In the settled oasis region of Central Asia (Turkestan), entertainers known as bacchá (a Turkic term, probably etymologically derived from the Persian bacche بچه - "child, kid") were once common, and constituted the commercial(prostitution) and transgender side of the local pederastic tradition known as bacchabozlik.
A bacchá, typically an adolescent of twelve to sixteen, was a performer practiced in erotic songs and suggestive dancing. He wore resplendent attire and makeup, has been considered by some as cross-dressing or actual transgender expression, but contested by others such as historian and anthropologist Anthony Shay as being more akin to situational homosexuality. The bacchá was appreciated esthetically for his androgynous beauty, but was also available as a sex worker. The boys were drawn from the ranks of the underclasses, as the profession was as much despised as it was admired. In some South-West Asian provinces they were often Armenian Christians and Jews, while in Central Asia and Afghanistan they were both Muslims and Jews.
The bacchás were trained from childhood and carried on their trade until their beard began to grow. Once they matured out of the trade, some were set up by their patrons in business as merchants, but most boys were left to their own, often meager, resources.
Though after the Russian conquest the ethnic tradition was suppressed for a time by tsarist authorities, early Russian explorers were able to document the practice. It was resurgent in the early years of the twentieth century as the boys were increasingly sought as entertainers by the new Russian (Orthodox) settlers, a practice criticized in the Central-Asian Russian press of the time.
The bacchá tradition waned in the big cities after World War I, forced out for reasons that historian Anthony Shay describes as: "the Victorian era prudery and severe disapproval of colonial powers such as the Russians, British, and French, and the post colonial elites who had absorbed those Western colonial values."
The practice of keeping dance boys still persists in northern Afghanistan, where many men keep them as status symbols. Some of the individuals involved report being forced into sex, while others report strong emotional and physical bonds formed over the course of relationships lasting many years, often into the boys' adulthood. At times the relationships interfere with the man's marriage. Occasionally the boy will marry his lover's daughter when he comes of age. The authorities are attempting to crack down on the practice as "un-Islamic and immoral acts" but many doubt it would be effective since many of the men are powerful and well-armed former commanders.
A number of western travellers through Central Asia have reported on the phenomenon of the bacchá. Visiting Turkestan in 1872-3, Eugene Schuyler observed that, "here boys and youths specially trained take the place of the dancing-girls of other countries. The moral tone of the society of Central Asia is scarcely improved by the change". His opinion was that the dances "were by no means indecent, though they were often very lascivious". At this date there were already signs of official disapproval of the practice "These batchas, or dancing-boys, are a recognised institution throughout the whole of the settled portions of Central Asia, though they are most in vogue in Bokhara and the neighbouring Samarkand. In the khanate of Khokand public dances have for some years been forbidden - the formerly licentious Khan having of late put on a semblance of morality and severity....In Tashkent batchas flourished until 1872, when a severe epidemic of cholera influenced the Mullahs to declare that dancing was against the precepts of the Koran, and at the request of the leaders of the native population, the Russian authorities forbade public dances during that summer." Schuyler remarked that the ban had barely lasted a year, so enthusiastic were the Sarts for a bazem (dance). He further describes the respect and affection the dancers often received:
"These batchas are as much respected as the greatest singers and artistes are with us. Every movement they make is followed and applauded, and I have never seen such breathless interest as they excite, for the whole crowd seems to devour them with their eyes, while their hands beat time to every step. If a batcha condescends to offer a man a bowl of tea, the recipient rises to take it with a profound obeisance, and returns the empty bowl in the same way, addressing him only as ' Taxir ', 'your Majesty', or ' Kulluk ' 'I am your slave'. Even when a batcha passes through the bazaar all who know him rise to salute him with hands upon their hearts, and the exclamation of ' Kulluk!' and should he deign to stop and rest in any shop, it is thought a great honour."
He also reports that a rich patron would often help establish a favorite dancer in business after he had grown too old to carry on his profession.
Cushions and rugs were fetched, on which we gratefully reclined, great carpets were spread over the court, the natives puffed at their narghiles, politely offering them to us, and the famous Khivan bachehs made their entrance. Backstage, an orchestra mainly composed of twin flutes, kettle drums, and half a dozen man-sized silver trumpets took up its stand. Opposite us a door left slightly ajar led to the harem quarters. We caught a glimpse of flashing eyes as the inmates thronged to the door to have a good look at us and watch the performance.
The orchestra started up with a curious, plaintive melody, the rhythm being taken up and stressed by the kettle drums, and four bachehs took up their positions on the carpet.
The bachehs are young men specially trained to perform a particular set of dances. Barefoot, and dressed like women in long, brightly-coloured silk smocks reaching below their knees and narrow trousers fastened tightly round their ankles, their arms and hands sparkle with rings and bracelets. They wear their hair long, reaching below the shoulders, though the front part of the head is clean shaven. The nails of the hands and feet are painted red, the eyebrows are jet black and meet over the bridge of the nose. The dances consist of sensuous contortions of the body and a rhythmical pacing to and fro, with the hands and arms raised in a trembling movement. As the ballet proceeded the number of dancers increased, the circle grew in size, the music waxed shriller and shriller and the eyes of the native onlookers shone with admiration, while the bachehs intoned a piercing melody in time with the ever-growing tempo of the music. The Heir explained that they were chanting of love and the beauty of women. Swifter and swifter moved the dancers till they finally sank to the floor, seemingly exhausted and enchanted by love. They were followed by others, but the general theme was usually the same.
- "Afghan boy dancers sexually abused by former warlords", Reuters, 2007-11-18. Retrieved on 2007-11-24.
- Eugene Schuyler, Turkistan: Notes of a Journey in Russian Turkistan, Khokand, Bukhara and Kuldja, (London: Sampson, Low, Marston, Searle & Rivington) 1876 Vol.I pp132-3
- Count K. K. Pahlen, MISSION TO TURKESTAN, Translation by Mr. N. Couriss, 1908-1909
Sources and references
- The Dance Traditions in Uzbekistan
- An American in Turkestan. Notes of a Journey in 1873 in the Russian Province of Turkistan, the Khanates of Rhokan and Bokhara, and Provinces of Kuldja; Chapter 10: The Batchas of Central Asia
- Anthony Shay, The Male Dancer in the Middle East and Central Asia
- Reuters - Afghan boy dancers sexually abused by former warlords