The Boy Who Danced on Air
GHOR, AFGHANISTAN. The Unknown Man enters, tired from walking, and yet still at the beginning of a long journey. He sits down on a nearby rock and drinks from his canteen. He then takes a small package out of his bag and stares at it. Lost in a thought, he begins to sing. The Unknown Man begins describing a boy being taken from his home. As he does so, we see that boy, Paiman, and watch as he is drafted into the practice of bacha bazi by his new master, Jahandar (“A SONG HE NEVER CHOSE”). Young boys are bought from their families, trained to dance, showcased at parties and sexually abused by the men who own them. We learn about all of this as Paiman learns it: we watch as he grows up, becomes a more confident dancer and gets used to the role he’s supposed to play. At the end of the number, Paiman is fifteen, the most loyal and obedient dancing boy in the village. Jahandar, in particular, seems to know that Paiman is special.
Despite Jahandar’s feelings for Paiman, he must give him up: Paiman is growing facial hair and is therefore becoming a man. Jahandar, who places a lot of stock in tradition, believes that it’s ok for a man to “be with” a boy, but once that boy becomes a man, the nature of the relationship changes and becomes unacceptable. Therefore, after a performance one night, Jahandar tells Paiman that he’s decided to marry him o to a girl in a neighboring village. While this is much better treatment than most dancing boys get, Paiman is terrified — dancing is the only life he’s ever known. As Jahandar leaves, Paiman turns to his dance, the only thing that has ever brought him joy, as he grapples with the fact that his life is about to change (“LITTLE DANCE”).
Paiman’s private moment is interrupted by the entrance of Feda — a dancing boy who is new to the village. Whereas Paiman is quiet and obedient, Feda is brash and outspoken. He’s a year or two older than Paiman, but Feda’s master, Zemar, doesn’t care about tradition in the way that Jahandar does. Feda takes the stage and performs an athletic and entrancing number (“FOR A NIGHT”). Everyone, notably Paiman, is transfixed.
Paiman follows Feda out of the party and discovers him alone, a little ways up the mountain. Feda sings a song to himself that is infused with longing and sensitivity (“WITH HIM AROUND ME”). The number stands in stark contrast to Feda’s more performative number at the party. Feda realizes Paiman’s watching him and lashes out, scared that Paiman has caught him at such a vulnerable moment. Feda attacks Paiman and says that Paiman’s dances are boring. Paiman clearly just does the choreography given to him, while Feda makes up his own moves. Paiman pushes back: He doesn’t view it as a bad thing that he’s able to follow his master’s rules. The tenor of the conversation warms up when Feda discovers that Paiman likes Feda’s song. Feda says he
likes to sing it up on the mountain because even though it’s just him singing, the song echoes, reverberating with “the power of a thousand voices.” Feda encourages Paiman to make decisions for himself, a concept that Paiman finds foreign. Paiman then tells Feda that Jahandar’s going to marry him o . Feda asks Paiman whether he wants to be married. Paiman doesn’t know, but the question sticks with him. Paiman’s not used to being asked what he wants. He considers his complicated feelings about Jahandar (“ALL THAT I’VE KNOWN”).
The Unknown Man sees Paiman, stops — and then continues on his journey.
The next day, Jahandar and Zemar play cards in an abandoned market in their village. The two cousins are surrounded by fuel tanks, and we learn that they sell diesel on the black market. American soldiers from the local military base skim the supplies o the top, then Jahandar and Zemar sell that fuel to local Afghan businessmen who use it to keep their generators running. For Zemar, this is a good, high-margin business. But while Zemar is opportunistic, Jahandar is an idealist and a nationalist, and he sees the business as something more. He relishes his part in taking the war supplies of an occupying force and turning them into something productive. He only wishes he could expand the business so more Afghans could have access to a reliable source of electricity. He tells Zemar that he has received word that there’s a soldier at another base, further away, who’s looking to sell a lot of fuel. This new supply could make a significant impact in providing reliable energy to Jahandar’s village. Jahandar wants to go with Zemar and pick the tanks up. It’s a big enough job that they’ll need both of their trucks. Zemar refuses; they make enough money as is, so he doesn’t see the point of taking on more risk. Jahandar is frustrated by what he sees as Zemar’s selfish attitude, and he laments what’s happened to his country. We find out that a lot of Jahandar’s iron-clad faith in following tradition comes from how he saw his country destroyed at the hands of outsiders — he believes that the country was ruined once Afghans gave up on their traditions. He reminds Zemar how beautiful Afghanistan used to be (“KABUL”).
