KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — In his 29 years, Mohammed Daud has seen the faces of perhaps 200 women. A few dozen were family members. The rest were glimpses stolen when he should not have been looking and the women were caught without their face-shrouding burkas.
"How can you fall in love with a girl if you can't see her face?" he asks.
Daud is unmarried and has sex only with men and boys. But he does not consider himself homosexual, at least not in the Western sense.
"I like boys, but I like girls better," he says. "It's just that we can't see the women to see if they are beautiful. But we can see the boys, and so we can tell which of them is beautiful."
Daud, a motorbike repairman who asked that only his two first names and not his family name be used, has a youthful face, a jaunty black mustache and a post-Taliban cleanshaven chin. As he talks, his knee bounces up and down, an involuntary sign of his embarrassment.
"These are hard questions you are asking," he says. "We don't usually talk about such things."
Though rarely acknowledged, the prevalence of sex between Afghan men is an open secret, one most observant visitors quickly surmise. Ironically, it is especially true here in Kandahar, which was the heartland of the puritanical Taliban movement.
It might seem odd to a Westerner that such a sexually repressive society is marked by heightened homosexual activity. But Justin Richardson, a professor of psychiatry at Columbia University, says such thinking is backward--it is precisely the extreme restrictions on sexual relations with women that lead to greater prevalence of the behavior.
"In some Muslim societies where the prohibition against premarital heterosexual intercourse is extremely high--higher than that against sex between men--you will find men having sex with other males not because they find them most attractive of all but because they find them most attractive of the limited options available to them," Richardson says.
In other words, sex between men can be seen as the flip side of the segregation of women. And perhaps because the ethnic Pushtuns who dominate Kandahar are the most religiously conservative of Afghanistan's major ethnic groups, they have, by most accounts, a higher incidence of homosexual relations.
Visitors might think they see the signs. For one thing, Afghan men tend to be more intimate with other men in public than is common in the West. They will kiss, hold hands and drape their arms around each other while drinking tea or talking.
Moreover, there is a strong streak of dandyism among Pushtun males. Many line their eyes with kohl, stain their fingernails with henna or walk about town in clumsy, high-heeled sandals.
The love by men for younger, beautiful males, who are called halekon, is even enshrined in Pushtun literature. A popular poem by Syed Abdul Khaliq Agha, who died last year, notes Kandahar's special reputation.
"Kandahar has beautiful halekon," the poem goes. "They have black eyes and white cheeks."
But a visitor who comments on such things is likely to be told they are not signs of homosexuality. Hugging doesn't mean sex, locals insist. Men who use kohl and henna are simply "uneducated."
Regardless, when asked directly, few deny that a significant percentage of men in this region have sex with men and boys. Just ask Mullah Mohammed Ibrahim, a local cleric.
"Ninety percent of men have the desire to commit this sin," the mullah says. "But most are right with God and exercise control. Only 20 to 50% of those who want to do this actually do it."
Following the mullah's math, this suggests that between 18% and 45% of men here engage in homosexual sex--significantly higher than the 3% to 7% of American men who, according to studies, identify themselves as homosexual.
That is a large number to defy the strict version of Islam practiced in these parts, which denounces sex between men as taboo. Muslims seeking council from religious elders on the topic will find them unsympathetic.
"Every person has a devil inside him," says Ibrahim. "If a person commits this sin, it is the work of the devil."
The Koran mandates "hard punishment" for offenders, the mullah explains. By tradition there are three penalties: being burned at the stake, pushed over the edge of a cliff or crushed by a toppled wall.
During its reign in Kandahar, the Taliban implemented the latter. In February 1998, it used a tank to push a brick wall on top of three men, two accused of sodomy and the third of homosexual rape. The first two died; the third spent a week in the hospital and, under the assumption that God had spared him, was sent to prison. He served six months and fled to Pakistan.
Apparently to discourage post-Taliban visitors, the owners of a nearby house have begun rebuilding on the site.
"A lot of foreigners came and started interviewing people," says Abdul Baser, a 24-year-old neighbor, who points out the trench where the men were crushed. "Since then they have rebuilt the wall."