Bacha bazi is a controversial boy-dance in Afghanistan. So are its representations and reactions. (Source: “Dance of a bacha (dancing boy), Samarkand, ca 1905 – 1915”, by Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii. From the Library of Congress.)
Khaled Hosseini in The Kite Runner makes references to bacha bazi through Sohrab, the orphan Hazara boy who was abused by Assef, often caricatured as a sociopath. PBS Frontline has a full-length documentary “The Dancing Boys of Afghanistan” condemning its practices. For example, in an interview with Radhika Coomaraswamy (the UN undersecretary general in 2006), she states:
I was really quite horrified by the — at first I had heard about this practice. But I think the fact that these kids were killed, there’s another order of things. It’s not only sexual violence and sexual slavery; it’s also murder. So that shocked me.
Many religious Afghans I spoke to do not want to speak about it, even though they acknowledge that this performance practice exists in their culture. It is taboo.
Washington Post talks about these invisible victims, with their journalist doing an undercover task not funded by the media organisation due to the ethics of exploitation, while BBC takes on the angle of sexual abuse. The Foreign Policy describes this practice as hindering the progress of women’s rights because “women are for children, and boys are for pleasure”. The Diplomat suggests that this outlawed tradition is making a comeback. There are many more websites that describe these as violation of human rights issues, child prostitution, and sexual abuse.
In the meantime, an actor I had interviewed years ago, Khanullah Rasa, was nonchalant about this (You can hear the SoundCloud interview here). He says, “They’re making personal parties. No problem”, and then links this phenomenon to illiteracy within large sections of Afghan society.
Regardless of the controversies associated with this practice, today we can gather some pieces of evidence to suggest that this form was introduced and exported to Afghanistan, possibly from Russia and Turkey.
The title of the photographs below in the original language is Трупа музыкантов. Петрушка (лухтак баз) зачабаз, linking the boy dances to roots in Russia during the late 19th Century. Furthermore, according to the World Digital Library, the references are to Turkestan, which, I believe, refer to the Turkic peoples in Central Asia during that time.
Here’s the description (see link) of “Pastimes of Central Asians. Group of Male Musicians Posing with Several Batchas, or Dancing Boys” from the World Digital Library:
This photograph is from the ethnographical part of Turkestan Album, a comprehensive visual survey of Central Asia undertaken after imperial Russia assumed control of the region in the 1860s. Commissioned by General Konstantin Petrovich von Kaufman (1818–82), the first governor-general of Russian Turkestan, the album is in four parts spanning six volumes: “Archaeological Part” (two volumes); “Ethnographic Part” (two volumes); “Trades Part” (one volume); and “Historical Part” (one volume). The principal compiler was Russian Orientalist Aleksandr L. Kun, who was assisted by Nikolai V. Bogaevskii. The album contains some 1,200 photographs, along with architectural plans, watercolor drawings, and maps. The “Ethnographic Part” includes 491 individual photographs on 163 plates. The photographs show individuals representing the different peoples of the region (Plates 1–33); daily life and rituals (Plates 34–91); and views of villages and cities, street vendors, and commercial activities (Plates 92–163).
(Source: Link) (Source: Link)
According to another blog, The Muslim Issue, the writer claims that these boy dances were initiated by Seyyid Mir Mohammed Alim Khan, the Emir of Bokhara and the last direct descendant of Genghis Khan, who ruled from 1880-1944. He had a harem of young women in one wing, and a harem of boys in another. It was observed by the blog writer that Mir-Alim was overwhelmed by the attack from the Bolsheviks, so he fled to Afghanistan for asylum in 1920.
In A Person From England, Sir Fitzroy Maclean wrote:
Pursued by the Red Calvary, His Highness had taken refuge in the mountains of Eastern Bokhara, dropping favourite dancing boy after favourite dancing boy in his flight, in the hope, it was said, of delaying his pursuers, to whom he rightly or wrongly attributed his own deplorable tastes. (see link)
Furthermore, in the book Homosexual Desire in Revolutionary Russia: The Regulation of Sexual and Gender Dissent by Dan Healey, there are pictures of gender-crossing dancing boys known as bachi, dated around 1913 in the city of Samarkand in present day Uzbekistan.
Whether the term is bachi or batcha, the phonological semblance to the common usage today “bacha bazi” in Afghanistan is apparent. But that’s just one side of the story, at least from this geographical part of the world.Let’s move west to see identical practices in Turkey.
One could also make historical comparisons to köçek, a Turkish boy dressed in feminine clothes entertaining and performing dances during the Ottoman Empire. As written by Prof. Ş. Şehvar BEŞİROĞLU from the ITU Turkish Music State Conservatory, Musicology Department, he makes a distinction between two terms, the Köçeks and the Çengi, both of which also refer to male dancers:
Köçek is defined as professional male dancers in women costumes, men dancing with a set of instruments in the earlier periods, young men dancing in feminine clothes or male dancers resembling çengis, and some sources include an additional explanation that they are non-Moslem or recruited young males. Moreover, the words köçek and çengi are used in the same meaning in some records; Çengi also refers to professional male dancers in women costumes, men dancing with a set of instruments in the earlier periods, young men dancing in feminine clothes or male dancers resembling çengi-s. It is predicted that köçek-s were formed in time for men’s assemblies. According to the relevant records, they were generally selected among the minority groups or non- Moslems during the Ottomans’ period that Köçeks enjoyed their brightest time. They were chosen among handsome, presentable male children, aged 7 – 8, (a Greek from Chios, Gypsy, Greek, Arab, Armenian, and Turkish) and taken to private rehearsal rooms (meşkhane). (see link
, p. 6)
According to this author, this practice was outlawed in 1857 during the reign of Sultan Mahmud with many of the dancers fleeing to Egypt. How these cultural practices migrated across cities and countries (and eventually reaching Persia, or Afghanistan) is still under-researched, but this is definitely an area of investigation.