A news report from The Scotsman claims that British marines in rural Afghanistan are regularly propositioned by "swarms of gay local farmers". One marine was quoted, "They were more terrifying than the al-Qaeda. One bloke who had painted toenails was offering to paint ours. They go about hand in hand, mincing around the village." The marines were also startled by attempted kisses and invitations to dance. `"It was hell," said Corporal Paul Richard, 20. "Every village we went into we got a group of men wearing make-up coming up, stroking our hair and cheeks and making kissing noises."' (Via New World Disorder.)
Am I the only one who finds this interpretation implausible? I know that men in many Middle Eastern cultures kiss, hold hands and caress one another without overt sexual connotations. I have seen photos of Afghan men (Taliban soldiers, in fact), wearing traditional kohl or eyeliner without any implication of cross-dressing. I'm doubtful that same-sex dancing or even (gasp) toenail polish necessarily proves homosexuality in an Afghan context. Were the British marines imposing their own sexual stereotypes on the scene? Were their Afghan Army interpreters pulling their legs? I'd have to hear more to believe this story.
It also puts an interesting light on a claim Jeffrey Goldberg published in the New Yorker last year, and repeated in a Fresh Air interview. He says that when he visited a radical Muslim madrasa in Pakistan in 2000, the young male students repeatedly propositioned him and his photographer (also male) for sex. He ascribes this to the prison-like atmosphere ("when you take 2800 young men and keep them entirely away from women...") and the students' exaggerated ideas of American licentiousness ("they expected that in the anything-goes American climate, I'd be ready to have sex [with them]"). But was he, too, misinterpreting signals from his interviewees?
Maybe only the students and the farmers know for sure. A Google search for gay Afghanistan turns up an astonishing 85,000 hits. Among them is this thoughtful piece about an "indigenous and hidden homosexual tradition" in Afghanistan. But nothing in the piece seems to correspond to a rural gay scene with cross-dressing and discos, as evoked by the Scotsman.