PEDERASTY ISN’T GREEK TO POST-TALIBAN AFGHANS, 2002
The following article by Paul Varnell was published in The Washington Blade on 8 March 2002. It was one of several that appeared around then in American and British newspapers about the sudden revival of Greek love in Afghanistan following the American invasion of the country in late 2001 and the consequent fall of the fundamentalist Taliban government.
Pederasty isn’t Greek to post-Taliban Afghans
Just as Afghan men look for potential lovers among handsome teenage boys, the ancient Greeks also sought out youths.
AFGHANISTAN AND ADJACENT areas of central Asia have long been associated with homosexuality, particularly pederast relationships -- adult men who seek out teenagers, usually 15-18 -- prompted by the segregation and inaccessibility of women as well as by the strong male bonding that Islamic warrior cultures tend to generate.
Psychologist C. A. Tripp, a colleague of sex researcher Alfred C. Kinsey, once estimated that most Afghan males had some homosexual experience either as youths or adults, often both.
Several Afghan sultans, kings and tribal leaders were known to be pederasts. Many maintained small "harems" of young men, some trained as dancing boys ("batchas"). Traders sometimes took favorite teenage youths called "traveling wives" along on their camel caravans.
Afghan poets wrote about love for young men, usually in elaborate romantic terms, but sometime expressing love and lust in the same poem. The authoritative "Encyclopedia of Homosexuality" cites a poem titled "The Wounded Heart" that goes: "There is a boy across the river with a rectum like peach, but alas I cannot swim."
With public attention recently focused on Afghanistan, the Times of London and the New York Times reported on the renewed visibility of pederastic relationships following the defeat of the Islamic Taliban regime.
The London Times Jan. 12 account was sensationalistic, almost comic in its lurid exaggerations. It described a culture "obsessed with sodomy" where a "naive," "fresh-faced youth," who "falls into the man's clutches," is "groomed for sex" and subject to "a terrible fate" and "marked for life." Once, it said, military commanders even fought over which was to be the lover of a youth.
BUT THE ARTICLE contradicted itself on almost every point. It noted that the older men, usually married, are more like "sugar daddies." The relationships are "completely open, a part of life." There "appears to be no shame or furtiveness about them" and the young lovers are honored more than friends. Poorer men can even raise their social status by attracting a young lover.
Further, the youths (usually 15 or 16 years old) have to be wooed and courted. The men invite them for tea and offer them gifts -- "hashish, or a watch, a ring, or even a motorbike. One of the most valued presents is a fighting pigeon which can be worth up to $400."
The New York Times account on Feb. 21 was less lurid, but had some of the same problems. It referred to "boys" and "pedophilia" but the "boys" were teenagers, some in their late teens. It told the same story about men fighting over a youth, but admitted that young men normally had to be courted with gifts.
For instance, one man interviewed, Muhammad, 29, said he met his lover Ahmed, 19, when he was 22 and Ahmed was 12. He courted him for many month, taking him gifts like chocolate and "lots of money" until they became good friends and Ahmed, by then probably 13, agreed to be his lover.
Ahmed said he has no regrets about the relationship and since the men are now 29 and 19, the relationship hardly seems pederastic at this point, much less "pedophilic."
NONE OF THIS should be shocking or surprising for those familiar with ancient Greece, the foundation, after all, of our own civilization. Just as Afghan men tended to look for potential lovers at the soccer stadium or movie theater, ancient Greeks spent their leisure time at the gymnasium, which served as a social center as well as a school of athletics.
There the men kept an eye open for handsome young men, commonly between 15 and 17. Some Greek vase paintings even show men courting physically mature, well-built young men who look like high school football players.
When a man saw a youth he admired he would try to befriend him, edging aside rivals for his attention, and court him with gifts. The most common present was a young cockerel, perhaps the ancient equivalent of the Afghan fighting pigeon.
