Richard Ammon. Last fall 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. 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.
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. 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. 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 , 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. 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. The comfort Afghan men have with their bodies surprised me. 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.
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.
Perhaps 20 men in all gathered and quickly realized I was gay, based on my interest in the handsomest man. 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.
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 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 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.
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. When we arrived, Munir was on the street with a few friends, including Syed, who was bearded and traditionally clothed.
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. 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. 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. What is another word for that in English? He played with the muscles on my arms, comparing them to his own, his other hand rubbing his crotch. 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.
We danced around topics until I understood that nobody meant me any harm. 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. 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. 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.
By Michael T. More articles Gay Afghanistan, After the Taliban.