Paritosh stops a baby-taxi - one of the
motor-powered three-wheelers ubiquitous in South and South-East Asia -
and negotiates a ride.
Sylhet, Bangladesh, 2004: It's eight o'clock in the evening and Tarique and Paritosh are taking me
out to look at the cruising spots. Until I flew in here this afternoon,
all I knew of this provincial city and the surrounding area was that it was where
most of the Bangladeshis in the UK come from - and since most of the
Bangladeshis in the UK live in my home borough of Tower Hamlets, I feel
a kind of affinity with the place. Whether or not Sylhet feels an
affinity with me is a different matter.
We walk out of the Holy Side Hotel into the evening heat. I've been
living in a tropical climate for half a year now and I am still
disappointed by the fact that I have to wear clothes when I go out.
Despite the fact that most human bodies are better covered than bared,
I'm a firm proponent of minimum clothing (loincloths for both
sexes and a comfortable bra for women) any time the temperature rises
above 20 degrees. Anyhow, I put that thought behind me as we walk
towards the main road and
This story appeared in Gay Travels in the Muslim World, ed Michael T Luongo.
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Or rather fails to negotiate it. The driver has seen the presence of a
white man and insists that Paritosh pay 100 taka (1, $1.80) to take us
the ten-minute ride to the market. Paritosh, annoyed, waves him away and
stops the next baby-taxi. His price is 50 taka, still higher than market
rate, but within reason. The three of us clamber in and head off.
Paritosh works for the Bandhu Social Welfare Society, a national
organisation that provides information on HIV and other issues for men
who have sex with men. He's the last stop on my five-day fact-finding
visit, as part of a commission I've undertaken to see what additional
information we need on sex between men. For four days I've been talking
with various experts about every aspect of the subject, from indigenous
identities to changing patterns of sexual behaviour. It's been a
fascinating time, learning people's different perspectives on the
subject and putting them together in a coherent framework. I'm not the
first person to do this by any means - Shivananda Khan is a walking
encyclopaedia on the subject - but like the sparrow perched on the back
of an eagle, I'm vain enough to think that I can push our knowledge just
a little bit further.
We drive through streets crowded with pedestrians, rickshaws, baby-taxis
and the occasional car, getting off at the edge of the market, where
Paritosh negotiates with the driver to stay until we return. We're in a
crowded street with little lighting and the faces that we pass look at
me as if not quite certain what they've seen. After a hundred yards or
so, when the street widens into an irregularly shaped square where open
shops cast their light on traders whose wares are displayed on mats on
the street in front of them, we step back into the shade of a deserted
building and watch the scene.
Sylhet is known as the most conservative and religious part of Muslim
Bangladesh. That explains why there are so few women in the street,
although those women who can be seen are not veiled and some do not even
wear scarves. No, this is an almost exclusively male population, of all
ages and sizes, passing by on foot, rickshaw or baby-taxi, or waiting for
customers. This is a well-known cruising spot, I have been told and for
a few minutes I see nothing that tells me that any of these men is
seeking sex, then, at the same time as Tarique points him out to me, I
see a slender youth standing almost motionless as others walk past him,
as in a cinematic special effect where his movements are slowed down
while everyone else's have speeded up.
And there's another and another and another. Dotted around me are
elegant, handsome young men in shirts and lunghi - long skirts - that are
a little more colourful, a little more clean and a little more tightly
bound than the men around them. They are staring into the distance with
an expression that is at once distant and focused, as if announcing that
they have no business here. But business they do have, because from time
to time, someone will approach. And when they do, the ritual
seems to be that neither addresses the other immediately, but stares
past as if it were coincidence that they were so close, then,
almost without looking at each other, a desultory conversation begins.
And so an old man in white with a thick moustache and a curved back
approaches the haughtiest youth, a fair-skinned broad-faced young man
who in other circumstances might have a career as an actor or a model,
but the conversation does not go far. A few minutes later I see the
old man in another part of the market drinking a tea with another youth.
They are more engaged and in a few minutes they will disappear down an
alleyway to where a room can be rented for 50 taka (0.50, $0.90) for an hour.
We are joined by Ajoy, a Bandhu peer educator - someone who each evening
goes out and talks to the young men, tells them about HIV/AIDS and
condoms and the drop-in centre where they can see a doctor and meet
other young men like themselves. I've already spoken to men who sell sex
in Dhaka. I would like to do so here, but I do not want to deprive them
of their earning time and I do not want to be the centre of attraction.
Things are changing, Ajoy tells me, in a number of ways. Firstly, the
money that the men make is going up - 50 to 100 taka now, instead of 30
to 50 taka two or three years ago. That means that their overall income
can now be between 10,000 and 15,000 taka (100 - 150 / $180 - $270) a
month - considerably more than the Ajoy or Paritosh. It's down to the
fact that the town and its surrounds may appear as poor as elsewhere in
Bangladesh, but the UK connection, with money sent home regularly or
with emigrants returning to visit their families, means that there is
more money around waiting to be spent. But many, it seems, spend as
quickly as they earn and the idea of saving, of training for a job when
they are over 25 or 30 and no longer able to count on their looks, does
not occur to them.