And the youths were clearly in control. They could and did reject a suitor and his gifts. Several vase paintings show youths turning away from a man bearing a gift, or pushing away a hand reaching out to touch them.
All of which confirms that there is little new or truly foreign in human relationships.
Comments of general interest will be collected at Letters To The Editor (some editing may be involved)
Edmund Marlowe, 14 January 2022
Truly the modern Afghans and ancient Greeks are cultural kin in important respects. This article ought to be food for thought for the millions fond of using the almost meaningless term "western", especially English-speaking peoples who use it to foster a myth that they belong to an “us” that includes the Greeks, versus a “them”, in which Near Eastern and Central Asian peoples are often seen as the prime opponent. Most startlingly, we see here the Afghans attached (probably without interruption since before Alexander founded their second city) to a socio-cultural practice accorded great importance by the Greeks and reviled more than anything under the sun by the whole anglosphere. That of course has much broader implications concerning beliefs about the social roles of sex and of men and boys. But it is not only that. Behold the Afghan and Greek boys in these images. They look similar, faces, haircuts and (colour aside) dress (which of course has broader cultural implications). Certainly, they look more like each other than most anglo boys.
I only say “almost” meaningless, because I have to concede that belief in the myth of being “western”, despite its inherent self-contradictions, has generated for now a certain pernicious reality we would be better off without.
The "west" is a very woolly term, but can't it usefully refer to societies who have self-consciously aligned themselves with the combined Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian traditions?
Surely it's meaningful to talk about a "western" canon of art and literature. Harold Bloom read every damn word ever written on planet earth, and he certainly found the concept useful.
In the sixties there was, briefly, a genuine and exciting desire to open the "west" up to the "east", particularly in matters spiritual, ie Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism etc. It referred to something meaningful, and one of the great tragedies of our time is that the movement foundered while politics swallowed all.
The Greeks, the Romans, the French, the British, the Americans -- they've all had a shot at being the engine room of the "west", this amorphous rough beast, this "myth". The now-widespread violent hatred of pederasty you rightly attribute to the Anglosphere is a product of the British-American dominance of the "west" and the world over the past two centuries. That puritanical homophobia is, I would say, a very western cultural product. One can trace its origins all the way back to Plato.
Still, perhaps it's impolite to talk of the dead like this.
Edmund Marlowe, 16 January 2022
You make a good point about Plato, but it’s also very revealing. I think it is rather typical of believers in the “west” to have Greek philosophy and, above all, Plato in mind when they lthink of themselves up as cultural heirs of the Greeks. And yet Plato was an oddball in no way representative of ancient Greece, not least because of his peculiar and unhellenic hostility to sex. There was a great deal more to being Greek than the writings of some Athenian philosophers. Shouldn’t we also remember that for several centuries after the fall of Rome, it was Arabic scholars who were preserving and absorbing Greek writings of every description, centuries when the English were totally illiterate apart from the odd priest and (so far as is known) not a single man in England could read Greek?
If only your definition of the “west” as societies combining “Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian traditions” held up in practice, I would have to admit it had validity as a term (while still lamenting its overuse), but it simply doesn’t. To give one stark example, how can Russians be logically excluded from a west thus defined, as they invariably are? Compared with, say, the English, they are much more Greek (their script was a huge gateway to a flood of Greek ideas), much more Roman (they practise Roman law, by far the most important legacy of Rome) and more Christian too.
The real reason the Anglosphere excludes the Russians from their idea of the west is also very revealing: it is purely political and thus has nothing to do with your proposed definition. It has suited the United States and its principal political cronies very well to popularise a term that makes a supposed cultural "us" of their alliance, and a "them" of its opponents. It is therefore a propagandist lie. With the anglosphere responsible, as you say, for the violent hatred of pederasty over the past two centuries, I contend it is also a malign one.
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"There is a boy across the river with a rectum like peach, but alas I cannot swim."
Nice quote -- sums up the work of gay historians and social commentators perfectly.