The subject came up casually on a recent morning as I was hiking with two friends in the outskirts of Kabul. The Afghan driver employed by one of my fellow hikers was busy planning his wedding next month.
“You’re going to have dancing boys, aren’t you,” my friend, a jovial non-government worker said to his driver, who had come along for the hike.
The driver nodded, beaming. I asked how much it cost to hire a dancing boy. It depends, he explained, on how young and beautiful they are. He was planning to hire one in the $200 range.
I have long been fascinated by Afghanistan’s dancing boys, or bacha bazi. But reporting a story on them seemed unrealistic for a Western journalist. Though the practice of exploiting young boys--either as party entertainment or as sexual partners--is far from a secret in Afghanistan, few Afghans publicly speak about or acknowledge it. I was stunned by how openly my friend’s driver was talking about his eagerness to have cross-dressing, underage boys perform at his wedding.
Perhaps, I thought, I’d manage to find other people willing to shed light on an opaque and disturbing issue.
The first stop was the driver’s brother, who works as a videographer at wedding halls in Kabul. When we spoke, he seemed uncomfortable discussing the issue. Nonetheless, he told me the phenomenon was on the rise, and estimated that one of five weddings he shoots features dancing boys.
My attempts to find dancing boys or their patrons who were willing to be interviewed were unsuccessful in Kabul, the Afghan capital. So I turned to a young Afghan journalist based in the northern city of Mazar e-Sharif for help. (He was vital to the reporting of this story, but asked that his name be left out for fear of reprisals.)
Within days, he had promising news: there were men who kept dancing boys as sexual partners, willing to be interviewed in a rural area we could safely travel to, he said. There was a catch, though. They wanted us to pay for a singer so the meeting could happen during a party in which the young boys would dance.
That raised an obvious ethical issue. The Washington Post could not fund this form of child exploitation in order to report on it. I asked if the men would consider meeting us for tea. A couple days later, it was arranged.
Dehrazi, the village where the crucial interviews for this story took place, is a 30-minute drive from Mazar-e-Sharif. My Afghan colleague seemed a bit nervous when he pulled into the driveway of a mud hut. Assadula, man in a military jacket, greeted us and asked us to come in.
We sat on cushions in a small sitting room with a bare light bulb. Assadula was sitting next to his bacha, who is now 18 years old. As Assadula held court, I was struck by how masculine and assertive he was. He had no qualms about saying he was sexually attracted to boys. He openly said his bacha was getting too old, and would soon be growing a beard. Soon, Assadula said, “I will try to find another one.”
There were two young boys in the room. I asked if either was a dancing boy. One, a smiling, slightly chubby boy wearing scraggly, soiled clothes was not, they said. The other one, a delicate, pale boy dressed in pink, was.
I asked who the fair boy’s patron was. Mirzahan, a young man who until then had sat quietly, stepped forward with pride. The boy was his, he said. I asked what the boy’s parents thought of the arrangement. Mirzahan said it hadn’t been an issue because the boy’s father had died violently years ago. When I asked about the child’s mother, Mirzahan shrugged.
Other men in the room started playing dancing boy videos on their cell phones so I could see what their gatherings were like. There was no apparent shame to what they were showing me. I asked if they felt the practice was exploitative. They said it wasn’t, because boys 10 years and older understood what they were getting into and reaped benefits from the relationship. I asked whether what they were doing went against Islam. They said the mullahs, or religious leaders, condemned it, but that they didn’t see anything morally wrong with it.
After an hour or so, my Afghan colleague said we should probably go. The village was not entirely safe, and he was afraid word might have spread that there was a foreigner in town.
As I got up to leave, Mirzahan and Assadula said they had one question for me.
“Are you Muslim?” one asked. I told them I am not. They asked me to convert then and there.
Baffled, I told them I would think about it, and walked out.
Read Londoño’s story on the dancing boys here.