Young men wander hand in hand, giggle together, sit on each other’s laps. At weddings and parties they dance together sensuously, usually without any woman around. In many places, such overt displays of physical bonding between the same sex would be immediately designated homosexual. Whether viewed with liberal acceptance or castigated with opprobrium, such behaviour would first be categorised. Yet in the scene sketched here, most of the young men are intensely interested in girls, not boys.
In today’s Kabul, whether due to the unforgiving taboos on overt displays of heterosexual behaviour, or having grown up under a Taliban regime which managed to make women disappear from sight, intense displays of physical affection between men are the norm, even more so than in other Southasian cities and towns. Despite the extreme sexual repression that continues to exist in Afghanistan, this ‘permission’ to exhibit physical tenderness towards the same sex simultaneously challenges the stereotypes of homosexual, heterosexual and even bisexual identities, which often form the core of gender politics elsewhere.
Though there has been considerable documentation of the denial of women’s rights in Afghanistan, as well as some cursory examination of issues of gay identity, the behavioural norm that blurs the distinction between sexual and platonic relationships remains almost completely unexplored. This continues despite there being a long history of such relationships in the official records and cultural traditions of the region. Take, for example, two widely known works of literature, the Baburnama (Book of Babur) and the works of the 13th-century poet Rumi. The former was written by an emperor who came from Uzbekistan to make Hindustan his home, but all his life longed for Kabul because of its resemblance to his childhood home. The latter, though born in Balkh in northern Afghanistan, ultimately left the region for Turkey.
In today’s Kabul, whether due to the unforgiving taboos on overt displays of heterosexual behaviour, or having grown up under a Taliban regime which managed to make women disappear from sight, intense displays of physical affection between men are the norm.
Zahiruddin Muhammed Babur, who lived between 1483 and 1530, was the founder of the Mughal dynasty in the Subcontinent. In his astonishingly frank autobiography, the Baburnama, he provides an extensive record of his longing for a young boy. Unfortunately, this infatuation also coincided with his marriage. Though wed at the age of 17, to one Ayisheh Sultan Begum, he soon loses both his interest in and fondness for his wife. “Once every month or forty days,” the emperor recalls, “my mother, the khanim, drove me to [Ayisheh] with all the severity of a quartermaster.”
Readers are never told exactly what the results were of these disciplinarian efforts. And of course, as is the norm with the history of kings, we know even less of Ayisheh’s feelings. What we do know, however, is Babur’s real interest. “During this time there was a boy from the camp market named Baburi,” he writes.
“Even his name was amazingly appropriate. I developed a strange inclination for him – rather I made myself miserable over him…Before this experience I had never felt a desire for anyone, nor did I listen to talk of love and affection or speak of such things. At that time I used to compose single lines and couplets in Persian. I composed the following lines there:
‘May no one be so distraught and devastated by love as I;
May no beloved be so pitiless and careless as you.’
Occasionally Baburi came to me, but I was so bashful that I could not look him in the face, much less converse with him. In my excitement and agitation I could not thank him for coming, much less complain of his leaving. Who could bear to demand the ceremonies of fealty?”
Another time, coming suddenly across the subject of his affections, Babur recalls being so embarrassed that he nearly went to pieces.
“In the throes of love, in the foment of youth and madness, I wandered bareheaded and barefoot around the lanes and streets and through gardens and orchard, paying no attention to acquaintances and strangers, oblivious to self and others.
When I fell in love I became mad and crazed. I knew not this to be part of loving beauties. Sometimes I went out alone like a madman to the hills and wilderness, sometimes I roamed through the orchards and lanes of town, neither walking nor sitting within my own volition, restless in going and staying.
I have no strength to go, no power to stay. You have snared us in this state, my heart.”
What appears to have been a passing infatuation ends here, however, and little more is heard of Babur’s love and longing. Much of the rest of the Baburnama is instead devoted to more ‘manly’ pursuits, particularly Babur’s extensive military expeditions.
