Sex, drugs, boys and a rocking house full of kids
Now why am I not surprised by this bit of news?
Afghan sexuality is a rich field of study - for those who dare.
I say “dare” not only because sexuality is a touchy topic in a conservative society. The most obvious problem of course is just getting around most parts of Afghanistan.
And yet over the past few years, there’s been a steady trickle of news stories on the so-called Pashtun culture of homosexuality.
Old Afghan hands have always known this. A typical evening between old friends who have worked in Afghanistan routinely features digs about "bacha baz,” or the particularly Pashtun phenomenon of older men taking on a younger boy as lover/plaything/status- enhancer.
As a popular Afghan saying goes, “Men are for love, women are for children.”
There are so many bafflingly loose threads on this subject that I’ve been meaning to weave into one comprehensive piece -- like Pashtun homoeroticism, homosexuality, homophobia and hypocrisy all nicely tangled up in blue. Then there’s the whole business of gender segregation, misogyny, violence against women, codes of honor, proprietorship over females, and the sometimes disarming levels of intimacy between women in a segregated society.
My resolve rises at the end of some interviews with Afghan women who spend the interview admiringly touching my hair, veil, clothes, jewelry, face, begging me to sing Bollywood songs and forcing me to extend my alarm lines between simple admiration and petting.
But then the daily news tide of attacks, corruption cases, Taliban negotiations and electoral fraud sweeps in and I put it on the backburner. This, after all, is a story that ain’t going away - I can always take it up some other day.
I’m happy to note that over the past few years, several reporters and at least one social scientist have taken it up.
The latest surge in reports has been fueled primarily by bemused Western troops in Afghanistan struggling to make sense of the mixed sexual signals coming their way.
My favorite report is a 2002 article by The Scotsman, “Startled marines find Afghan men all made up to see them.” The piece recounts how a British military team entered a village “swarming with gay local farmers” who had “painted toe nails was offering to paint ours” and went about “hand in hand mincing around the village.”
Mincing around the village - I like that.
British marines weren’t the only troops confronting mincing, toenail-painted queer farmers, compelling the Pentagon to put a social scientist on the job. The unclassified report, which was released earlier this year, makes disturbing reading.
But that’s the gay end of the Pashtun sexuality spectrum.
When it comes to heterosexual relations – and in a conservative country like Afghanistan it’s largely, at least officially, within a marriage – there's plenty of sexual anxiety plaguing Afghan men.
And so the rise in mojo-raising drugs of dubious provenance on Kabul’s streets does not surprise me.
When it comes to women and children, there tends to be a more-the-merrier ideal – especially in the rural areas. This can quickly descend into a race for more children and wives – if a man can afford it and often even if he can’t.
An Afghan father of seven once complained to me that he did not have enough children. Turns out it was his excuse to take up a second wife. Polygamy is another issue I’d like to take on some day, but let’s just lump that on the backburner for now.
Let’s stick with Afghan libidinous anxiety instead.
A couple of years ago, while I was waiting to board a flight from New Delhi to Kabul, I noticed that nearly all the Afghan male passengers were sporting a particularly pink plastic bag as hand-baggage.
The bags looked spanking new and I wondered if they had emerged from a seminar.
But no, it was not a seminar. The pink plastic bag proudly displayed the name, address and phone number of a New Delhi fertility clinic.
I asked one man, a trader, if there was some sort of group tour to the fertility clinic. No, he replied. He had gone there on his own because he heard about the clinic from a relative.
So, how was the experience? Very good, he replied and then he broke into a face-splitting grin and confessed that he had some "golis" (medicines) that would get him many sons.
The son never sets on the Afghan empire.
A wonderful piece by the Washington Post, “Little Blue Pills Among the Ways CIA Wins Friends in Afghanistan” recounts how a CIA official in the Pashtun belt tried to win over a 60-odd-year-old tribal elder.
The man apparently had four younger wives. The number of children are not mentioned – presumably they’re too many to count or not critical to the story.
In any case, said tribal elder finally signed up to the coalition agenda when he was handed four blue Viagra pills.
Four days after the pills were delivered, the once sullen toothless patriarch came up to the officials “beaming”.
Looking up to the CIA official, the tribal elder said the American was a “great man”.
My first reaction to the piece was to wonder if the CIA could deliver a package deal – Viagra for the man, contraception for his wife/wives.
But then I wondered if the status of Afghan women would fall further if they weren’t popping out babies every year. If Afghan women are not for children, then what are they?