Devout or deviant?

A reader alerted us to the airing of a PBS Frontline documentary on "The Dancing Boys of Afghanistan". I had the chance to watch it earlier in the week and it is absolutely riveting. You can watch it online and I encourage you to do so if it has already aired in your market.

In "The Dancing Boys of Afghanistan," journalist Najibullah Quraishi investigates what's happening to boys who are bought and trained to entertain at all-men parties hosted by wealthy businessmen. The children are aged 11 to 15 or so. They are dressed as women, given women's jewelry and makeup. They are taught to use effeminate gestures and dance as women. They have no idea what they're being sold into. If they do not comply with the wishes of their owners, they frequently end up dead. After they perform dances dressed as women, they are rented for sex.

Reporting and producing the piece was difficult, and I appreciated the way they explained their decisions. To get powerful Afghan men to speak with them on the record, for instance, they claimed that their documentary was actually about how the practice -- called Bacha bazi -- is done in Europe and Afghanistan. They blurred the faces of some people in the film and not others.

The story revolves around Dagastir, who was a Northern Alliance warlord and is now a powerful businessman. The report describes him as a "devout" Muslim who is married and has two young sons. This is said while we are shown him saying his daily prayers. But there's little else we're told about his piety -- and a lot we're told about his inhumanity. I understand that space is an issue but I think that the report should have explained what was meant by calling him devout. Particularly since this man commits unspeakable crimes.

We follow him as he picks out a new boy to be apprenticed into the bacha bazi lifestyle. He is 11 but he looks like he could be 8. His first lessons are in music, then in dance. Quraishi convinces Dagastir to let the boy visit his parents. On the way there, things sort of start falling apart for Dagastir. This documentary is unbelievably informative, but also unbelievably dramatic. You really have to watch as it navigates murder, intrigue, witness protection and the like.

But there are many ghosts that are left unexplored. Some of them just sit there. For instance, there are a few women showin in the film -- but, with the exception of Radhika Coomaraswamy, a U.N. special representative for Children and Armed Conflict, they are all completely covered. Is there a relationship between the Afghan treatment of women and the treatment of these boys? Undoubtedly.

I also wish there was an explanation of how Islam in general -- and the forms practiced in various regions of Afghanistan -- treats bacha bazi and surrounding issues of sex and power. In fact, the reader who suggested we watch the piece sent us a link to a preview that led me to believe we would get a bit of discussion about religion. It's from a section of Slate called The Sandbox:

According to a recent Frontline report, Pashtun men interpret the Islamic prohibition on homosexuality to mean they cannot "love" another man -- but that doesn't mean they can't use men for sexual gratification. This story shines some light on how Afghan men can justify this practice in their own minds. I have heard the term "selective compliance," but for a supposedly religious man whose faith says homosexuality is a terrible sin to follow this practice is, well -- pretty selective in my book.

But they say "perception is reality" and in this case I guess Afghan men don't perceive themselves as homosexuals, so they aren't. When we would talk to our Afghan Army counterparts about two men snuggled together in a bed, or why the Kandak Commander kept young boys with him all the time, they commonly would say it was okay because they were "deployed away from home." I guess it doesn't matter that for some "home" is only a few hours drive away and they get there at least every two months.

In May, 2009 The Dude, my former ETT teammate and a guest blogger on, wrote a post called "Can You Look at My Wife?", about an Afghan men having a hard time understanding why his wife couldn't get pregnant. After you read that, the following statement from the Frontline story should not be a surprise:

The U.S. army medic also told members of the research unit that she and her colleagues had to explain to a local man how to get his wife pregnant.

The report said: "When it was explained to him what was necessary, he reacted with disgust and asked, 'How could one feel desire to be with a woman, who God has made unclean, when one could be with a man, who is clean? Surely this must be wrong.'"

I watched this show at the onset of a horrific stomach flu so I figured I'd missed either of these things that the Slate blogger says are in the piece. I had hoped to peruse a transcript -- PBS said one would be available by now but it's not. Still, I don't remember any meaningful discussion of the role religion plays in boy play or in confusion about procreation. Stomach flu or not, I do think it's one area that this report could have improved upon.

This is a breathtaking encounter with an alarmingly different culture. This documentary shows us how man is able to subjugate the weak in order to satisfy selfish desires. Both of these things could be improved with a bit more discussion of religion. Still, I hope that this documentary gets all the praise it deserves and is widely viewed and appreciated.

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