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Text: World Copyright
Martin Foreman

Copyright of pictures acknowledged where possible

A market and a mosque

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.
Order the book through Amazon, in the left column.
Paritosh stops a baby-taxi  - one of the motor-powered three-wheelers ubiquitous in South and South-East Asia - and negotiates a ride.

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 lust.

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 time a 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 being followed.

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.

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