Photo by the author
Kandahar just may be the world capital of buggery. There’s a popular joke here that goes, “Why do birds fly in circles over Kandahar? Because they’re covering their ass with one wing.”
The rest of Afghanistan is always riffing about Kandahar. “Down there, girls are for procreation, boys are for recreation.” Stuff like that.
Pre-Taliban, mujahideen strongmen in Kandahar—including the police chief—were not averse to taking boys as brides. In fact, according to a 1996 New York Times article, a homosexually driven feud led to the rise of Bin Laden’s future hosts, the Taliban.
Two mujahideen battled for possession of a prized boy. They rolled out the tanks and shot up the bazaar, killing scores of innocents. By 1994, many of the “holy warriors” who had beat back the Soviets were terrorizing their own people—providing Mullah Omar and a small band of Islamic scholar-avengers with popular support when they defeated the sodomites. Omar put nooses around the necks of the two mujahideen, and the Taliban snowballed.
After taking control of most of the country, the new hardliners jailed some homosexuals, but Kandahar love continued to flourish, reaching far beyond its mecca.
I reckon an Afghani, an anthropologist, or an Afghani anthropologist could contest my surmising, but the surface evidence is strong. Much in Afghanistan is homosexual, repressed and otherwise. All over cautiously and relatively progressive Kabul, women covered in burkas walk beneath billboards featuring muscle-ripped, Speedo-clad European bohunks, advertisements for bodybuilding gyms. Check out all the dandies holding hands, flirting, shod like pointy-toed elves. They kiss their pals on the cheek, a traditional greeting they make louder and wetter than need be. At gender-segregated wedding parties, they dance together frenziedly, thrusting pelvises at their buddies.
And then there was the guard at a Kabul guesthouse who buggered a middle-aged American guy I know in the generator shed for $50. It was during a party, and the American, an uninvited guest, solicited several locals employed by the guesthouse before finding his man.
Not to say homosexuality is socially acceptable here. The Koran is clear in its condemnation, and most Afghanis profess to hate it. So such behavior is surprising in a society so rife with taboos—or maybe to be expected, like shepherds with their sheep. Kandahar love gets just as predatory too, famously so for some of the warlords.
While Afghanistan has gained little toward rule of law, a multitude of old-school mujahideen are refashioning themselves as the most profitable sort for Karzai’s Afghanistan—pro-democracy politicians. Their crimes and improprieties, if not fewer, have become less blatant.
But some old warriors can’t help themselves. A 2004 report on human trafficking by the International Organization for Migration notes a trend of gunmen sexually abusing boys. Although Afghani law prohibits homosexuality and pedophilia, neither crime qualifies for the far more unacceptable charges of adultery or pre-marital sex.
For the incorrigible pederasts, there are wedding singers—fairylike boys, some pre-pubescent, who cover nationalist anthems and local pop songs over tablas and synthesizers. Demand for them at weddings is huge. But wedding singers are scorned on the street and minded closely by their families or managers. Numbering in the hundreds in Kabul alone, they are considered the catamite class.
I entered the life of a popular wedding singer for a couple of days recently, visiting him at home and accompanying him to a gig.
Javed Akhtari is one of Kabul’s most in-demand wedding singers. He comes from a family of wedding singers. His father, his uncles, his brothers have all entertained.
An Afghani translator and I arrived at the Akhtari home to the interest of neighbors, but they did not offer the pleasantries common in Kabul. Javed’s older brother came outside the house to greet us, and the neighbors remained strangely silent.
Years ago, the Akhtaris would have lived in Kabul’s then freewheeling Old Town. It was home to artists and others providing sensory pleasures. About everyone in the Old Town dabbled in something unholy and withheld judgment on others.
But warring mujahideen turned Old Town into a battlefield. Then came the Taliban, and the Akhtaris, like many musicians, fled for Pakistan. They returned three years ago, when Javed began his career, and they landed in a working-stiff neighborhood.
Abdul Latif, Javed’s big brother and synth drummer, led us to a pillow-lined sitting room in the mud-walled compound. We sat on the floor and sipped orange soda beneath a couple framed glamour shots of Javed. Although two of his brothers also sing at weddings, he, being the youngest, is the breadwinner.
