The Afghan team is probably the most excited and happiest among more than 180 countries participating in the Chess Olympiad in Chennai (India). Until a few days ago, four of its players, who live in Afghanistan, feared they would be fined or have their hands cut off for playing chess, banned by the Taliban government according to the most popular interpretation. most radical of the Koran. From now on, they are authorized, and that also feeds them a double hope: that the girls are not obliged to leave the school at 11 years, and that that implies lifting the ban still valid for the women to play chess.
Yerevan (Armenia), Chess Olympiad 1996. Six exhausted Afghans arrive seven days late. Over 1,500 chess players from around the world rise in a huge hall to receive them with long applause as they head to their assigned table to play the 7th round. The Afghan capital, Kabul, had already fallen under the power of the Taliban, but they came from the north, still free, for a ten-day trip, crossing three countries by bus and two by plane. The president of the Afghan Federation, Mohammad Esmaiel Jamshidi, then explained that chess had been popular in Afghanistan for centuries: “It was learned in almost every home at the age of five; normally it was the mother who taught the rules. In 1987, the Ministry of Education and Science, under the government of President Najibullah, introduced it as a subject in all educational centers with the argument that no other sport develops so many qualities”.
During the following edition of the Olympiad (Elista, Russia, 1998), a similar scene was experienced, with Afghan exiles who managed to form a team. The Taliban horror in its first stage lasted until 2001 (and longer in parts of Afghanistan). But the lack of resources meant that the women’s team could only compete in the Olympics sporadically, in 2008 (Dresden) and 2012 (Istanbul).
The captain of the men’s team, Khyber Farazi, explains his hope today: “We fought until the last minute to obtain this authorization, which is a great joy. Four of us six live in Afghanistan and we will be able to return without fear of punishment. But they are not satisfied with this: “It is very important that we achieve a good sporting result, that we stand out among the teams of our level, because then the government will see that chess can give international prestige to the country, and that can also benefit female chess players.
The third boarder, Sepehr Sajawaty, remembers his enormous frustration: “I am aware that being alive and being able to play chess is already a great privilege. But I couldn’t do it, except with my father, for fear of being fined or worse, having my hands cut off like thieves. The chess situation was dire but, after weeks of waiting for the news, permission to travel to Chennai finally arrived.
“Chess is a diabolical game that goes beyond the minds of those who play it.” This sentence by the leader of the 1979 Iranian revolution, Imam Khomeini (1902-1989), revealed why the most extreme interpretation of the Quran forbids chess, even though chess is not mentioned at all in this holy book. (despite the fact that the Muslims, who brought it to present-day Spain in the 8th century, already knew it in the 7th century). In the Middle Ages, it was practiced in some countries with bets and dice, and games of chance or invitation are prohibited because they can distract the Muslim from the obligation to pray and are also often associated with the consumption of alcohol. Another problem, but less important, is the prohibition of games whose pieces represent relief figures of people or animals; therefore, Arabic chess pieces are usually flat.
Moreover, according to the radicals, the Muslim warrior has three recommended activities when he is at home: horseback riding, archery and having fun with his wives. Then there is a majority of acts or hobbies that are tolerated; and finally there are the prohibitions, where Khomeini included chess. But he corrected himself shortly before he died, convinced by Iranian intellectuals whose arguments were irrefutable: chess has not been played for centuries with bets or dice; and, above all, it is a war game, and therefore ideal for warriors when resting. Today, Iran is one of the great powers in Asian chess, but its players suffer from a different kind of problem: they are forced to forfeit against an Israeli.
However, everything indicates that the Taliban movement was unaware of this process in the neighboring country when it seized Afghan power for the first time, in 1996. And, as had already happened with several players of Iranian professional chess, the best Afghan players and several managers they had to leave because their passion for a game that teaches thinking was very dangerous.
Khomeini and the Taliban aren’t the only enlightened ones to have banned a game with over fifteen centuries of documented history. The Saudi mufti (religious authority) Abdulaziz al-Sheikh advanced as justification, in 2016, one of the many virtues of chess: “It makes the poor rich and the rich poor”. And he added: “It creates hostility and incites to waste time.” A few months later, the very famous Turkish imam Ahmet Mahmut (he blessed President Erdogan and his wife) went even further: “Playing chess is more of a sin than playing or eating pork. And he added: “Chess players are cursed. They tend to lie more than the rest of the people. Fortunately, their respective governments paid no heed: Saudi Arabia joined the International Chess Federation (FIDE) a few years ago. Turkey is a very important country in introducing chess in schools as a sport.
The Catholic Church also banned chess at various times and places, arguing that it distracted from prayer, until Pope Leo X (1475-1521) gave it his blessing. The motivation was very different when a Provisional Government did this in China while the great leader Mao Zedong (1893-1976) was dying. This was during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), when anything that sounded Western was banned (despite the fact that Chinese chess, similar to international chess, also exists), including Beethoven’s music. Police fined chess players and burned technical books in town squares. But it was short-lived: in 1991, the world champion was already Chinese, Xie Jun.
In his conversation with this newspaper, the captain of the Afghan team, Farazi, is very restrained when he talks about his government, and gives the impression of not telling everything he knows. But he emphasizes: “That we are here is very important; not only for us, but for the beneficial repercussions it can have, especially for women”.
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