Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Context and Culture

Playful Pastimes and Much More: Seven folk games from Afghanistan

S Reza Kazemi AAN Team 13 min

A ‘fundraising’ game by children to buy themselves treats for Nawruz, a children’s play that satirises wedding traditions, a funny game about how to deal with a duff player, a deceptively easy game particularly played by girls with hazelnut-sized stones, two more stone throwing games played by grown-ups and a complicated ‘egg fighting’ game favoured by all genders, ages and even generations – these are just seven of the many folk games that have been played across Afghanistan for who knows how long. What connects the seemingly disparate games, as the AAN team describes them, is not only a widely shared and cherished way to pass the time, but also the imagination and creativity they inspire and the meaning that the games can give rise to.

Boys prepare to play in Zurmat district of Paktia province, March 2021. Photo: Sayed Ismail.

For children in particular, Nawruz is a time for play. On the eve of the Nawruz of the coming new solar year 1400 that will inaugurate a new century according to the calendar used in Afghanistan (read our forthcoming report on Nawruz in history and Afghanistan this 21 March), we present to our dear readers a selection of seven diverse folk games that have been played for generations across Afghanistan, including around the time of Nawruz.[1]For more on folk games in Afghanistan, see for example: Nico van Oudenhoven (1980), “Common Afghan ‘Street’ Games and Child Development,” Afghanistan Journal 7 (4): 126-138. … Continue reading Our aim is to let the seven folk game descriptions speak for themselves with only a little commentary here and there to help us appreciate some of the ‘deep’ significance of the games. Two of these games go along with songs, so we have included their songs both in the original and in English translation.[2]For more on Afghan children’s songs, see for instance: Louise M Pascale, Children’s Songs from Afghanistan, Washington, DC, National Geographic, 2008. The book also has a companion CD. Our selection and the order in which they are described are as follows:

  • Arguri barguri
  • Beri beri
  • Khana shahidegan
  • Panjagh
  • Hagey jangawel
  • Mutso luba and dabara achawel

Arguri barguri

Arguri barguri (no literal meaning but rhythmic to introduce a song) is a favourite game played mostly by boys and sometimes by girls around the time of Nawruz that we came across in Andar district of Ghazni province. It is associated with playing in the rain, with the shift from snow to rain hinting at both the arrival of spring and the New Year.

To play arguri barguri, a number of boys get together and choose a leader for their group. The leader will have a walking stick while leading the group members. The group will start moving around while singing the following delightful – and meaningful (for example, notice the implicit references to fertility of human and nature) – song in a chorus (AAN’s English translation):

ارګوړي برګوړي

خدای د يو زوی درکړي

چې په غولي درته ښوري

يو موټکی وړه راکړه

په مالګه يي تروه راکړه

که ډير وي را پارو يي کړه

که لږ وي را جارو يي کړه

د اسمان خړي اوبه راکړه

د ځمکې شنه واښه راکړه

Arguri barguri

May God give you a child

That crawls on the floor of your house

Give us a handful of flour

That is mixed with salt

If it’s a lot, give it with a shovel

If it’s a little, give it with a broomstick

Give us the rain water from the sky

Give us the green grass of the soil

The singing boys go from one house to another in order to collect flour. People in the area give them flour as a gift, which the boys pour into a sack that they are carrying. When they finish their walk around the area, which might end at midday or midnight depending on when they start the game, they sell the sack-load of flour to either a shopkeeper or anyone willing to buy it. They then divide the money among themselves and use it to buy sweets or other treats. Finally, they happily go back to their homes.

Arguri barguri varies from area to area in terms of the length of the song that is sung, the occasion (it can also be played on the eve of other festivals such as Eid al-Fitr) and even the game itself (ending in a children’s party, for example).

Beri beri

Beri beri (literally, ‘bride bride’) is a game in which children craft dolls or puppets and then enact wedding ceremony. It seems it is now played far less commonly than in the past. A lot of creative work usually goes into preparing the game. Little girls, often helped by or having somehow learned from their elder sisters, mothers or other female relatives, make bride and groom dolls, using cast-off pieces of wood, fabric and other materials (for example, buttons for eyes). Little boys often help to identify locations for the bride and groom’s homes, not far from each other, and then gather stones to build miniature houses. They also craft a wooden horse for the bride’s journey to the groom’s house.

Children playing nawai luba (‘bride game’), which is similar to beri beri, in Zurmat district of Paktia province, March 2021. Photo: Sayed Ismail.