While Jahandar is at the market, Feda visits Paiman. He has a CD in his hand, a recording of the song that Feda was singing on the mountain. Feda explains that the lyric was actually taken from a poem written hundreds of years ago by Ibn Al-Farid. Dervishes used to spin while listening to the words of the poem — engaging in a dance that could lift them o of the Earth and to the heavens, transcending the body and the rules of reality. Paiman is taken by this image. Feda tells Paiman that he’s going to run away to the nearest city, Chagcharan, to become a boy singer. Unlike dancing boys who are owned by men, boy singers are pop stars with their own money and power — and most importantly, control over their lives. Feda wants Paiman to come with him and help him on his journey to the city. Paiman balks at Feda’s plan; he just met Feda and doesn’t see why he would risk losing everything just to run away. Feda leaves, hurt by the rejection.
Later that night, Jahandar lies with Paiman in the abandoned indoor marketplace. Jahandar explains to Paiman that this site used to be a bustling center of commerce, and if Jahandar is able to provide diesel to enough businesses in the region, it might be one again soon. Jahandar’s vision of a renewed Afghanistan is beautiful, and Jahandar’s talk of an Afghanistan that has its own “power” resonates with Paiman’s desire to control his own life. Paiman’s mood changes, however, when Jahandar tells him that a new boy will be arriving soon. Paiman is shocked that he’s being replaced. Jahandar is stern with Paiman, arguing that this is the natural order of things — something that no one has any control over. This upsets Paiman, and so Jahandar softens. He assures Paiman that everything will work out for the best, but for the first time, we see that Jahandar might not be as comfortable giving Paiman up as he initially let on (“PLAY YOUR PART”).
The Unknown Man watches as Jahandar leaves Paiman, lost in thought.
A few days later, Paiman follows Feda up the mountainside. While Feda isn’t happy to see him at first, Paiman reveals that he made up a dance to the song Feda gave him — the moves are ones that Paiman came up with on his own. Feda seems impressed. Feda tells Paiman that he’s come up the mountainside to collect objects, buried underground, from the city that used to exist in the area. There’s a market a few days walk where Feda can sell them. Feda shows Paiman one object in particular, a knife with a dervish on its handle. Feda points out that the dervish is like those he was talking about earlier. Taken with the object, Paiman blurts out that Jahandar’s taking on another boy. Paiman doesn’t know how to feel about any of it. Things are changing so quickly, and Paiman can’t picture what his life is going to be like. Paiman even finds his approaching wedding ceremony unimaginable. Feda, who has seen the wedding ritual many times, o ers to walk Paiman through it, using the objects he’s dug up from the mountainside. That way Paiman will know what it’s going to feel like when the marriage actually happens. The two grow close as they go through a wedding ritual together (“INTO YOUR HANDS”). Feda then explains that wedding ceremonies used to end with the bride and groom cutting their palms. He takes out the knife and encourages Paiman to cut his. Paiman, terrified of how Jahandar would react, refuses. Feda becomes defensive, and runs away, leaving Paiman alone with the knife.
Back at the abandoned market, Jahandar again begs Zemar to help him with this opportunity to buy fuel. Zemar tells Jahandar that he’ll bet his next hand of cards on the proposition: if Jahandar wins, Zemar will help him. If he loses, Zemar gets Paiman for the night. Jahandar has been resolute in keeping Paiman to himself and therefore refuses. Zemar pushes, infuriating Jahandar. We get the sense that for all Jahandar’s talk about the need to marry Paiman o because tradition dictates it, he’s attached to his boy and far from ready to give him up.
That night Feda finds himself in an altercation with a man, Bashir, at a party. Bashir gave Feda contraband liquor and demands that Feda come home with him. Paiman sees the argument, and uses Feda’s knife to defend him. The two boys are able to escape to their spot on the mountainside.
Paimain tries to apologize to Feda for refusing to cut his plan, but Feda remains o ended and evasive. He turns to leave. Paiman asks, “Don’t you at least want your knife?” Feda approaches Paiman, but instead of o ering the knife, Paiman cuts his own palm, then Feda’s, in dramatic fashion. Feda is stunned. He then impulsively kisses Paiman. Paiman pulls back and asks Feda what they’re doing. Paiman quotes Jahandar: “Break one rule and the whole structure crumbles.” If Paiman is going to trust Feda, he needs to know what they’re doing. Feda, scared of Paiman’s rejection and unable to put into words how he feels, blames the liquor and runs o .
