Travel
9 min

Toppling walls in Kandahar

Life out from under the shadow of the Taliban

IN THE GARDEN. Abdul and I wandered behind the shrines, where the gardens grew tight and walled, and young men picnic with each other in intimate spots under newly planted shade trees. Credit: (Michael Luongo)

The Western presence in Afghanistan is a horribly complex situation. The barriers of language, culture, distance and war compound that complexity. After decades of fundamentalist religious rule and war, how do Afghans really view same-sex sexuality? What is life like for those who need to explore their sexuality outside of the socially acceptable and the legal?

Secrets were everywhere and surprisingly easy to discuss during my several visits to Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005. Besides the ongoing danger of the Taliban, Kandahar has a special reputation among Afghans: it’s an open secret that Kandahar is a den of homosexuality.

I was told to be discreet while I was investigating this aspect of the city, to discuss the subject only after being here a few days.

After all, homosexuals were publicly murdered here only a few years back, along with adulterers and other so-called sinners. Yet Abdul, the Afghan journalist accompanying me in Kandahar, a man who at first I knew little about other than his position as a well-respected local radio personality, was the first to bring it up.

“These are a thing of homosexuality,” he said, instantly snapping me into attention as he pointed at strange red velvet cages hanging in one of the shops in the King’s Bazaar. People stood around and watched, as curious about me as I was about the products in their country. “They are for quails,” he continued. “It is said homosexuals had three things, a quail, a dog and a boy.” I chatted in broken English with the men selling the cages, taking pictures as they sat in their shop. “But today, it does not mean that, and during the Taliban times, you could not find a quail at all.”

Abdul played with the birds in the shop, nonchalantly tossing out his words. I was dumbfounded he’d brought up the subject. Afghan-Americans who helped me plan my journey had warned me to be cautious. Yet this trip, my second to Afghanistan, reaffirmed my observation that Afghans themselves are not afraid of the topic in the way we in the West would think. I had already been surprised by how open the topic was in Kabul, even at mosques.

That is not to say that Abdul himself did not harbour homophobia. Shortly after, he started telling me that people who practice homosexuality are bad, usually those in power who want to harm others. We’d been stopped by the police, mostly because of the commotion I caused as a rarely seen foreigner on the city’s streets. An officer, his gun at his side, his eyes shifting back and forth between myself and Abdul, asked for identification and a quick flash of my passport seemed to satisfy him. Afterward, Abdul explained, “See, he is into homosexual things, that is why he stopped you. He wanted to use his power.” There was nothing that struck me as homosexual about the soldier, though clearly, he was to Abdul. I would learn, though, that he and I had two very different ideas about what marked a man that way.

That evening we went to a wedding, a gloriously festive post-Taliban celebration. We were not invited but since I was foreign there was no problem, and we easily found Abdul’s friend Malik among the guests. Strict sex segregation meant we were only allowed in the men’s side, the women sealed from view. Malik knew this was unusual for Westerners, but he surprised me by saying it was not a “San Francisco wedding where all the men get married to each other.” Who would have known those kisses were seen as far as Kandahar?

Malik was flirty in his demeanor, and very handsome. He also easily saw through me, bluntly asking if I was into “homosex” as it was known here. Abdul laughed, shocked by his friend’s forwardness. I was surprised and intrigued but I turned the question around, even knowing Malik was married.

His response was interesting: “Boys in Afghanistan become into homosex at ages 15, 16, 17. I was living in Pakistan at the time, so I missed my chance.” My almost naughty reply was then, “So, if you lived here, would you be into homosex?”

He only laughed, saying, “It is a natural thing, even in the West, boys would know then that they are homosexual. Here, there is no sex with women, but sex is natural and must happen.”

He was nonjudgmental, and even living in Manhattan, I rarely have such enlightened conversations. He continued to press his question and I explained I was writing for gay publications in the West, and that Kandahar was rumored to have a gay reputation. Malik insisted my interest was more than journalistic, but I left the answer unsaid.