Once everything is ready, the actual play starts with different children playing different imaginary roles. It begins by taking the groom doll to the bride’s house, while four other children act as the fathers and mothers of the bride and groom. The would-be couple is served traditional food such as egg and bread and then the guests have their meal. After all have eaten, the bride doll is prepared to leave for the groom’s house. She will be positioned on the wooden horse with the groom doll moving alongside and the rest of the children following on behind. On the way, at least in some cases in Daikundi province, the children sing a song that is playfully mocking wedding traditions – particularly the bride price – from the perspective of the groom’s family (AAN’s English translation):

ای شیخ بیری، شیخچه بیری

بی بار و بی بغچه بیری

بالا بلند، خیمچه بیری

بی بار و بی بغچه بیری

گله خو صد هزار گرفت، گندم خو پنج خروار گرفت

گاو و گسپون گشتنی، طویانه بی شمار گرفت

انگشتر و دستوانه و گوشوارۀ قیمت بها

تنباکوی تلخ گیزو ده سیر بلده نسوار گرفت

مشکلتراشیها ببین، درگه قلا ماکم گرفت 

درگه گیر درگه قلا ره ناخن اوگار گرفت 

 داماد بیچاره همه از جان و دل کردش قبول

 اسب توررنگه طعمهیی، قد زین و قد اوزار گرفت

O the straight bride, the tall bride [sitting firmly – or anxiously – on the horse]

Without luggage, without bags of clothing [the bride has been sent away empty-handed by her family]

O the straight bride, the tall bride

Without luggage, without bags of clothing

He [the bride’s father] took 100,000 Afs and five kharwars [2,800 kg] of wheat in a bride price

He took cows and sheep [for the wedding meal] and an exorbitant bride price

Rings and bangles and earrings of an extortionate value

He took ten sers [70 kg] of tobacco for naswar [powdered chewing tobacco] 

Look at all the problems they made and they locked the house [behind the bride and groom, as they were leaving]

Which created more hassles

Even though the poor groom accepted to do all this in good faith

They took his horse, too, with its saddle and bridle

The singing children ultimately reach the groom’s house where one of them performs the ritual of slaughtering a sheep upon the arrival of the bride there, using a potato with four small pieces of wood as its legs to represent the poor sheep. Seemingly simple, the game beri beri is incredibly creative, imaginative, reflective and satirical of local wedding traditions.

Khana shahidagan

Khana shahidagan (literally, ‘little martyrs’ house’) is a game that used to be played mostly by boys in Kabul province, though it is also known in other provinces including Kunduz. Currently, like many of these games, it seems to have been eclipsed by the growing influence of digital games.

In this game, five to ten players dig a hole in the ground and pronounce it the khana-ye shahid (‘martyr’s house’). They draw a circle around it and then each player digs a hole for himself within the circle and names it his home. So each player has a hole in the ground that is marked with their name. The size of all the holes should be large enough to fit a ball about the size of a tennis ball. Each player has a turn to roll a ball towards the khana-ye shahid from a distance of about three metres outside the circle. They get five goes. Other players sit around the circle to check where the rolling ball ends up.

The player who rolls the ball tries to get it into the khana-ye shahid. Once they succeed, the other players run away in different directions while the ball roller grabs the ball and tries to hit another player with it. If he manages to hit someone, his turn ends and the one who has been hit replaces him. If he fails to hit another player, he keeps rolling until he succeeds or exhausts his turn (rolling the ball five times).

If the ball ends up in a hole other than khana-ye shahid, the player into whose hole the ball has gone into can ‘punish’ the ball roller by getting a piggyback from him. If the ball roller makes a second repeated mistake and the ball ends up in the same wrong hole, the ‘owner’ of the hole can get a piggyback from and simultaneously pinch the ears of the ball roller. If the ball ends up in the same hole for a third time, the ball roller can be further penalised by rolling the ball with his eyes covered by the other player’s hands, after giving a piggyback and having his ears pinched. Alternatively, the player whose hole the ball has gone into can choose to ‘forgive’ the ball roller.

The game continues until all the players have had the chance to roll the ball towards the circle of holes. The game khana shahidagan has provided children not only with an exciting pastime, but also an opportunity to shape the play and its rules, including choosing to punish or forgive.

Panjagh

Ask anyone of a certain age about the games they used to play when they were kids and they are bound to give you nostalgic accounts of life back in the days before video games and mobile phones when children whiled away the time at family gatherings in low-tech pursuits. One such game is panjagh or anjagh, which is played across Central and Western Asia and in many other parts of the world under different names and with slight variations. In Iran it is called yek qol do qol (‘one rock two rocks’), topal qamchan in Turkey and five stones or jacks or knucklebones in the UK. There are pictures of it going as far back as the eighth century BCE. People of all ages and genders can play this game, but in Afghanistan, it is mostly favoured by girls.

