men and boys as spectators — like most sports and sporting events in Afghanistan, it is almost exclusively a male pursuit.
"It's something from our ancestors," said Ghulam Yahya Amirzadah, 21, whose family owns 17 dogs in Kabul and in their hometown in the northwest province of Badghis.
Amirzadah, who is known in dogfighting circles as Lala Herati, said he inherited the pastime from his father, who ran fighting dogs in his youth.
"It's not about money," Amirzadah said. "If my dog beats another dog, it makes me feel like I've won $100,000. I can survive just from the happiness."
On a recent Friday, Amirzadah was at the dogfighting amphitheater, though without his dogs. He was watching the fights and arranging future matches for his stable.
More than 2,000 people were there — poor men who had arrived on foot as well as former warlords in sport utility vehicles accompanied by Kalashnikov-toting guards. And there were dozens of dogs — hulking, big-headed mastiff breeds that, in the right light and the wrong setting, might be mistaken for small bears. Some were so big that they had to be restrained by two men. A few owners, their arms tired, had lashed their dogs to the wheels of cars.
An informal committee of arbiters, including Kefayatullah and Abdul Sabour, was selecting the fights and matching up the dogs. Some fights had been organized days in advance, with hundreds of dollars, sometimes thousands, riding on each.
The event was presided over by a ringmaster, a toothless old man with a turban and a limp. He carried a wooden staff that he used to beat spectators who crowded the pitch and members of the dogfighters' entourages who blocked the spectators' view.
Though dogfighting is again popular here, it is far from universally embraced. The country's elite disparage it as the domain of the uncultured and the criminal.
"In my personal view, it's not a good thing," said Ghulam Nabi Farahi, deputy minister of information and culture. "In today's world, these animals should be treated well. But unfortunately, there's a lot of fighting."
But dogfighters generally shrug at these sorts of remarks. In modern Afghan society, there are not many sources of entertainment, they argue. In addition, they say, the dogs are well fed and well treated.
"The interest of the people is increasing day by day," said Sher Mohammad Sheywaki, 50, who was standing on the edge of the fighting pitch. "Even if people are starving, they'll still keep dogfighting."
A fight was about to begin. Two dogs were brought close by their owners, then released. They lunged at each other, thrusting upward on hind legs and clamping their jaws onto each other's face. They tugged and twisted each other, looking for leverage, each trying to knock the other off balance.
Their handlers pressed in, shouting encouragement and slapping the dogs on their haunches, as a jockey would a racehorse. A cameraman crouched nearby, recording the fight for collectors' DVDs. A large cloud of dust enveloped the scrum.
This fight, like most others, was over in a few minutes when one dog had pinned the other to the ground and held him there. They were pulled apart and hauled out of the ring.
In some countries, dogfighters will fight their dogs to the death. But Afghan dogfighting is more akin to Greco-Roman wrestling. A dog is declared the victor when he clearly establishes his dominance over the other, or when the weaker dog displays one of the telltale signs of submission, including backing off from the fight or putting its tail between its legs. They are usually pulled apart before they can inflict serious damage on each other.
The stakes for dogfighters are too high to risk their charges any further. Dogs may be a costly investment for the average Afghan, but they can also make their owners money.
On the eve of the fight between Kefayatullah's dog, Palang (meaning tiger), and Abdul Sabour's dog, Zambur (bee), the planned $50,000 purse dropped to $10,000, according to Kefayatullah.
The fight took place on a sunny and chilly Friday morning this month. It was heavily anticipated, and the crowd was large. For more than 10 minutes, Palang and Zambur tore against each other, drawing blood. Kefayatullah, Abdul Sabour and others with money riding on the fight stayed close and yelled encouragement, according to Amirzadah, who attended.
Eventually, Zambur, Abdul Sabour's dog, ran out of steam and Palang overwhelmed him, prompting the men to call a halt to the fight. In celebration, friends of Kefayatullah swarmed Palang, whose fur was wet with blood, and showered him with Afghani bills.
Except for deep wounds on a leg and an ear, Palang was O.K. But his owner was not. Minutes after the fight, Kefayatullah collapsed and was rushed to the hospital. He had suffered a heart attack.
"It was a stroke of joy and happiness!" he joked a week later, as he lay in a ward in the Wazir Akhbar Khan Hospital in Kabul. His wife and daughter sat at his bedside. "I'll be up in no time," he said, "and everything will be back to normal, like before."
His wife's face visibly tensed. "No you won't!" she said, glaring. She was serious. He was smiling. The daughter looked embarrassed.
"It's over," Kefayatullah's wife continued. "I will kill the dogs! I will give them some pills."
Kefayatullah shrugged and smiled again, trying to defuse the situation. "She says a lot, but I don't listen," he said, and he vowed to be back at the Friday dogfights — with his champion dogs — soon enough.
Abdul Waheed Wafa contributed reporting.