Afghan men skating along the edges of gay life
Last fall (2004) I found myself in Afghanistan, a nation at the center of the upheaval and change roiling the world. There I found Afghan men skating along the edges of gay life.
I’ve had a curiosity about Afghanistan since childhood that began with the 1979 Soviet invasion. Breshnev-era images of tanks rolling over mountains and the brave Afghans defending their homeland on horseback have stayed with me my whole life. Yet, I also live in New York, whose history is now forever linked with Afghanistan.
A few days after September 11, I was on a Ground Zero bucket brigade clean-up crew. Our task was clearing debris from a fire truck on what had been the West Side Highway. It was only for one day, and I only had the opportunity to be there because my brother-in-law is a police officer and got me access. Surrounded by the acres of rubble that were once the Twin Towers, I thought about my intense interest in Afghanistan and resolved to travel there in the hopes of better understanding what had happened here.
Most Americans have shunned international travel since 9/11, but for me the tragedy instilled a sense of camaraderie with war-torn areas. I felt that New York had become a war-torn city myself, so visiting another didn’t seem daunting to me. In the two years between 9/11 and my visit to Afghanistan, my curiosity about the country’s gay life was also piqued. I frequently ran across articles hinting at widespread traditional Afghan acceptance of homosexuality. The New York Times mentioned boys covered in make-up who greeted U.S. soldiers.
Details magazine discussed the homosocial standards of much of Islamic culture, based on separation of the genders, and reviewed Trolley Press’ 2003 book “Taliban,” in which photographer Thomas Dworzak presented images of effeminate Taliban warriors that he unearthed.
I also read “An Unexpected Light,” by British adventurer Jason Elliot, which discussed war-weary Afghan men who expressed delight about his soft skin when he visited during the Russian invasion.All these works, and others, however, were compiled by straights who wavered between curiosity and repulsion at the phenomena they discussed.
To the best of my knowledge, no gay Westerner had infiltrated gay Afghan life. I decided I would be the one to do this. But every Afghan American I knew was worried about the prospect of my traveling to their country on such a mission, especially the members of the Afghan-American Peace Corps, formed by members of the Afghan Diaspora living in New York who wanted to aid their homeland in the wake of 9/11.
As I planned my trip in consultation with AAPC members, they backed out of their mission to bring cows they would purchase in Pakistan to widows in rural Afghan regions for safety reasons. In the end somewhat reluctantly I traveled alone, relying on contacts given me by friends.My fears, and those of my Afghan American friends, proved unfounded.
By the fall of 2003, Kabul was relatively safe. I often wandered the streets alone, even after nightfall. Most Kabulites were happy to meet foreigners, especially Americans. The city was rapidly rebuilding with new shops sprouting next to piles of rubble. There was even a tourist district along Chicken Street where souvenir and rug vendors sought the attention of soldiers, foreign workers, diplomats, and the odd backpacker.
To be sure, all of this vitality was mixed with children begging, legless mine victims on crutches, and women who remained true to the tradition of wearing burqas. But, Kabul was undoubtedly undergoing a revolution of investment and modernization, post-Taliban. I also found that homosexuality easily came up in conversation, even with some government officials. An Afghan national who worked in a Western embassy but only wanted to be identified by his first name, Mohammed, gave me historical background on the topic. Certain Afghan tribes, he explained, especially the Uzbeks and Pashtuns, were known for male sexual behavior.
The city with the greatest reputation for active homosexuality was Kandahar, the headquarters of the Taliban. According to Mohammed, male couples “were even holding wedding ceremonies after the Taliban arrived.” The Taliban tried to control it, he explained, but “it was so common in Kandahar, they were able to embrace it.”
Apparently, traditions of homoerotic behavior have come down from ancient times in Afghanistan. These customs carry on to this day, according to Mohammed, at rural weddings where dancer-boys entertain male crowds, wearing anklets that make music as they move.
