A short history of dancing boys

I just watched the Frontline documentary The Dancing Boys of Afghanistan on PBS, after Josh and The Boy Scouts had written about it. It’s an amazing account from the “bacha bazi” scene in northern Afghanistan, where adolescent boys dance in front of men, and have sex with “the highest bidder” afterwards. Pretending to make a film about the same practice in the West, the reporter Najibullah Quraishi managed to film these dances, and make surprisingly honest interviews with both men and boys. For example, one former commander says:

– I had a boy partner when I was an unmarried commander. I had a boy, because every other commander had one. There’s competition among the commanders, and without one, I couldn’t compete with the others.

Do you have sex with them?

– If they’re willing to have sex, then I would. If they’re not, I won’t.

The boys want to have sex?

– Yes, a lot of them.

You wouldn’t think twice?

– I wouldn’t. If they want to have sex, no problem. Many boys want sex.

The film centers around Dastager, a businessman who claims to have “had” between two and three thousand boys – as dancers, he seems to mean, since he says no when asked if he had sex with them. The reporter is allowed to follow him when he gets a new prospect: Shafiq, an 11-year-old boy from a poor family. During a year, the boy will live with Dastager and learn to sing and dance. In return for this exchange, Shafiqs family gets money.

Shafiq obviously has no clue as for what is going on. When interviewed by the reporter, he says what Dastager wants him to say. You can even hear Dastager whispering the right answers in the background. We are also taken to the boy’s father for an interview, but it seems Dastager has set the reporter up with another person who just pretends to be the father of Shafiq. After some months, Shafiq’s mood changes, according to the reporter, who concludes that Dastager probably has made sexual approaches towards the boy. Thus he decides that he and the producer will try to save Shafiq.

This quest is both sweet and naïve. As viewers, we get the impression that Dastager has abducted Shafiq, training him to become a dancer against the will of his parents. But the fact remains that Shafiq’s family has “sold” him to Dastager, a result of the extreme poverty in Afghanistan. And as it will turn out, the “fake father” was actually Shafiq’s uncle. It seems the family agreed upon the deal, so the question is what exactly Shafiq would be saved from, and what he would be saved to. We will see that later.

The bacha bazi scene is undoubtedly fraught with problems. We are for example told about a 15-year-old boy who was murdered because he tried to escape from his “master”. Obviously, some dancing boys face the same tragic fate as so many Afghan women.

And still, the tradition of bacha bazi is extremely fascinating, since similar phenomena are extremely common in history. One need hardly mention Ancient Greece: The early Dorian coming-of-age rites and the latter Classical obsession with young male beauty. In Athens, a boy could play the part of eromenos (the beloved) as long as he was beardless. After that, he would “switch sides” and become the erastes (the lover) of a younger eromenos. This pattern seems to be prevalent in the bacha bazi scene too. 15-year-old Imam, who has danced for several years, explains:

– I’m 15 now, so for another two or three years I’ll continue singing and dancing. After three years, I might be able to remain friends with these people, but I’ll probably be too old for them, and they might not like me anymore.

After he turns 18, Imam said, he plans to become the master of his own stable of dancing boys.

– I’ll probably keep between 20 and 30, if I can afford to.

– A boy should be 12 or 13, and of good character. A very polite boy. He should have no other interests except bacha bazi. I would like to keep them for myself, and they should be useful for me and my friends.

An even better comparison is that of Rome. Where the Classical Greeks worshipped the boy, and therefore only dared to penetrate him between his thighs (intercrural sex) while he was standing (thus not being degraded to a woman by lying under the man), the Romans enjoyed anal sex with boys. This was possible because they used slaves as their sexual partners, since free-born Romans was considered stuprum (taboo). A man could have one or more slave boys in his “stable”, to have sex with on the side of his wife, who had nothing to say about this arrangement – just like in Afghanistan, it seems, and other patriarchal cultures. The former commander again:

– I would keep a boy if my wife agreed. If she didn’t mind, I would keep one boy.

Is it usual for a wife to give permission?

– In Afghanistan, husbands don’t listen to their wives. But I’m a cultured person. I discuss it with my wife first.

The Romans didn’t listen to their wives either, but the topic was discussed and there are many examples of wives being jealous of the boys. Craig A. Williams describes in Roman Homosexuality (Oxford University Press, 1999) how the poet Martial deals with it:

In one of his poems, Martial addresses his “wife” who has found him anally penetrating a boy. To her nagging observation that she can provide him with the same kind of pleasure the poet responds with a catalog of mythological exempla illustrating the point that anal intercourse is more pleasurable with boys than it is with women, and he concludes with a harsh dismissal: “So stop giving masculine names to your affairs, and think of it this way, wife: you have two cunts.” (p. 27)

This discussion even made it into the mythology, where Jupiter is supposed to have preferred the anus of the boy Ganymede to the one of his wife Juno (according to Martial), which Virgil claimed was one of the reasons why Juno never ceased to hate the Trojans (since Ganymede was a Trojan).