And the second change? More condom use. Good news in a country where sex
between men is widespread but HIV rates are still very low. What doesn't
seem to be happening, unlike in Dhaka, is a change to oral sex. There,
my informants tell me, clients increasingly want to avoid the risk of
contracting HIV in anal sex, as well as, I assume, they are increasingly
enjoying the pleasures of mouthwork. Sex workers in Dhaka are pleased
too, partly because it is safer and easier and partly because they can
charge more money. But in Sylhet another change is taking place -
clients are increasingly taking the passive role and the effeminate
young men are taking on an unaccustomed masculine role.
I suspect that exterior forces are at work here. In Thailand the rigid
division between "gay king" and "gay queen" is breaking down as imported
pornography shows that masculine men enjoy being fucked as much as any
effeminate queen. And, as expected, sex movies and images are easily
available in Sylhet; Paritosh points out the stall where DVDs showing
men-and-women, men-and-men and, no doubt women-and-women can be bought.
It's time to move on. We walk back into the dark crowd. Many people seem
unaware of me, but I am conscious of the glances of those who see me and
stare directly into my eyes with an expression that melds curiosity with
- I wonder if I am being irrational - hostility. I do not feel unsafe,
despite the fact that this is a violent country, where street brawls,
over the pettiest of excuses, are common, where the drivers of baby-taxis
in Dhaka lock themselves in metal cages to protect themselves from
rioting mobs and where the two leading
political parties sponsor gangs of competing thugs.
It is a short ride to the Shahjal Mazar, the shrine where centuries ago
a Bengali saint died. We go
through an archway and find ourselves in a marble courtyard outside a
tall white mosque that stands impressively against the dark blue night. Directly in front of us are a tall broad-shouldered young man
and his equally impressive girlfriend or bride. He is in casual clothes
and she, unveiled, in a handsome dark red sari. But there are no other
women, and many of the men are wearing the white caps that denote
dedicated believers. I look round; like the market people seem to be
moving with a sense of purpose, even if it is only two or three gathered
in conversation, and I see no "sensitive" young men loitering
ostensibly to take the evening air. Yet this location is well-known for religious men to find young friends. After all, sex
between men in Bangladesh may be widespread but it is unacknowledged - two men can be
together, hold hands, even sleep in the same bed without others
construing a sexual relationship. And so men who are quick to preserve
the chastity and fidelity of women turn to other men to slake their
In the middle of the square I feel exposed. There is more light here and
already more eyes are
turning on me than did in the market. We walk towards a pool where
earlier in the year the fish that lived there were poisoned; about the
bomb exploded nearby, killing two people. Paritosh points out a
couple of young men squatting by the pool, deep in conversation. One of
his peer educators and a sex worker. I look round to see if I can spot
other men for sale and find my eyes crossing with a short middle aged
man in a yellow shirt and tie who asks me, in excellent, if accented
English, and a tone that is nearer hostile than friendly, where I am
from. I tell him, and the idea that Sylhetis might feel an affinity with
Londoners evaporates in the intensity of his gaze.
Why are you here, he
asks. I give him an answer that is almost true - to see this place,
because I had heard it commemorates a famous martyr. Why do you like it?
he asks. I hadn't told him I liked it and had not developed an opinion,
and my answer is poor, only that it is impressive and white. Within the
space of this brief conversation we have been surrounded by at least
twenty others, all male, from plump pubescent boys to skinny middle-aged
men; not one smiles in welcome. My inquisitor repeats the question, but I have already turned away
from him to suggest, to Paritosh's and Tarique's obvious relief, that
maybe we should move on. I smile weakly at the man in yellow and follow
my guides down a path that seems to lead nowhere in particular. For the
first few paces my shoulders are tense, but we are not
We are indeed going nowhere in particular. If my curiosity is satisfied,
Paritosh and Tarique imply, they can take me back to the hotel. Part of
me wants to stay out, to observe the scene a little more, to see one of
the older religious men approach a younger man, to watch them negotiate
and walk away together, but it's impossible; to stand still would be to
attract another inquisitive crowd. So we are heading back
across the square when the lights suddenly go out. Without saying a
word, Paritosh's hands meet and hold on to mine (given
his good looks and welcoming personality, it's a gesture I would have
preferred at another time). Tarique quickly does the same and the three
of us walk at a resolute pace back into secular streets.
I spend the rest of the evening watching cable television and marvelling
at the homoerotic advertisements on the Star network aimed at India - in
particular the hips of the handsome youth modelling
"Killer - revealingly low jeans", and the assortment of young men
sporting Try International underwear. The next day, Tarique and I spend
four hours at the airport, the victims of a flight cancelled thanks to a
long impressive and blinding downpour. I spend some of the time watching
a Hindi karate film which is refreshingly free of the song and dance
that interrupts most Bollywood films.
The next day I am back home and twenty-four hours after later I read on
BBC website that a bomb has exploded at the mosque in attempt to
kill the visiting new British High Commissioner* - a man who was himself born in Sylhet. No, it is clear that for some Sylhetis at least, the bonds that
tie their homeland with Britain are bonds, not of love, but of hate.
For a 2008 article on male prostitutes in Bangladesh, click here
* A high commissioner is an ambassador between Commonwealth countries.