Though Abdul now knew more of why I was here, I still hadn’t come out when we ventured the next morning to the city’s historic centre. Kandahar is a shockingly beautiful city, a place where a love of adornment is paramount. Even the Taliban, as locals will tell you, deserve some credit for this, rebuilding monuments and shrines damaged in the wars before their insane quest to control everything. Some shrines were hundreds of years old, remnants of a time when Kandahar, not Kabul, was the Afghan capital.

Still, they have a touch of Vegas glitz — some are decorated with faceted mirrors glued inside and out. Plastic palm trees with neon fronds are also scattered in the parks that surround them, a strange mix of the sacred and the profane.

As I did in most places, I created a scene. If you want to know what it’s like to be a movie star, I recommend heading to Afghanistan. Throngs gathered to meet me and practice English. Some shouted out the name “Fardeen Khan,” a Bollywood star I supposedly resemble. Once I saw pictures I didn’t agree, but if it provided me with interesting interactions, then so be it. I’m Italian-American, a “Gino” as you Canadians say, but my look can be a multitude of nationalities, a proven advantage around the world, especially considering our current president.

What amazed me all the more besides the beauty of the monuments was that I was allowed inside and permitted to photograph. The holiest contained the Cloak of Mohammed encased in a heavily adorned silver display. It was simply breathtaking, and yet what struck me all the more was how privileged I felt to see beauty few Westerners will ever lay their eyes on, too afraid to venture here, worried of being killed, as I once feared.

As we reemerged into the gardens, the throngs returned. Abdul and I wandered behind the shrines, where the gardens grew tight and walled, and young men picnic with each other in intimate spots under newly planted shade trees. It was here that something struck me. It seemed to me a cruising area, and the men who approached me here behaved very differently from men in other parts of the city.

Men hold hands in Afghanistan, which is not what makes them gay. Still, there clearly were men who in the West might be thought of as such. Some seemed arranged in butch-femme couples too. One pairing I’d already met the night before, when Abdul and I ventured to a mountain top shrine. They came up hand-in-hand now, excited to see me again. They were both attractive, and I asked one about the kohl he wore, called ‘rangia,’ used to protect eyes from light and dust.

They also wore the rhinestone-studded Kandahari hats, which glitter beautifully in the brilliant sunlight. Another man, who spoke fluent English, came up and immediately asked what my favourite fruit was, explaining his was the banana, and invited me to come to his house and partake of one. He simply mentioned this out of the blue. It was just too Freudian.

When I was alone again with Abdul, I explained my thoughts about the men we’d just met. But being straight, he couldn’t catch on, telling me I was wrong. He also explained, “we are at a shrine, homosexuals do not like good things and would never be at a shrine.”

I knew I had some explaining to do. I had come so far, what was the point of stepping around the issue? Abdul certainly didn’t, peppering it into conversations. When we returned to where we were staying, I explained my personal interest in the topic of homosexuality. Abdul was fascinated to meet an openly gay Westerner, something he’d known only from television.

He was curious about what two men can do in bed with each other besides penetration, and the idea of two men kissing. Sex in general, though far from a taboo topic among Afghan men, is still an abstract concept. Most unmarried Afghan men have never been with a woman, or even seen one naked, at least not in person. “When you open your e-mail,” Abdul told me once, “naked women come to you.”

Who would have known spam would be so educational for the hungry-eyed men of the developing world? Cartoons of Mohammed might be a problem, but when it comes to porn, most Muslim men paraphrase my president’s famous “Bring it on.”

I told him about neighbourhoods where men and women were free to express their sexuality. We huddled around my laptop to view photographs from New York’s Gay Pride, Sydney’s Gay Games, and other places he could only dream of visiting.

While he was amazed at the breadth of my collection, it was nothing he’d never seen before, in light of the same-sex marriage coverage on CNN and BBC. With a faraway look in his eyes, he said homosexuality in the West “is more romantic, because no one forces you to love.”

Homosexuality in Kandahar had nothing in common with the images of shiny happy people I was showing him. It wasn’t a pretty thing here, and that had everything to do with the Taliban’s rise to power.

