Public Displays of Affection in Kabul
The cultural conditioning around intimacy especially in the West has predominantly resulted in an anxiety that sexualises touch. Teachers, for example, are discouraged from showing physical touch sometimes for fear of being accused of child molestation. Male friends who share proximity with each other may be misconstrued as homosexuals, especially south Asians who have no qualms in holding hands with each other. Females, on the other hand, seem to suffer less criticisms of this nature. Yet, the construction of gender identities extends beyond ‘male’ and ‘female’ binaries, even though I do acknowledge that these biological terms are open to debate, especially if we interpret it through the lens of Foucault which identifies the body as the locus of social control [see link].
Leaving these theoretical discourses aside, I have to admit that I was taken aback when Nuradin suddenly lifted me off the ground at Lake Qargha, Kabul, during our CPAU NGO social event and sat me on his right forearm. I felt like a child, shocked at first, but exhilarated after I had calmed my nerves at how high I was ‘floating’.
It was only at one point when Masha flung me across his shoulders as he stood at the edge of the balcony that brought my resistance to the fore. But, of course, he was careful enough in handling me safely.
This carrying, lifting, and even cradling is a phenomenon that exists in other geographical spaces too. The uncle at the hammam that I frequent turned and tossed me like a rag doll one day, stretching me to ease me of my backaches.
Today, Kanishka literally cradled me like a baby on the football pitch.
There is no shame in that. Nor embarrassment.
Presently, I have no intentions of theorising the possible constructions of power or masculinities of strong Afghan men, but I am immensely grateful for these moments of joy framed around intense boyish camaraderie. I don’t know how these spontaneous moments occur, but it could be because I am much shorter, and have therefore become an object of their affection.
It could be because I am willing to suspend my anxieties and reciprocate without resistance, that I could go with the flow of Afghan playfulness. It could be because physical touch, the most basic language of love which has been denied and frowned upon by our Western cultures, actualizes me as a person. As a human being with emotional needs.
To some extent, I recount and locate these experiences as a deeper yearning within my spirit to combat the conditions of a homophobic and materialistic Singapore society. The High Court in Singapore had just dismissed a legal challenge by a gay couple, reasserting 377A of the Penal Code to criminalise gay sex in its attempt to uphold “a particular long-held social norm” [see link]. What are Singaporeans afraid of? Public displays of affection? Or that the institution of marriage be undermined? Should social norms be the ultimate gatekeepers on matters of equality and justice?
While the Afghan contexts are very different and should not be confused with 377A, I hope that in some small way I am dramatising the ultraconservatism in Singapore when it comes to male intimacy. I still cannot get over the fact that some six years ago when my primary school relative had done well for his exams and I wanted to hug him to congratulate him, he resisted and said, “Eee! I don’t want to be gay.”
Where does that come from?
It is ironic because as a Asian country, Singapore has lost its southeast Asian roots which, in my naivety, boasted of communal living, sharing and, yes, even touching. While I’ve not lived in a kampong in my childhood years, I can imagine makciks breastfeeding without shame, pakciks washing their children in a nearby tap, or children swimming buck naked in a river. By contrast, I have seen Afghan fathers washing their children in public hammams, carefully scrubbing their heads or behind their ears, close friends splashing water at each other, soaping and massaging each other in very tender ways.
Yes. I am romanticising kampong days. But I don’t think I am making terribly unsubstantiated claims.
My Afghan colleagues and I have not been paid for the last 2 months, yet it has not reduced the quality of life (yes, we still play football), the quality of living (yes, some of us dress impeccably well for work), and the quality of friendships (and yes, the smiles that permeate the Afghan social fabric known for its hugs, kisses, handshakes, and, now, cradles).
Beeya Ke Berim Ba Mazar
If such public displays of affection were exhibited in Singapore, I would have been put to shame immediately – by stares, by calling of names, by warning letters from the police, or being jailed, and sacked from work. Or worse, being thrown out of the home for being a disgrace. Now, how can our society steer away from categorical, stereotypical claims about sexual identities and start to obstinately acknowledge the universal language of love without discrimination, admonition or punishment? It is tragic. Perhaps in our Singaporean pursuits of an imagined modernity, we have lost our souls and our human connectedness. (Read previous blogs of Afghan notions of  chivalry,  selflessness, and  kindness here.)
I am not making an argument against 377A per se; I am merely making a stand against (pre-ordained) moral judgement. More intimately, I am making a stand for kinship and solidarity: deep friendships and relationships that do not fit the mould of Singapore’s “long-held social norm”.
Here in Afghanistan, everyone is part of an extended family, imagined or real. Yama, like some other Afghan friends, have come to introduce me as such: “This is Edmund Chow, my brother. From another mother.”