The story of Jupiter and Ganymede seems to be as relevant to the bacha bazi tradition in Afghanistan as it was to the Romans. Williams writes (my italics):

Ganymede, a foreigner abducted by a potentate in order to be his slave, corresponded perfectly to real role among Romans. (p. 59)

Hishikawa Moronobu: Male couple on a futon. Early 1680s.

There is an even more evident, and more recent historical parallel to bacha bazi, namely the kabuki theatre in pre-Meiji Japan in the 17th century, where boy actors sang and danced in front of a male audience. Afterwards, the actors were sexually available, just like the dancing boys of Afghanistan. The kabuki scene was extremely popular. Ihara Saikaku wrote a book of short stories in 1687, which was nothing less than a tribute to this form of theatre with its immensely beautiful boy actors. The author, or rather, his character, brags in the same way as Dastager, but also has an understanding of the problems:

… in my 27 years as a devotee of male love I have loved all sorts of boys, and when I wrote down their names from memory the list came to 1,000. Of all these, it was with only a very few that I shared a sense of honor and masculine pride; the others were working boys who gave themselves to me against their will. When you consider their suffering in aggregate, it must have been considerable. (8:3, p. 293)

The book is called The Great Mirror of Male Love in English and was translated by Paul Gordon Schalow (Stanford University Press, 1990), along with a very informative introduction.

In another story, the men talk about the boys in the same businesslike way as Dastager and his friends:

“That is the most handsome boy to pass all day. It must be Uemura Tatsuya.” They were correct, of course.

“People know quality when they see it,” a man from Mogami commented, sounding like a merchant selling wares. (8:4, p. 302)

Mostly though, the boys in Saikaku’s description of the kabuki theatre are worshipped by their admirers, who cut off their fingers to display their love for the boys. The boy is the master – not the other way around. This is obviously not the case in Afghanistan. Even though there are similarities to the kabuki tradition, the Afghan bacha bazi suffers from mainly two things:

  1. Bacha bazi is illegal. First, the Talibans forbid boys to dance in women’s clothes. Then the current, “Western” government did the same. Hence, bacha bazi is more or less an underground scene, with all the lack of control and regulations that come with that. The kabuki scene, in contrast, was recognised in society, and thus had developed its own culture, meaning the scene was not ruled by certain rich businessmen like in Afghanistan.
  2. Bacha bazi is driven by poverty. To dance at a kabuki theatre was a choice, to boys who were extraordinarily beautiful. Poverty leaves no choice, and that’s why the bacha bazi ends up like kabuki’s distorted mirror.

In fact, bacha bazi reminds more of the sex trade with teenage boys in Prague in the 1990s. Let’s get back to the documentary. The reporter manages to get a short one-to-one chat with one 14-year-old Afghan boy:

Aren’t you happy with your life?

– I’m afraid of those who will beat or kill me. I’m afraid of being abducted. My life is completely ruined.

So you’re afraid of them too?

– Yes.

In the bakery, do people ask you to go with them?

– Yes.

What do they say?

– They say, “Come and be with me.” My life is completely ruined, since so many people say, “Come with me.”

And if you don’t go, then it’s dangerous?

– If I don’t go, it’s dangerous.

This story could as well have featured in Wiktor Grodecki’s 1994 documentary Not Angels But Angels, where some Czech rent boys said approximately the same things, or at least with the same kind of despair. (Whereas others had Imam’s carefree attitude.) Both societies were poor and chaotic after sudden social change – a hotbed for exploitation.

It seems the fascination with the teenage boy is universal. In one form or the other, it is prevalent in all cultures in all ages. In some, there have been more developed ways of relating to the boy – there is culture. And as long as there is a culture, it doesn’t matter much exactly what forms this fascination takes – it’s all okay, since it’s, well, normal. It’s the lack of culture that paves the way for greedy individuals who exploit old traditions which in themselves are pretty harmless.

So what happened to Shafiq? As mentioned, the reporter team decided to help him. It wasn’t easy, since Dastager had the local police on his side. But with the help from the “cultured” former commander, they managed to find him and “abduct him back” from Dastager.

The father didn’t seem overjoyed to get his son back. He had now lost his income and was under constant threat from Dastager and his allies. The reporter team solved this by relocating Shafiq’s family to a village far away from their previous home, and give them some money as well to make it easier to start up in the new village and to let Shafiq go to school.

The last interview with Shafiq is supposed to make us happy:

How do you feel about being back with your parents?

– I feel good.

Have you started school or any courses yet?

– Yes. I’m doing an English course.

An English course?

– Yes.

What do you want to become in the future?

– My wish is to study in school. I want to become a doctor in the future. I want to be able to help other boys to improve their futures.

Sweet, right? But to me, his replies were as spontaneous as those he gave when Dastager whispered the right answers to him. He’s still the good boy who says what we want him to say, only with optimistic piano music in the background this time instead of the scary Dastager soundtrack. As Westerners, we want him to say that he has plans, that he loves school and that he wants to become a doctor. Good boy! But everything seems to matter more to the reporter, and to us viewers, than to the actual family.