When it comes to theatre and filmmaking in the West, portrayals of Afghanistan often don’t go beyond women in blue burqas and men carrying AK-47s.
But in 2017, two Americans attempted something unconventional. Lyricist Charlie Sohne and composer Tim Rosser created a musical about a subject even Afghans would consider too sensitive and unsettling – “bacha bazi” or “boy play”.
Bacha bazi is a practice whereby wealthy, powerful older men buy and keep adolescent boys – known as dancing boys – for entertainment and sex. The boys are trained to dance seductively at male-only parties and often sexually abused.
The Boy Who Danced on Air told a love story between a 16-year-old boy, Paiman, and another young boy caught in the same bacha bazi practice.
The musical mostly made a good impression on theatre critics; it was called “courageous, thoughtful and beautiful”. One review, in the New York Times, called the subject matter “troubling” and said Sohne and Rosser had “taken the challenge of difficult source material too far”.
Fast-forward to 2020, after the coronavirus pandemic forced theatres to close, and The Boy Who Danced on Air joined many other productions on online streaming services instead. But, unexpectedly, the move provoked a wave of outrage and criticism from Afghans living around the world, who, learning of the musical for the first time, accused it of romanticising child sexual abuse and child rape.
Madina Wardak, an Afghan clinical social worker based in the US, said she watched 40 minutes of the musical and had to turn it off.
“I felt uncomfortable, misunderstood, frantic and anxious all at the same time,” she said. “I cringed every time the actors tried to be believable and every time the audience had a laugh at the expense of real Afghan pain.”
The show has also faced criticism for promoting bacha bazi as a tradition that is accepted in Afghanistan.
“Bacha bazi is a harmful practice that should not in any way be romanticised,” said the Afghan actress and founder of Mena Arts, Azita Ghanizada. “To have another piece of art focused on Afghanistan completely through the white lens shook up our community.”
As the criticism spread on social media, Troy Iwata, the Japanese-American actor who plays Paiman in the musical, posted an apology on his Instagram account.
“A while ago I did a show where I played someone of Afghan descent, which I am not,” he said. “The show romanticised sexual assault and misconstrued an entire culture and its people. I am so sorry.”
Despite bacha bazi being illegal under Afghan law, authorities are unable to end the practice because many of those involved are influential men. To these men, keeping a “bacha baireesh”, or “boy without beard”, is a sign of power and high social status.
In the 1990s, bacha bazi was outlawed by the Taliban, with sodomy, dancing and music carrying the death penalty – although the militant group have been accused of participating in the practice themselves.
The lack of Afghans or their input in the production of The Boy Who Danced on Air was another reason the musical came under fire.
Ms Ghanizada said: “Had Charlie and Tim centred Afghan voices during the process they would have been more cautious and thoughtful. Perhaps they would have even known that it wasn’t their story to turn into a musical, but alas, Afghanistan was just a tool in their story.
“The writers poured gasoline and lit a match on many of the wounds we are working hard to heal,” added Ms Ghanizada.
The Afghan LGBTQ community in particular has expressed discontent with the orientalist nature of the story and many have said the show harmed sexual assault survivors.
Dr Qais Munhazim, a queer Afghan scholar and Assistant Professor at Thomas Jefferson University said: “The musical is not only an orientalist depiction of Afghans as a whole, but it is also painfully damaging to the queer and trans Afghans. The musical wrongfully associates paedophilia with queerness.
“Since the early days of the US military invasion of Afghanistan, from occupying forces to foreign journalists, travel bloggers and researchers have attempted to associate bacha bazi with Afghan queerness, damaging queer liberation in Afghanistan and in its diasporas.
“The queer and trans Afghans are tired of the white gaze into their lives and experiences. They rather tell their own stories, in their own voices and with their own imaginations for a queer future,” he said.
When the show moved to online streaming, it became accessible to people around the world. And according to Wazina Zondon, a queer sexuality educator, it “triggered discussions of rape and child sexual assault that span across sexual and gender identity”.
“I have heard from many allies, cis, gender queer, trans, heterosexual, LGBQI and non-Afghans who have shared their intimate and real stories with me as a result. For some, the first time ever saying this aloud,” said Ms Zondon, who is the co-creator of a storytelling performance Coming Out Muslim: Radical Acts of Love.
“As a queer Afghan, I understand my experiences raised in the West are different from the realities of those in Afghanistan. However, the narrative this musical is telling dismisses, erases and co-opts the experiences and stories of LGBTQI Afghans.”
Following the outrage over their musical, the makers were quick to issue an apology to the Afghan diaspora, but it was met with more anger from Afghans who demanded the production be cancelled and its proceeds donated to the victims of bacha bazi.
The wider discontent forced the show’s makers and Diversionary Theatre – an LGBTQ company that streamed the musical online – to involve Afghan activists and scholars in a discussion to resolve the issue.
After the consultation with members of the Afghan community, including Ms Azita, Dr Munhazim, Ms Zondon and Ms Wardak, Sohne and Rosser issued a second apology, this time deciding to take down the production along with Youtube videos from the show, ending the sale of the album and removing it from streaming services.
In a joint statement they said their musical “created a world of pain for people in the Afghan community – specifically, LGBT Afghans who are particularly marginalised”.
They apologised to the victims of bacha bazi who were disturbed by the show and the posts promoting it and said the practice was “illegal and brutal and abusive”.
“We also now realise that it was not our place as privileged white writers to tell stories about communities that are already underrepresented and under attack in this country,” their statement read.
Diversionary Theatre, which was streaming the show online until July, has now removed it from its website and apologised for using the word “tradition” to market the production.
The makers have said they will donate proceeds to Afghan charities “to mitigate the harm done as much as possible” and have acknowledged that “no Afghan voices were empowered in the creation of the show”.
The decision has been welcomed by Afghan diasporas, although moving forward Ms Ghanizada believes the creative arts must stop capitalising from Afghan stories.
“Writers specifically have to learn to stop occupying our stories and profiting from our pain, without consulting us, hiring us, centring us,” she said.