Afghanistan, Through My LensA gay photojournalist
reveals an ancient homosexual culture
I have been fortunate enough to travel to Afghanistan twice in the last couple of years, and each time, I was in awe at
how well I was treated by the people of that troubled country, in complete contrast from what I was told to expect. I had
many reasons for going, the most important being that as a New Yorker, I felt that the recent history of my own city was forever
linked with that of Afghanistan. What I discovered through my travels and research is that Afghanistan has always had an amazingly
homo-friendly culture: The British wrote about the amount of male-on-male love as long as a century and a half ago, and the
country’s overall queer proclivities were no secret during the hippie heydays of the 1960s and 1970s—even a source
of gossip in Andrew Holleran’s 1978 gay novel Dancer From the Dance. More recently, British and American soldiers have
told stories of makeup-covered Afghan farmers trailing them, trying to reward them with sexual favors. With the fundamentalist
Taliban regime now out of power, the infamous “death by falling walls” for homosexuals is a thing of the tragic
past. What the media didn’t telll how the city of Kandahar was once so open about its renowned homosexuality there
were even stores for pets considered gay symbols, like quails. The Taliban might have reacted viciously against homosexuality,
but being located in famously queer Kandahar, they began to absorb it into their everyday lives—prompting Details magazine
in 2003 to run the coverline “Just How Gay Were the Taliban?” But isn’t Afghanistan so sexually repressive
and fundamentalist that men and women are nearly forbidden to talk with each other? There is the question that unlocks the
answer. In a country where men can’t interact freely with women, there still must be an outlet for sexual affection.
Ironically, depite the reactionary religious reputation of the country, it was often near mosques that the subject of “homo-sex,”
as it was called, was mentioned to me by curious young men who approached to practice their English.
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Kandahar Comes Out of the Closet
Our Correspondent Sees the Gay Capital of South Asia Throw Off Strictures of the Taleban
The Times of London, 12th January, 2002
PO Box 496, London E1 9XN, United Kingdom
Fax +44( 0 )171-782 5988
From Tim Reid in Kandahar
Now that Taleban rule is over in Mullah Omar’s former southern stronghold, it is not only televisions, kites and
razors which have begun to emerge. Visible again, too, are men with their ‘ashna’, or beloveds: young boys they
have groomed for sex. Kandahar’s Pashtuns have been notorious for their homosexuality for centuries, particularly their
fondness for naive young boys. Before the Taleban arrived in 1994, the streets were filled with teenagers and their sugar
daddies, flaunting their relationship. It is called the homosexual capital of south Asia. Such is the Pashtun obsession with
sodomy—locals tell you that birds fly over the city using only one wing, the other covering their posterior—that
the rape of young boys by warlords was one of the key factors in Mullah Omar mobilising the Taleban.
In the summer of 1994, a few months before the Taleban took control of the city, two commanders confronted each other over
a young boy whom they both wanted to sodomise. In the ensuing fight civilians were killed.
Omar’s group freed the boy and appeals began flooding in for Omar to help in other disputes. By November, Omar and
his Taleban were Kandahar’s new rulers. Despite the Taleban disdain for women, and the bizarre penchant of many for
eyeliner, Omar immediately suppressed homosexuality.
Men accused of sodomy faced the punishment of having a wall toppled on to them, usually resulting in death. In February
1998 three men sentenced to death for sodomy in Kandahar were taken to the base of a huge mud and brick wall, which was pushed
over by tank. Two of them died, but one managed to survive. "In the days of the Mujahidin, there were men with their ‘ashna’
everywhere, at every corner, in shops, on the streets, in hotels: it was completely open, a part of life," said Torjan, 38,
one of the soldiers loyal to Kandahar’s new governor, Gul Agha Sherzai.
"But in the later Mujahidin years, more and more soldiers would take boys by force, and keep them for as long as they wished.
But when the Taleban came, they were very strict about the ban.
Of course, it still happened—the Taleban could not enter every house—but one could not see it." But for the
first time since the Taleban fled, in the past three days, one can see the pairs returning: usually a heavily bearded man,
seated next to, or walking with, a clean-shaven, fresh faced youth. There appears to be no shame or furtiveness about them,
although when approached, they refuse to talk to a western journalist.
"They are just emerging again," Torjan said. "The fighters too now have the boys in their barracks. This was brought to
the attention of Gul Agha, who ordered the boys to be expelled, but it continues. The boys live with the fighters very openly.
In a short time, and certainly within a year, it will be like pre-Taleban: they will be everywhere."
This Pashtun tradition is even reflected in Pashtun poetry, odes written to the beauty and complexion of an ‘ashna’,
but it is usually a terrible fate for the boys concerned. It is practised at all levels of Pashtun society, but for the poorer
men, having an ‘ashna’ can raise his status.
"When a man sees a boy he likes—the age they like is 15 or 16—they will approach him in the street and start
talking to him, offering him tea," said Muhammad Shah, a shop owner. "Sometimes they go looking in the football stadium, or
in the cinema (which has yet to reopen).
"He then starts to give him presents, hashish, or a watch, a ring, or even a motorbike. One of the most valued presents
is a fighting pigeon, which can be worth up to $400 (£277). These boys are nearly always innocent, but such is the poverty
here, they cannot refuse."
Once the boy falls into the man’s clutches—nearly always men with a wife and family—he is marked for
life, although the Kandaharis accept these relationships as part of their culture. When driven around, ‘ashna’
sit in the front passenger seat. The back seat is simply for his friends.
Even the parents of the boys know in their hearts the nature of the relationship, but will tell people that their son is
working for the man.
They, like everyone else, will know this is a lie. "They say birds flew with both wings with the Taleban," Muhammad said.
"But not any more."