Abdul told me of a notorious warlord named Nadherjan who controlled the toll on a road near Kandahar and often pulled men out of vehicles to rape them. He was killed by the Taliban, supposedly by their leader Mullah Omar himself, officially ending the open practice of male rape. The death was celebrated among ordinary Kandaharians, who associated homosexuality with abusive warlords.

To this day, older soldiers are known for keeping adolescents, though whether that is always for sex is unclear. Still, suppression of anything homosexual became part of the Taliban’s agenda, even if, as a homosocial group, they themselves were well known for sex between men.

I asked Abdul about the walls the Taliban had toppled on men accused of sodomy. They still existed, on the outskirts of the city, not in a plaza in the centre as I had imagined from accounts I’d read. Kandahar’s mayor, whom we met at the wedding, promised that the city’s engineer would give us a tour. We would ask him to take us to the walls.

The engineer had been an actor under the Mujahadeen period, the era just after the collapse of the Soviet Union when they pulled their troops out. Religious wars ensued, and many Afghans fled or took up fighting to survive as the country plunged into civil war. When the Taliban came to power, the engineer could no longer be a warrior/actor. Movies and television were forbidden. He became a city planner.

He took us to ancient sites, like the 40 Steps, a rocky promontory overlooking the city and the green Kandahar Valley. At the top was a religious shrine that even Abdul had never visited. Finally we asked about the walls.

They were in a desolate, dry and dusty zone, scattered along the edge of a canal cut against the long road leading out of town. Nearby, new construction had begun. Low-rise housing projects were to one side, half-built concrete structures were up the road, awaiting their finishing adornments, but what caught my attention most was a giant egg-shaped dome.

Over the shattered remains of the walls toppled on people accused of sodomy, adultery and assorted sins, the Taliban had built an enormous mosque complex for 300,000 worshippers, meant to draw pilgrims from all over the world.

We toured the inside, finding that the dome had been painted 0with images lifted directly from old Afghan postcards. The idea behind the creation of the mosque and its decoration seemed at odds, but the Taliban thought people would visit to admire their work — from the creation of beautiful shrines to the public killing of those they deemed sinners. I could not help but be awed by the structure.

When we returned outside, I wanted to walk around the broken walls, feeling as if I were touring Auschwitz or a Russian Gulag, some place with a sick, dark history. The engineer was curious about my intense interest, and I explained my work for gay magazines.

I don’t remember if I told him directly that I was gay, but since he knew I was 35 and unmarried, he got the picture. He then tried to confuse me saying, “maybe these are the walls, maybe they are not.” He pointed to the new housing in the distance saying, “I think they were over there and we built over them last year.”

It was not so much I think that he was homophobic, but rather he was worried about people making pilgrimages. It was also, quite simply, a period of history that most Kandaharians would rather forget.

Still, I strode among the fields of walls trying to sense the tragedies their silence held. We left, the engineer more reserved, telling me, like everyone else I interviewed on the topic over the years, not to use his name in a homosexual article.

A veiled, blonde, blue-eyed US woman who lived in Kandahar and looked like Jeannie from the 1960s television show, tried to explain to me what she knew of homosexuality here. There is a tradition of male adornment bordering on what we in the West might consider feminine, and a desire to keep pretty things to show to other men as status symbols — whether they are quails in velvet cages or smooth-skinned adolescent boys. Sex? Well that remains unsaid.

Though I had dressed in Afghan style in a useless attempt to fall under the radar, I spent my last day in the bazaar buying the finery the woman mentioned. These included men’s high-heeled shoes, rhinestone hats, and glittery belts. In the evening, I played dress up, tottering around in the shoes as Abdul watched and said he once wore them in his teenage days.

“I can’t believe you don’t see anything gay in this,” I told him, regretting I had forgotten to buy rangia too. It was an interesting bonding experience for both of us, trying to understand the myths Afghans and Americans have of what it means to be homosexual in our respective cultures.