You need at least two people and five small round stones (about the size of hazelnuts) to play Panjagh. Source: Bargejoon (for hyperlink see footnote 3).

You need at least two people and five small round stones (about the size of hazelnuts) to play panjagh (see photos 2 and 3).[3]For source of photo 2, see here, and of photo 3, see here. The game has eight stages in total, although some local variations do go up to 20 stages. It is played by throwing a stone called the seed in the air and executing a manoeuvre with the other stones. A game of panjagh begins with a player throwing the stones in the air and catching them on the back of her hand. She then throws them in the air again and this time tries to catch them in her palm. The outcome of this manoeuvre determines the order of players. In the first phase, the player throws the seed in the air and picks up the ones on the ground in the interval between the seed’s rising and falling; first, one by one, then two by two until all four stones are picked up. Through the phases, the game increases in complexity and difficulty. When a player fails to pick up a stone or the seed falls on the ground, she loses her turn, and another player takes over.

Finally, the last two players face off in the punishment stage. Now, each stone is assigned a punishment, such as pinching, slapping or tickling. The stones are placed on the back of a player’s hand, and she must throw them upwards and catch them all in one movement. The player is then penalised based on the punishment assigned to each stone that has fallen to the ground. The player who catches all the stones wins the game (watch how the game is played here and here).

Panjagh sounds deceptively easy, but you need good concentration and dexterity – nimble fingers, quick reflexes and superb hand-eye coordination to excel at this game. Some early childhood development specialists have praised the game’s educational value, saying it helps develop hand-eye coordination, kinetic motor skills and logical-mathematical intelligence in children.

All-female teams from across Iran compete for the top yek qol do qol prize in the Second Traditional and Indigenous Games Olympics in the capital of Golestan province, Gorgan. Source: Gorgan municipality, department of culture, society and sports (for hyperlink see footnote 3).

According to the International Council of Sports Science and Physical Education, traditional sports and games are enjoying a revival because of the “significant role [they] can play today as part of cultural heritage and local identity.” In Iran, there are competitive women’s leagues. The Federation for Traditional Sports and Indigenous Games organises competitions and has published detailed rules and regulations. In 2019, women from across Iran’s 32 provinces competed in the Great Women’s Cultural, Sports and Leisure Festival, in Iran’s second-largest city, Mashhad, close to the country’s border with Afghanistan.

Hagey jangawel

Hagey jangawel (literally, ‘egg fighting’) is a very famous and popular game played in vast swathes of areas on both sides of the Durand Line, the de facto border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, especially on Eid days. This game is also played on Nawruz, mostly in Afghanistan where the New Year is a public festival. Boys, girls, men and women all like preparing for or playing hagey jangawel. It is a game played with hard-boiled eggs by two players. One hits the other’s egg with his own; the winner is the player whose egg remains whole and unbroken. 

As Nawruz or Eid approaches, women keep whatever eggs they have at home, not cooking or selling them – and sometimes pushing up the price of eggs locally. They boil, colour and have the eggs ready for their sons and brothers. Some women give eggs to children whose families are visiting their homes as part of festival celebrations. The boiled and coloured eggs are also given, along with sweets and dry fruits, wrapped together in a new and usually beautifully embroidered handkerchief to men who are engaged or newly married – it is a local tradition for grooms to visit their parents-in-law at Nawruz and other feast days.

Two young men playing hagey jangawel, February 2010. Photo: Pajhwok Afghan News and published by Azadi Radio.

Hagey jangawel is an intricate game. When two people want to fight with their eggs, they first exchange them, to decide whether they can agree on who gets to tap the other’s egg. Each player checks the other’s egg by softly tapping it on his upper incisor teeth. This helps them work out which egg is probably harder than the other and thus has more chance of fracturing the other and winning the game. There is often an argument between the players over whose egg is under and gets tapped and whose egg is above and does the hitting. When someone does not agree, the ‘clever’ player tries to secure his opponent’s agreement by proposing to exchange the eggs on the condition that the opponent should accept having the ‘under’ egg that is hit. The bargaining continues until both players agree on who does the hitting. If there is no agreement, they leave to find another player with whom they can reach such an understanding. Once they agree on who starts the game, hagey jangawel can take on any of the following forms of play:

  • The sarak (‘top’), the pointed end of the egg, is used to hit the sarak of the other player’s egg. Whoever’s egg is broken loses and must give his egg to the winner.
  • Players use the konak (‘bottom’), the blunter end of the egg. Again, whoever’s egg is broken loses and must give his egg to the winner.
  • Sometimes players continue fighting even after the sarak and konak are already broken, using the arkhak(‘side’) of the eggs, but this is less common.
  • Sometimes the eggs whose sarakkonak and arkhak are all broken are then played with in a different way. Several players agree to play one, two or more of such eggs, rolling them all at once down a slope: whoever’s egg rolls the furthest wins all the eggs.
  • Finally, two players may sit beside an egg seller and make a line of eggs on the ground. Then one egg is picked up by one player from the beginning of the line and the second egg is picked up by the other player. They hit the sarak of each other’s eggs, with the player whose egg was broken picking the next whole egg from the line. The last couple of eggs determine the winner of all the eggs played in the game. The price of all these eggs must then be paid by the loser to the seller and the winner collects all the eggs.

Hagey jangawel is also known for some sophisticated cheating. Before a festival arrives, a ‘clever’ player might make a small hole in the egg and suck all of the white and yolk out, replacing it with sugar. Then he bakes the ‘egg’ until the sugar almost boils, hardening it like a stone (and trying to disguise the hole in paint). This player then fights with his egg, which is called a laki, without showing it to anyone to check. Obviously, no eggs can beat his. This is totally illegal and if someone discovers that his egg was beaten by a laki egg, the game could get nasty. Not everyone approves of hagey jangawel. Some mullahs, for example, regard it as haram (illegitimate) because it involves or can involve qemar(gambling) and so call on local residents not to play it.

Mutso luba and dabara achawel

(De) Mutso luba, also called (dedabaro luba, both literally meaning ‘stone play,’ and dabara achawel (‘stone throwing’) are two similar games played by men in the region of Loya Paktia, including Paktia, Paktika and Khost provinces. They are most often played during the winter and spring when the earth is moist and soft so as not to raise dust. They are also typically played during public festivals. So Nawruz that comes both in the spring and is a public festival is an especially popular time to play both these games.

Men playing mutso luba in Yahyakhel district of Paktika province, February 2021. Photo: Sayed Khan Sulaimankhel.

To prepare for playing mutso luba, the participating men draw two circles facing each other within a distance of ten to 20 metres in a straight line. They gather some soil to make a small hill in the centre of each circle and put a piece of wood or a stone on top to mark the centre of each circle. To play, the men divide themselves into two competing teams assigned to and positioned near each circle. Members of the two teams take turns to throw stones towards the opponents’ circle, aiming at the wood or stone at its centre. Hitting the circle area scores one point, while hitting its centre scores two points. Either team that reaches a pre-agreed target of ten to 100 scores wins the game.

Men playing dabara achawel in Yahyakhel district of Paktika province, February 2021. Photo: Sayed Khan Sulaimankhel.

Somewhat similar is the game dabara achawel. It has even simpler rules: a group of enthusiastic young men get together, choose a fairly heavy stone to throw and then compete to prove which of them has the stamina to throw it the furthest and so win the game. What connects mutso luba and dabara achawel is not only stones as the locally abundant tool of play but also the emphasis on concentration and strength to excel.

The games we have written about were contributed by Ali Mohammad Sabawoon, Fazl Rahman Muzhary, Khadija Hussaini, Obaid Ali, Roxanna Shapour and Sayed Asadullah Sadat. Reza Kazemi coordinated and wrote up the report. The subject was a delight to research, bringing back happy memories of childhood, but also giving an opportunity to discover the games played in other parts of Afghanistan.

Edited by Rachel Reid and Kate Clark

References

References
1 For more on folk games in Afghanistan, see for example: Nico van Oudenhoven (1980), “Common Afghan ‘Street’ Games and Child Development,” Afghanistan Journal 7 (4): 126-138. Oudenhoven has collected hundreds of Afghan folk games in: Nico J A van Oudenhoven, Common Afghan Street Games, 1979, Lisse, Swets and Zeitlinger B V, 1979. Find a publicly available summary of these works in: Nico van Oudenhoven, “Common ‘Street’ Games,” in UNESCO and UNICEF, “Games and Toys in Early Childhood Education,” Paris, UNCESCO and UNICEF, 1988, pp 37-52. And there has recently been a revival of global interest in what have been called ‘traditional sports and games.’ See for instance: International Council of Sport Science and Physical Education (2014), “Traditional Physical Cultures, Sport and Games,” Journal of Sport Science and Physical Education, Bulletin 67.
2 For more on Afghan children’s songs, see for instance: Louise M Pascale, Children’s Songs from Afghanistan, Washington, DC, National Geographic, 2008. The book also has a companion CD.
3 For source of photo 2, see here, and of photo 3, see here.

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Culture traditions Nawruz children games

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