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At the wheel is Mohammad Zia, the right-hand man to Matiullah Khan, the province's all-powerful police chief. But MK is back in Tarin Kowt, we're in staggeringly beautiful country and Mohammad smiles, as he indulges his fondness for the fabled Afghan crooner Ahmad Zahir — it's a lament on the danger that lurks in a woman's arched eyebrow.
Ambiguous message Credit: Kate Geraghty. It's appropriate enough. That evening we will be guests of Haji Qawee, the local police chief at Shahidi Hassas, the district centre of Char China in the far west of Oruzgan. To honour our presence he is throwing a bizarre Afghan version of the policeman's ball. Everyone is invited.
About 50 of Qawee's men squeeze into a small smoke-filled, mud-walled structure, watching wide-eyed as three kohl-eyed young men twirl like windmills in their sequins and robes. Swirling endlessly and effeminately to shrieking music from a band in the corner — a wild-eyed drummer and his mate, singing off-key as he rips at a homemade string instrument. As the action starts, one of the dancers drops a long, lingering kiss on the back of the police chief's wrist and throughout the show the same performer plonks to his haunches with his rear-end just centimetres from the police chief's smiling face.
The dancing in the police compound is reminiscent of the bacha bazi or "boy-play" culture, in which boys become an owned-object for Afghan militia commanders and other prominent types, who make them dance at all-male parties and often abuse them sexually. They dress them in fine clothes and parade them, and get them to dance competitively to establish who has the "best boy".
Our university-educated translator explains that what we are watching is the dance form of the bacha bazi culture. But he insists that in this context it has been separated out as a "harmless entertainment" and is not necessarily suggestive of the coercive sexual abuse and denigration of bacha bazi — a custom far removed from the notion of sex between consenting adults.