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David Chaffetz

A dancer, in other words, a female impersonator.

Chaffetz, David: "A dancer, in other words, a female impersonator", Tradition and Art 060, p. 25, Athens, I.O.F.A., November – December 2001. From his book: A journey through Afghanistan. A memorial. Chicago, Regnery, 1981.

A dancer, in other words, a female impersonator.

Herat, 1979

The sarai's tenants were all unmarried men, without patrimonial houses in the city. For the most part they were poor and foreign to Herat. Men like the schoolteacher were stationed here by the government, coming from far-off villages of the province. Others were transients, truckdrivers and merchants from Lashkargah and Kandahar to the south. The fact that we were all strangers to the city, or at least isolated in it, gave the sarai the quality of being a world of its own.

Three tenants did not show up to inspect us; we learned of them later. They were a musical troupe, a dutar player, a drummer, and a third member who seemed to play only the castanets. All three were Tajiks from Panjshir, darker by far than Heratis, although they spent all day in their utaq, without any light, behind shuttered windows. There they practiced their doleful music. The castanetist sometimes appeared out on the stoop, blinking in the sunlight, sewing sequins onto cloth, or polishing little brass bells. Everyone in the sarai gave the three a wide berth, and the schoolteacher warned us of them repeatedly; these professional music makers were considered a little better than gypsies (Hamahang, though, was a different class altogether, being a radio singer). I asked Hamid Ullah about the sequins and the bells, and he whispered, "That one is a dancer", in other words, a female impersonator.


The last guests to arrive were the musicians. They had been playing for holiday-makers all over the city. Perspired and exhausted, they slumped down beside the brazier, ignoring the company around them, until they had drained the tea which Hamid proffered them. Even by lamplight the alien character of the musicians was clear, with their dark faces, glistening with sweat, and their dilated eyes. There was antimony on their eyelids, which made their eyes seem wide, rouge on their cheeks, and henna on their hands, to absorb the sweat and cool them. They were bareheaded, like no Afghans, and talked among themselves with rare abandon. Amin came up with their dinners, greeting them with the same graciousness he had observed all day long, "You are our guests now."

After eating, the musicians began to talk to my friend and me, for we were sitting right beside them. For the rest of the mihman khana, the proximity was apt: all the freaks in one part of the room. I had begun to feel the "we-ness" of the assembly, now with the musicians I felt the "them-ness" of it. Had we eaten well for lunch? Yes we had. And they? Where they played for lunch the host was miserly and fed them the usual qurut instead of stew. "Some people are so tight-fisted," said tablazan.

The dutarist left his meal and took the dutar out of its wrap. The sound of his tuning up was like bird calls, echoing in the night. The mihman khana fell silent in expectation. The tablazan looked about the room, sizing up the audience. There were those present with whom he wanted to ingratiate himself. "Hajji Walid Khan! May you live long. Are you well? Are you in harmony? May you not grow tired. Khan Akbar Khan..."

He began a pit-a-pat with his bony fingers on the drums. The dancer, to everyone's extreme interest, was tying the brass bells on his ankles and wrists, while he wore a gauzy, vaguely feminine skirt around his kala. A filet disguised the mannish cut of his hair, and heavy rouge was on his cheeks. The audience grew intense. Such dances were forbidden now, and so had become extremely rare. I should add that no women entertain professionally, unless among the aristocrats of Kabul there survive the fabulous nautch dancers.

He did not look at all womanly, was without even a suggestion of breasts, and had a big, athletic build. Despite his unhealthy habit of hashish, he had a great deal of energy, which he now unleashed. He began to hop, pounding on the floor with his bare feet, jangling the anklets and, with jerky gestures, shaking the bells on his bracelets in time to the rhythm of the dutar and the tabla. Then he spun, billowing his skirt into the air. Smiling coquettishly, showing his yellow teeth, he executed leaps in front of the eminences, Amin and Hajji Walid Khan. His hands floated in heavy, wing-like positions, wrists rattling, but inexpressive. There was nothing arousing about the performance. The constant hammering of his feet and the bells fed the intensity of the audience, though. He perspired copiously.

The tablazan sang his song, eyes rolling in shawq, that fervor which I had observed in his practicing, but now a hundred-fold more acute. He sang and the dancer punctuated his pauses with a great pounding of limbs. Sweat dripped down his face, and the red rags of hair swayed with the tossing head.

The greybeards watched the dancer with riveted attention, inspired at first by prurience, thin-lipped, stroking the ends of their beards. As the pace of the music sped faster, the dancer leapt higher and gyrated violently. The greybeards retreated, instinctively, from the emotional climax, being unwilling to bear with the shawqis any longer. They looked uncomfortable, glancing away, beginning to talk among themselves.

Utterly winded, the dancer slumped to the floor. A chorus of "Wa, wa," covered the sighs of relief that the dance had stopped. A plate went around to collect a present for the performers. Amin had invited them as guests, after all, not hired them. My friend and I had brought no money with us and I shamefacedly handed the plate back to the tablazan.

Chaffetz, David: A journey through Afghanistan. A memorial. Chicago, Regnery, 1981.


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