Sometimes, he explained, they “dress him like a woman.” Many of the boys are available for sex.“It has two parts––the dancing part and the sexual part,” Mohammed said. “The sexual part, no one will confess.”These relationships seem to be widely known, even acknowledged implicitly, but they are far less often discussed openly and they are illegal.“
The sexual part, it’s a problem,” Mohammed said. “The man and the boy can go to jail.” I wanted to go to Kandahar because its homosexual reputation seemed most pronounced, and Mohammed’s stories about the city involved relationships between grown men, rather than a man with a youth, as seemed more common elsewhere. Kandahar’s reputation for homosexuality also came up in discussions with some young men I photographed in Kabul’s Babur Gardens pool.
The comfort Afghan men have with their bodies surprised me. Some willingly posed semi-nude in front of a foreigner’s camera. The fall of the Taliban appears to have unleashed a cult of working out. Some of these men proudly asked me to photograph them at their pools, saunas, and gyms. Several of the gyms sported pictures of Arnold Schwarzenegger, still more famous there for his muscles than his politics. At the pool, when I questioned the swimmers through my translator about the Taliban’s notions about body image, several made a joke of the question, claiming that the old regime was made up of gay men––Kandahar “playboys” as they called them––who loved to see naked men.Yet, even as Afghan men joked about the Taliban being gay, they did not seem terribly put off by the subject of homosexuality.
In front of a mosque, I came across a group of construction workers on break, one in traditional clothing, which made for an ideal picture. His friends joined in as I photographed and one very handsome worker essentially took over the shoot. In any Western country, he’d have been a model. Perhaps 20 men in all gathered and quickly realized I was gay, based on my interest in the handsomest man. It proved to be no problem at all; some of the older men pushed us together, asking, “You like homosex?” They were so open, I was the one who was shocked. As I spoke to Mohammed about my hopes to visit Kandahar, he warned me that a foreigner faced the risk of assault for prying into local life there.
Add to that the choice between the $900 cost of the 30-minute flight from Kabul––more than my freelance budget allowed––or a bus ride along a road where workers were killed just before my visit, and I reluctantly decided to forgo the trip.
My most interesting peek into gay life happened much the way that it would in the West. On the street, a handsome young man held my stare, throwing glances back as he passed. He was a 21-year-old English teacher who I will call Munir, to protect his privacy. Half an hour flew by as we conversed, with men in uniform and women in burqas parading by. Munir wore a neat, though dusty black suit.
In spite of its post-war ruin, Kabul is a cosmopolitan city and Munir tried hard to maintain decorum, even a sense of style. Sex had really not been on my mind when I embarked for Afghanistan, but I was attracted to Munir. His response to my interest struck me as very sophisticated. “I knew what you wanted when you told me I was attractive. I am from Kabul, I know these things,” he said, before adding that at 35 I was too old for him, Afghanistan being a society where few men live through their 40s. He suggested that I meet his 26-year-old friend, who I’ll call Syed, who already had a 35-year-old boyfriend.“This is Kabul,” Munir said in an urbane manner. “Anything can be arranged.”
I returned to my hotel, the Mustafa, full of journalists and odd characters, to prepare for a visit to Munir’s home. The owner Wais, an Afghan American from New Jersey now back in his homeland, knew I was investigating Kabul’s gay side, but I was not out to his staff. I told them simply that I was doing interviews. Abadullah, the protective assistant manager, always insisted on knowing my whereabouts and expressed fears I would run across Al-Qaeda insurgents. When it was time for me to head to Munir’s, Abadullah told me my trip was not a good idea, but then gave instructions to a cabdriver. Abdullah’s warnings rang louder in my head the further the driver went.
Munir said he was only five minutes from my hotel, but the ride seemed to last forever. We were slipping from the Kabul I recognized into places where electricity no longer worked. The crowded streets of Kabul gave way to suburbia, then patches of nothing interspersed with little low-rise communities. I called Munir on my rented mobile, but he sounded drunk, and I could hear people laughing in the background. He’d invited friends to meet me, which made me wary. When we arrived, Munir was on the street with a few friends, including Syed, who was bearded and traditionally clothed. Munir led us up the street to what he called his “special room for men.”