Jahandar is furious at Paiman for the incident with Bashir. He does not approve of Paiman’s friendship with Feda, whom he considers inferior to Paiman. Then Jahandar sees the cut on Paiman’s hand (“A SONG HE NEVER CHOSE — REPRISE”). He threatens Paiman, demanding that Paiman say that Feda is worthless. Paiman sees that Feda is watching the fight, out of Jahandar’s sight, and refuses. Jahandar responds by beating Paiman badly. The Unknown Man watches the action and winces as Paiman is beaten.
Feda finds Paiman. He’s stunned that Paiman stood up for him and is furious at Jahandar for hurting his friend. The two boys sing about how, when they grow up, they’ll treat their dancing boys differently (“A BOY OF MY OWN”). As the two dream about their lives, Paiman works up the courage to tell Feda how he feels about him. Feda reciprocates. The song then shifts as the two imagine what their lives would be like together. At the end of the song, Paiman makes a decision. He wants to run away to the city with Feda. Feda agrees, and they kiss.
The Unknown Man stops—he has arrived at his destination. He explains to the audience that, in life, you can’t change the way the world works — the most you can hope for is to follow your path and accept your lot (“DENYING THE SUN”). The man says that if you have feelings that mark you as different or as an outsider, you should bury them. He takes out the package he’s been carrying and tries to bury it, but he’s stopped by a song on the wind. We then transition to Feda singing, Paiman asleep near him. The Unknown Man is taken by the image. Paiman wakes up, and we realize the two boys stayed out together all night. They share a sweet moment, but when Paiman asks when they’re leaving for the city, Feda doesn’t seem to have the details figured out. We wonder if, for all his talk, Feda is scared to actually run away. Paiman is terrified to go back to Jahandar, but Feda says that he must — they’ll leave when the time is right. Paiman reluctantly agrees.
Jahandar has waited up all night to see if Paiman would return. He views Paiman staying out as a major betrayal. Jahandar pulls out a gun, and though it looks at first like he’s going to kill Paiman, he decides to shoot him in the foot. Paiman cries out. Jahandar, clearly affected by seeing Paiman in such pain, informs him that the wedding has been moved up: Belour’s family will arrive at the end of the week. He goes on to say that Paiman’s dance was something he and Paiman shared. No one else will see it ever again.
Jahandar finds Zemar and agrees to take the bet. If Jahandar wins, Zemar will help him with his plan to get the fuel; if Jahandar loses, he’ll have to give Paiman up for the night. After a tense game, Jahandar wins and Zemar agrees to meet him at the military base at 9pm that evening to pick up the fuel.
Meanwhile, Paiman, struggling on his bandaged foot, visits Feda on the side of the mountain. Feda is shocked when he sees Paiman’s foot. He feels the injury is his fault. In a panic, he tells Paiman that they should give up on their plan and never see each other again. Paiman disagrees. In fact, he wants to leave tonight. When Feda asks Paiman where his newfound confidence is coming from, Paiman credits Feda (“WHAT YOU DID TO ME”). They agree to meet and run away as soon as night falls.
That night, as Paiman waits for Feda, he dreams of what his life will be like (“IN THE CITY”). As Feda sneaks out of Zemar’s house, he is caught. Zemar finds out Feda’s plan, but rather than react in anger, Zemar laughs. Feda wants to be a boy singer, but those boys are young — 11 or 12 — and, in Zemar’s words, “adorable.” Feda, on the other hand, is “used up.” Zemar says Feda is welcome to go, but that he’ll probably starve. Zemar goes on to say that Paiman, however, could still have a good life, with a wife and a job. Feda fears he is ruining Paiman’s life and decides not to continue with their plan to run away.
At the base, Jahandar waits for Zemar to show up and dreams of an Afghanistan where everyone has electric power (“I CAN SEE IT”). Meanwhile, back at Zemar’s home, Paiman arrives, searching for Feda. Instead of finding Feda, however, Paiman finds Zemar — who violently grabs Paiman and drags him off stage. Jahandar waits at the base longer, but Zemar still doesn’t show. Finally, a vehicle arrives, but it’s an American military truck. The whole thing was a setup. Three men descend on Jahandar.
The next morning, Paiman emerges after being brutalized by Zemar. He kicks the ground and winces in anger at the pain from his broken foot. Then, pulling from somewhere deep, he finds strength inside of himself and begins dancing (“PAIMAN’S DANCE”). The dance is an act of defiance: Paiman refuses to feel powerless. Paiman’s moves are awkward on his injured foot — but there is beauty and power in the struggle. Feda watches, unseen. He considers approaching but thinks better of it.