Inside the unsayable
Preceding Babur by three centuries was Jelaluddin Balkhi, commonly known as Rumi, the mystic Sufi poet. Unlike Babur, love was not a passing infatuation for Rumi, but rather formed the core of both his life and work. Born in 1207, Rumi married young and had a family. But it was not until 1244 that he came across what was to be his strongest and most abiding relationship – with the wandering dervish, Shams of Tabrizi.
Writing of this friendship, the translator and Rumi scholar Coleman Barks says:
“We cannot say much about love at first sight. It happens and we live in the wake of a new life. Dante and Beatrice. Rumi and Shams. Part of the love mystery explored in Rumi’s poetry is how presences flow together, evolve, and create in tandem.”
Describing his own intense relationship with Rumi’s poems, Barks continues: “I loved the unpredictable spontaneity, the push-pull of great tenderness and great loneliness, of living beyond psychology, of drifting at ease inside the unsayable.”
Much is now made of Rumi’s role in bridging cultures. As a Sufi poet whose verse transcended the narrow boundaries of not just one religion but also the more narrow interpretation of man’s relationship with god, Rumi is now held up as an example of the religious tolerance that once existed. His poetry is often quoted and used to buttress the more liberal interpretations of religion and tolerance, especially since he came from a region that has recently seen a great deal of intolerance.
But even today, little is said of Rumi’s role in blurring the boundaries of love. Soon after they met, Shams and Rumi became inseparable. “Their friendship is one of the mysteries,” Barks writes. “They spent months together without any human needs, transported into a region of pure conversation. This ecstatic connection caused difficulties in the religious community.” As a teacher of religion, after all, Rumi would have been expected to have been beyond ‘worldly’ longings, while his students are also said to have felt neglected by this obsession with Shams. Shams eventually disappeared, only to be brought back at Rumi’s urging. “Shams stayed in Rumi’s home and was married to a young girl who had been brought up in the family. Again the long mystical conversation (sohbet) began and again the jealousies grew.” Shams disappeared again, this time probably murdered by Rumi’s own family.
What enables young men in Afghanistan today to hold hands as they walk together is a lack of awareness that such behaviour can nowadays be categorised as ‘gay’.
In despair Rumi travelled to Damascus, realising only then: “Why should I seek? I am the same as he. His essence speaks through me. I have been looking for myself.” Yet even so, Rumi needed his muse. Barks states, somewhat obliquely, “After Shams’ death and Rumi’s emotional ‘merging’ with him another companion was found. Saladin Zarkub.” And, after Zarkub, there was another, Husam Chelebi – all of them male. It was to Shams, however, that Rumi addressed his most intense poems, included in a masterwork collectively referred to as “The Shams”. “There’s no more wine; my bowl is broken,” Rumi laments, “I am terribly sick, and only Shams can cure me.
Do you know Shams, the prince of seeing,
who lifts the utterly drowned up out of the ocean
and revives them, so that the shore looks like
multiple marriages are going on at once,
easy laughing here, a formal toast,
a procession without music.
Shams is a trumpet note of light
that starts the atoms spinning,
a wind that comes at dawn
tasting of bread and salt.
Contemporary history does not say whether the love of Rumi for Shams, or of Babur for Baburi, ever had a physical element. If this were so, these couples would perhaps be called homosexual. But what if it were not so? In the narrow categorisations of homosexual, heterosexual and bisexual, where would these friendships fit in – traversing the space between sexual and platonic, between friendship and love? Babur and Shams may well have also been homosexual. Or, like the boys of Kabul today, it might be just that they were uninhibited and intensely attached to others of the same sex.
What enables young men in Afghanistan today to hold hands as they walk together is a lack of awareness that such behaviour can nowadays be categorised as ‘gay’. Caught in something of a time warp, isolated by three decades of fighting, Afghanistan, paradoxically, provides some spaces and freedoms that are a direct result of its years of social seclusion. Now on the path of assimilation into the ‘global community’, perhaps it will not be long before Afghan youth, like others in the region, become aware of ‘modern’ behavioural codes, and the displays of physical affection that are now the norm will quickly be labelled as ‘deviant’.
Aunohita Mojumdar is Associate Editor of this magazine, and worked in Afghanistan for eight years.