Two men hold hands while one wields a knife. Afghan men, growing up with war, show both a tender and macho side at the same time.
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 partsthe 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, its 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 Mohammeds stories about the city involved relationships between grown men, rather than a man with a youth, as seemed more common elsewhere.
Kandahars reputation for homosexuality also came up in discussions with some young men I photographed in Kabuls Babur Gardens pool. The comfort Afghan men have with their bodies surprised me. Some willingly posed semi-nude in front of a foreigners 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 Talibans notions about body image, several made a joke of the question, claiming that the old regime was made up of gay menKandahar playboys as they called themwho 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, hed 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 Kabulmore than my freelance budget allowedor 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 Ill 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 Munirs home. The owner Wais, an Afghan American from New Jersey now back in his homeland, knew I was investigating Kabuls 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 Munirs, Abadullah told me my trip was not a good idea, but then gave instructions to a cabdriver.
Abdullahs 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. Hed 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 houses 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. Munirs brother, who Ill 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, Ill 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 couldnt figure out where all this talking was leading, and worried that maybe my curiosity, a travel writers 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, Munirs 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 Munirs house to a smaller gatheringjust 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 others arms, after caressing each other for hours.
I dont think Ill forget those nights in Munirs 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 theyve probably never seen a woman naked. Homosexual behavior might simply be a replacement for physical intimacy they can not get otherwise in their livesa 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 Ill find.
IF YOU GO
New York City Consulate
360 Lexington Ave. at 41st St., 11th floor
212 972 2277. A visa, required for travel to Afghanistan, can be acquired here.
to the United States
202 483 6410. www.embassyofafghanistan.org.
Ariana Airlines can be consulted at www.flyariana.com.
For comfortable accommodations
Stay at the Mustafa Hotel Call the hotel at 011 93 70- 76 021 Or, via e-mail, email@example.com Or, on the web at www.mustafahotel.com There are 180 rooms which rent for about $40/night.
For deluxe accommodations
Stay at the Inter-Continental Hotel 011- Call the hotel at 011 93 20 220 1320. Or via e-mail, at firstname.lastname@example.org There are 199 rooms that range from $85 to $475/night.
Malaria pills or shots are needed for travel to Afghanistan.
Consult your physician or contact the New York Hospital Travel Health Clinic, at 440 E. 69th Street, 212 746 1601.