Jahandar and Zemar argue — Jahandar can’t believe Zemar didn’t show up. The Americans interrogated Jahandar for hours. They were worried he was a security threat, and when they were satisfied that he wasn’t, they finally let him go — but not before roughing him up. Zemar apologizes, blaming the roads. In any case, Zemar told Jahandar that it was a bad idea. Zemar tells Jahandar he should stop dreaming of an Afghanistan that’s different. Besides he has plenty to be happy about: Paiman’s wedding is a day away.
The next day, Jahandar waits to take Paiman to his wedding. He’s stunned when Paiman emerges in his new clothes: He looks like a man. Jahandar tries to say something warm to Paiman, but it’s clear that their relationship is no longer what it once was. Jahandar tries to express something of how he feels to Paiman — but he can only talk elliptically (“I KNOW HOW YOU FEEL”). The two leave for the wedding.
At the party after the wedding, Feda is brought in to dance for the men. Paiman is now among them. At first, Feda does his usual athletic dance. But halfway through, he locks eyes with Paiman and stops. He then makes a decision and takes on the soft, intimate moves of Paiman’s dance. It’s a dance meant only for Paiman. Men in the crowd react with displeasure. Jahandar gets up to stop Feda, but Feda hits Jahandar hard. He runs out of the tent, and Paiman follows (“A SONG HE NEVER CHOSE — FINALE”).
The two run up into the abandoned indoor marketplace. Feda tells Paiman to go back to the party, but Paiman refuses. Feda says that there’s nowhere on Earth they can hide. Paiman replies, “Then maybe we won’t stay on this Earth.” He gestures to the lantern in Feda’s hand and the fuel tanks they’re surrounded by. He then uses Feda’s knife to puncture one of the tanks. As the severity of what Paiman’s suggesting dawns on him, Feda hesitates. He has nothing to lose, but Paiman could still have a life. Paiman replies that he doesn’t want a life without Feda. As the men approach the market, Feda tells Paiman to run downstairs and prop a chair against the door. He’ll wait until Paiman’s back to ignite the tanks. Once Paiman’s gone, however, Feda drops his lantern into the gas, hoping Paiman is far enough away from the explosion that he’ll survive. The room is consumed by flames. Feda has sacrificed himself for Paiman.
Days later, Paiman, who has survived the explosion, returns to visit the rubble — Feda’s knife is in his hands. The Unknown Man approaches, Paiman sees him for the first time. Paiman asks the man who he is, and the man responds by unwrapping the package he’s been carrying. It’s Feda’s knife. Over the years it has lost a bit of its luster, but it’s still beautiful. We realize that the Unknown Man is Paiman, years older. Paiman asks, “How am I seeing you?” The Unknown Man doesn’t respond, but he tells Paiman about what will happen to him.
Despite everything, Jahandar wouldn’t let Paiman starve, so he’ll marry Paiman o to another girl from a village far away. Paiman will farm and eventually have a son of his own. And though he’ll never forget Feda, he’ll keep that side of himself hidden. Then his son will find Feda’s knife, and the memories will come rushing back. That’s when Paiman will set o on a journey back to the site of this tragedy in order to bury the knife and say a proper goodbye to his childlike dream of forging a new kind of life with Feda. Except when Paiman arrives, he won’t be able to bury the knife. He’s unable to turn his back on a part of himself he thought he had left behind. The Unknown Man deflates, unsure of what to do. Paiman responds by singing Feda’s song. It’s a reminder of Feda’s belief that if you assert who you are, anything is possible (“FEDA’S SONG”).
The song rings through the mountainside, echoing “with the power of a thousand voices” (as Feda used to say). It’s beautiful ... but then the echo dissipates. The Unknown Man shakes his head, “It’s a lie, that’s the problem. There aren’t a thousand voices — just yours, alone. So you have to learn to sing along with whatever song the world wants you to sing.” As the Unknown Man begins to exit, however, we hear another voice, from far o , repeat Feda’s melody. Someone else heard. It’s not a thousand voices, but because it was sung loudly, Feda’s song helped someone else feel less alone. Another voice joins in and then another. As the song echoes through the mountain side, the Unknown Man is eventually moved to join in — and in the swirl of the echoing harmonies we hear Feda’s voice, still floating on the wind.