Postgraduate Summer Research Showcase (PSRS) Image Awards: Can the Drama in Afghanistan Win?

Instead of speaking about my research (where I was the finalist at the 3 Minute Thesis or 3MT Competition recently), my impact engagement has now moved from auditory to visual, from speech to photography. It is a real honour to have my photograph go through the various rounds of judging at the University of Manchester’s Postgraduate Summer Research Showcase (PSRS). From the official website for the Image Awards, it states:

The theme of the Image awards will be “Research in Action”. You are free to interpret this theme as broadly as you like. However, you must show how your photo represents your research and its impact, or potential impact, whether that is at the individual, local, national or international level. All images should be accompanied by a title (no more than 50 words) and a caption (no more than 150 words) both of which should clearly explain your image.


This is the photograph that I submitted, which now stands alongside other winning entries.

Performing an Improvised Drama in a Public Park in Afghanistan (by Edmund Chow)

Performing an Improvised Drama in a Public Park in Afghanistan (by Edmund Chow)


Performing an Improvised Drama in an Public Park in Afghanistan


The growth of the cultural sector in Afghanistan, especially theatre, is still stunted due to decades of war and years of Taliban repression. While non-governmental organisations had external aid to fund smaller theatre productions such as circus arts and puppet theatres, many local actors are still struggling to make their voices heard in a climate where public entertainment is frowned upon. In fact, in December 2014, a bomb blast went off in the audience during a theatre performance, a shocking indication that theatre is still taboo. Radio dramas, however, are more commonly accepted in Afghanistan. But will taking drama out into public spaces encourage a different form of education and entertainment? This picture shows two actors improvising a scene in a park in Kabul which attracted a huge enthusiastic crowd. Their applauding this performance, including police officers taking videos of the show, might indicate a new trend for further research.


PSRS 2015 Image Finalists

PSRS 2015 Image Finalists

I was surprised to find my Afghan friends on campus, so they came along to see the images. They liked it and tweeted it.

Afghan Friends Endorsing Image

Afghan Friends Endorsing Image

Some Hints on the History of Bacha Bazi (1865-1913)

Bacha bazi is a controversial boy-dance in Afghanistan. So are its representations and reactions. Samarkand_A_group_of_musicians_playing_for_a_bacha_dancing_boy (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.

Russia/ Turkestan

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. Screen Shot 2015-05-29 at 19.50.48

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).

Screen Shot 2015-05-29 at 19.56.05 (Source: Link) Screen Shot 2015-05-29 at 20.13.40 (Source: Link)

Screen Shot 2015-05-29 at 20.15.50 (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)

Turkish_-_Dancing_Kocek_-_Late_19th_c_-_wiki (source: link)

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.

Kandahar Theatrical Group (c.1878-1880)

An historian friend of mine sent me this archived photograph from the World Digital Library of a theatre group in Kandahar, dating as far back as 1878-1880 during the Second Anglo-Afghan War. I received this with so much thrill and excitement. This is probably one of the rarest photographs existing today about older Afghan theatrical forms, as well as its location.

Screen Shot 2015-05-29 at 19.24.09

Attributed to Sir Benjamin Simpson, this photograph has the following description on the website (see link):

This photograph of a theatrical group is from an album of rare historical photographs depicting people and places associated with the Second Anglo-Afghan War. The members of the group are dressed up indifferent comic costumes. A man on the far left side of the portrait is pantomiming a mother holding a rather unhealthy looking “child.” Other soldiers are dressed as Afghan tribesmen, Sikhs, beggars, jesters,and a vendor of “Camel hot pies.” The Second Anglo-Afghan War began in November 1878 when Great Britain, fearful of what it saw as growing Russian influence in Afghanistan, invaded the country from British India. The first phase of the war ended in May 1879 with the Treaty of Gandamak, which permitted the Afghans to maintain internal sovereignty but forced them to cede control over their foreign policy to the British. Fighting resumed in September 1879, after an anti-British uprising in Kabul, and finally concluded in September 1880 with the decisive Battle of Kandahar. The album includes portraits of British and Afghan leaders and military personnel, portraits of ordinary Afghan people, and depictions of British military camps and activities, structures, landscapes, and cities and towns. The sites shown are all located within the borders of present-day Afghanistan or Pakistan (a part of British India at the time). About a third of the photographs were taken by John Burke (circa 1843–1900), another third by Sir Benjamin Simpson (see (1831–1923), and the remainder by several other photographers. Some of the photographs are unattributed. The album possibly was compiled by a member of the British Indian government, but this has not been confirmed. How it came to the Library of Congress is not known.

Hands Off Afghanistan: The Soft Power Of Theatre? (3MT Competition)

Titled “HANDS OFF AFGHANISTAN: THE SOFT POWER OF THEATRE?”, my presentation raises the issues around the politics of theatre-making. This was the Three Minute Thesis (3MT) Competition founded by the University of Queensland. Here, my presentation offers a succinct anecdote and summary of my research in a non-technical, jargon-free way.

You can watch the video on the Final of the competition held at the University of Manchester on 23 March 2015 here: Continue reading

Afghan Men Protesting For Women’s Rights: A Step In The Right Direction

Ed Chow:

[This is an article not written by me, but I’ve decided to re-post it here]

Originally posted on SesapZai - Mom. Artist. Academic. And a little bit of everything else.:

The blog was originally published on the Express Tribune Blogs here.

afghan men buraYesterday, March 8th marked the 104th anniversary of International Women’s Day as people all over the world found unique and creative ways to raise awareness about the rights, or lack thereof, of women, calling for gender equality and celebrating the achievements of women worldwide. These were done through social media, local and international events, educational seminars, political functions, etcetera. When it comes to commemorating global events like International Women’s Day, the sky is the limit.

However, the event that stood out the most for me, and even made headlines last week, was that of a group of 20 Afghan men, fully clad in blue shuttlecock burqas, marching down the streets of Kabul, raising awareness and protesting for women’s rights. The demonstration was specifically organised to commemorate International Women’s Day by a group called Afghan Peace…

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Heating and Eating in Afghanistan

Completely irrelevant to performance or education matters, this excerpt taken from Helen Saberi’s “Noshe Djan: Afghan Food and Cookery” (1986/2000), published by Prospect Books in London, has an illustration which I want to capture as part of an ongoing archive of Afghan cultures. Food – and how we sit around the table – I guess, is one of the best ways to learn about the customary practices of any society or community. Learning new vocabulary items will also help too.

Afghan Food Spread

Afghan Food Spread (Source: link)

Continue reading

Performing Molière in Afghanistan in the 1970s

Mohammad Ali Raonaq is the first translator of Molière’s plays from French to Dari. Having had his education in France, Ali Raonaq returned to Afghanistan in the 1950s.

Ali Raonaq (screenshot from film archive)

Ali Raonaq (screenshot from film archive)

From then on, the translated works became popular among the actors of that time. Continue reading