A red light shone from the house’s second floor window. Had I happened on a gay brothel? There were eight men, most in their 20s and 30s, sprawled on cushions. Self consciously, I sat under a large window. Through a wall, I could hear women in the house, but I never saw them. I felt on display with so many men around me. Soon, more entered. If I were here to meet Syed, who were they?
The conversation was stilted, and perhaps they needed to be put at ease as much as I did. Munir at times translated as I asked about life under the Taliban. This broke the tension, and several men brought out photo albums.The men who had gathered together were a masculine bunch. Munir’s brother, who I’ll call Abdul, was a military martial arts teacher, Syed an auto mechanic, and several were bodybuilders. Virtually all of them had fought against the Taliban.
They proudly showed me photos from the army, including one showing Abdul parachuting out of a helicopter. Each man waited expectantly as they showed me pictures, searching intensely for my reaction. It was as if each wanted to prove his bravery, and with each photo, I felt as if I were being wooed. Courage against the Taliban seemed to be their erotic calling card.
They were also clearly interested in talking about sex. One young man asked about English slang words, and offered the tip that the Afghan word “milk” also means masturbation. He then talked about prostitutes, mentioning a Chinese restaurant that fronts for a brothel, clueing me in to the open secret that Kabul is rampant with prostitution, tailored to the needs of foreign workers. This man was 20, married with children.
I asked him how in a traditionally Islamic country he knew such things. He responded by challenging me to tell him about my wife or girlfriend. Finally, the young man said, “When we meet a man who does not have a wife, and does not have a girlfriend, we call him a sissy. What is another word for that in English?” One of the men, I’ll call Ali, a brutally handsome man with wildly wavy hair, then put his arm around me and nudged closer. He played with the muscles on my arms, comparing them to his own, his other hand rubbing his crotch.That was when the 20-year-old man simply blurted out, “Munir said you like to do homosexual things.” I refused to answer.
I felt vulnerable, even if the mood was jovial. I asked once again how they could be open about such things in Afghanistan when it seemed so conservative, at least to outsiders. One young man chimed in, “Not under the Taliban, but Afghanistan is a democracy now, we can talk about anything we want.” I couldn’t figure out where all this talking was leading, and worried that maybe my curiosity, a travel writer’s virtue, had finally gotten the best of me. We danced around topics until I understood that nobody meant me any harm.
Several men insisted I sleep there, Munir’s brother being the most persistent, letting me know how happy he would be if I lay beside him. “If you stay here, you are sure to have a ball,” he said. Still, I decided I should go. Munir and Abdul drove me back into town.
As we proceeded through the darkness, Abdul said his brother was an Al-Qaeda member. Afghans commonly say this as a joke, but alone with the two men, I worried until central Kabul came into view. Two days later, confident that my doubts during my first visit were merely the jitters, I returned to Munir’s house to a smaller gathering––just him, his brother Abdul, Ali, Syed, and a fifth man.
The men had planned a massage party, with Ali and Abdul vying for me. Munir continually dared me to kiss his brother, but each time Abdul pulled away at the last minute, laughing. To make me look Afghan, they put a wrap on my head and we all danced. They wanted us to dance with their guns, but in spite of what interesting photos that would have produced, I declined.The neighborhood was full of parties that day, so we wandered music-filled streets, and I was welcomed by several families they introduced me to.
As the night progressed, I was comfortable enough to stay over, and Ali and I slept in each other’s arms, after caressing each other for hours. I don’t think I’ll forget those nights in Munir’s house, but it provided I think only a hint at what homosocial and homosexual behavior means in Afghanistan. Afghan men have lived through hardship, killed for their country to free it from the Taliban, and treat guns like fashion accessories, but strict Islamic rule means they’ve probably never seen a woman naked.
Homosexual behavior might simply be a replacement for physical intimacy they can not get otherwise in their lives––a workaround. Still, I seemed to have encountered a society that accepts affection between men as a wonderful thing. I am eager for my return to the country, and my chance to experience Kandahar too. I can only wonder for now what I’ll find.
By Michael T. Luongo
April 29 – May 5, 2004
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