Javed, with dark bushy hair and slim, angular features, came in wearing an oversize blue polyester sport jacket for a bathrobe. Not on some gay shit or anything, but the kid is kind of a total babe. He sat in the middle of the floor and his two handlers, Abdul Latif and a man who described himself as the band’s poet, flanked him. They cut off Javed’s replies to questions or corrected the words he got in early on.
Vice: How old are you?
Big Brother: No, you’re 14.
Do you have any hobbies other than singing, like soccer or kite flying?
Big Brother: You play soccer.
Javed said little after that, deferring to his brother or the poet. Javed is in seventh grade, they said. He enjoys immense popularity as a singer. People try to book him every day, but “We turn down offers so as not to put too much pressure on the boy,” the brother said.
Then their father entered the room and boasted that Javed was booked every day during the pre-Ramadan wedding rush.
When asked how much it costs to hire Javed to sing, the boy looked curiously at his brother. He didn’t know himself.
$500 and sometimes triple that in tips, according to the brother, split evenly among the group’s six members. The three then excused themselves to prepare for the wedding. One of the other singing brothers, Najib, who is nearing 20, joined us. He complained of exhaustion from the previous night’s engagement.
“I had a wedding party in Shomali last night,” he said. “I was supposed to stop at 12, but the bodyguard of Commander Amanullah Guzar asked me to keep the party going. I did it because he is my friend. Before the party, I didn’t want to go, but my father said I should because he is my friend.”
Najib departed, and the translator remarked that it was inconceivable for a warlord’s bodyguard to be friends with a wedding singer.
Shegofa Bahar (Bloom of Spring) wedding hall has mirrored columns and colorfully frosted light fixtures. Despite being on the third floor, dust, flies, and the din of traffic poured in through open windows.
The music cranked up at 10 AM. The hall was mostly empty except for young boys interested in Javed and his band. Presumably, the females-only hall upstairs was a similar affair.
I spoke to a 15-year-old named Navid, the oldest of the boys. He said he felt sorry for Javed. “It’s not fair for these young boys to have to sing. They can’t go to school or the bazaar because they’d be tormented. Especially this boy, with his long hair,” he said. Boys like Javed are kept for sexual purposes, Navid explained.
Javed showed little emotion onstage. When the band played an instrumental, he lowered the mic to his sternum and stared straight into space. An hour and a half into the party, dancers began venturing onto the floor. The band broke at 1 PM for lunch. We all sat at a table and ate pilaf, meatballs, lamb, chicken, fruit, and sweet gelatin-dressed pudding. Javed, squeezed between his protectors, ate a small portion and kept quiet.
Then we went to the sidewalk for cigarettes, where a doorman approached the band and reminded them of the favor he’d performed a few weeks back. Big brother expressed gratitude but killed the topic.
During the second set, the doorman told me what he’d been talking about—a gunlord and three goons had showed up at Javed’s last show here, wasted. They tried to enter with their weapons.
“I made them sign a piece of paper promising they wouldn’t cause problems inside the hall,” the doorman said. Then the drunks went fully armed upstairs where Javed was performing. The gunlord, a minor figure in the local crime scene, began sending Javed slips of paper requesting a song. But a rival gunlord was also at the party and doing the same. Meanwhile, dancers also besieged the boy with requests. Javed couldn’t fill them all. Before long, the loaded gunlord was in Javed’s face at the stage, issuing detailed promises of abduction and rape. Abdul Latif alerted the doorman, who called police and intelligence officials. They posted in front of the stage with their own weapons shortly thereafter. The situation was defused, and the doorman considered himself the hero. “Nothing happens inside the wedding hall, but once they’re outside…” he trailed off. Wahid is a cameraman who makes his living filming wedding parties. He said he’d witnessed many similar events. Randy men of power go after the singers, he said. Usually, the advances and the money that comes with them are received. “This is their profession. They are used by men,” Wahid said. Wahid told me that the Akhtaris have their own personal patron of sorts. His name is Wahab, and he’s the bodyguard of a government minister. Years ago he kept company with Javed’s brother Wakil, who is now past 20. Then Wahab took Javed. Wahid said he’d witnessed Wahab’s affection for the brothers, which is utterly unhidden. “This rich man, he loves the beautiful boys,” Wahid said. “He has too much money and too many boys.” PORTER BARRON