Nemat weaves a gripping tale of forbidden love in a hostile country

You haven't known how cruel and unfair a seemingly beautiful world can get for the LGBTQ community until you have read Nemat Sadat's 'The Carpet Weaver'.

Set in Afghanistan’s golden age of the 1970s', the book traces the complex journey of Kanishka Nurzada, a young gay romantic who dreams of a near impossible utopian world where his love for another young man, his best friend, would be acknowledged and accepted. And all this, at a time when Afghanistan gets war-infested and moves on a path of destruction.

Kanishka is certainly a 'real man' of courage who endures and escapes brutal treatment in Afghanistan, and is physically exploited, enslaved and tasked to execute his rare gift of weaving masterpiece carpets in Pakistan to ensure his family is kept alive and reaches a safe haven in the United States. If all of this wasn’t an example of true manhood, Kanishka also demonstrates unfathomable gumption by honouring his sexuality and not apologising for his lack of faith in Islam.

But will his love interest Maihan reciprocate as with as much character? Do family and society accept Kanishka for who he really is? Or will Kanishka meet with the same disappointment that the author himself has met with in real life by struggling to be accepted by Afghans and Muslims, fit in with mainstream Americans, and find a suitable partner in the LGBTQ community? Will ‘The Carpet Weaver’ conclude as a story of unrequited love and endless struggle in a hostile environment?

In conversation with Chaitra Anand, the author Nemat Sadat further enthralls as he elucidates. Afghan-born, US citizen Nemat Sadat is the first openly gay and ex-Muslim secular humanist from Afghanistan who supports LGBTQ rights in Muslim communities and around the world. 'The Carpet Weaver', published by Penguin Random House India is sure to have profound impact on the readers such that it is not just viewed as a story of sexual awakening but also an artistic, intellectual and political awakening. There's something in it for everyone, even food enthusiasts!

How best would you describe the journey of your protagonist Kanishka?

It is one of the longest spiritual journeys that a person can set out on. The journey of the shepherd boy of ‘The Alchemist’, which is a beloved Bildungsroman, pales in comparison. Even at the start of the novel Kanishka has partially accepted himself as gay, but he tries to fight that part of him because of a fear of disappointing his parents and a fear of being rejected, but more importantly because homosexuality is punishable by law in Afghanistan. Under Sharia law, a person who is gay has no right to exist so he can well be beaten, killed and nobody would come to his rescue and nobody will rage against the system which is stemming from the intolerant religion of the country. Notwithstanding the fact that an entire country is against him, he yearns to be with his love Maihan. He yearns for intimacy with another man if that means he has to give up his religion and risk it all, even his life, to find true love.

Having lived much of your life in the US, would you say you have accurately captured the essence of life as a ‘homosexual’ man in Afghanistan?

I really don’t think an Afghan living in Afghanistan could’ve written this story, at least not in the Afghanistan of the last 40 years since it's been mired in war and hostility and there’s so much repression that there is no room for true artistic expression. I would never have realised my capabilities were I to live shackled by orthodoxy. My family is deeply steeped in traditions even as part of the society in Southern California. My parents lived in Kabul, which has always been the most cosmopolitan city in Afghanistan and they both belong to the educated elite class by virtue of which I grew up constantly knowing of my ancestral roots and rich cultural heritage.

At the time when the Soviet Union decimated Afghanistan, a lot of refugees who moved to Pakistan and Iran and lost so much of their Afghan identity as they were reduced to so little. But the people who lived in the Western diaspora were able to keep their collective memory and even though they had their own set of struggles trying to assimilate, they were able to preserve more of the culture during the times of prosperity.

I was unemployed at the time of the September 11 attacks carried out by the Al-Qaeda. As fate would have it there was a deep animosity to be experienced as an Afghan refugee living in the Unites States in the aftermath of the attacks. So I returned to Afghanistan in March of 2012 for two years to discover more about my homeland and that's when I realised that me, as a highly educated person from a privileged background, coming out and accepting my homosexuality in the Western world would make a massive difference as opposed to somebody living in Afghanistan admitting to it. First of all homosexual people have no rights in Afghanistan so it would make no difference there. And secondly, the story had to be told in the right manner by someone who's had a taste of both worlds and this was only possible for me on account of having inherited the Afghan oral history while living in a more liberal and open society in the US.

What is your take on the double-standard in Afghanistan regarding 'Bacha bazi' which is the practice of older men indulging in sexual activities with adolescent men or boys, while at the same time rebuking homosexuality?

Certainly, Bacha Baazi is a shameful act where dancing boys are getting raped behind closed doors under the pretext of them being entertainers. Pedophiles in positions of power indulge in the act and it is socially unacceptable. But nobody raises a voice against strong men who are part of militias or the Establishment. However, the boys getting exploited still have rights to be safeguarded. The law recognises that they are being wronged. While the child himself may not have a voice, an older guardian can come to his rescue owing to human rights laws. Whereas in the case of gay men, they don't even have a right to defend themselves. So, it is a blanket ban on homosexuality but nobody is willing to take up this fight for rights because it then means challenging the Islamic religion. And that is dangerous too and can also lead to death.

Who would you say Afghanistan is most perilous for women, children or homosexuals?

I would still say Afghanistan is most dangerous for homosexuals because I reiterate, it is considered criminal to fall in love with someone of the same sex and there is absolutely no right to protect them from punishment. In fact, if you are a lesbian woman in Afghanistan, it is even worse as you are confined to your home and possibly endure marital rape throughout the course of life. For a woman or even for a child, there are a number of NGOs' in Afghanistan and across the world that come forward to safeguard their interests and place them in safe havens. Religious texts generally do not warrant abuse of women and children while on the other hand homosexuality is considered a sin as per religion.

Women and children’s welfare is a result of collective efforts of various organisations who empathised with their situation. However, a gay man or a gay woman does not have a right to exist leave alone be defended. To give you an example noted personalities would put their weight behind Pakistani women's rights activist Malala Yousafzai seeing as she is a devout Muslim. But the same heavy weights wouldn't back LGBTQ rights as in the Islamic context as it would equate to challenging the religion or those who wield power due to the religious structure and nobody wants to be tagged Islamophobic or anti-Muslim.

When I went to Afghanistan I was persecuted soon after I started my post as an assistant professor of political science at the American University of Afghanistan. Very few people came to my defense after I came out. In fact, even the LGBTQ community in the US distanced themselves from me because I came out criticising Sharia law. And nowadays when you have President Trump targeting the first hijabi Muslim refugee in Congress, nobody in the US wants to be accused of being Anti-Muslim or Islamophobic unless they are vocal about being white supremacists.

Kanishka's story is spread over three countries Afghanistan, Pakistan or the United States, where does his heart belong?

His heart belongs to Afghanistan, even though he feels he’ll find some refuge in Pakistan, and yearns for the freedom that America has to offer. Because in all eventuality, in a perfect world, if Afghanistan had been accepting of homosexuality then he would forever be united with the love of his life without having to flee his country. And Afghanistan's Istalif is also where he expresses his love for Maihaan and where their love blossoms, among his people, his culture and needless to mention all the amazing rich food which he wouldn't for a moment consider sacrificing in a perfect world.

What is the biggest deterrent to LGBTQI rights? Is it religion, conditioning or a morbid fear of the unconventional?

I think the issue runs deeper than religion. Religion is only a tool that is use to basically assert dominance. Those in power seek to create differences among people based on race, religion, national origin, caste, gender or sexual orientation. The political class or the ruling class wants commoners to be fighting against each other so that they can remain in power and assert their power. The strategy is to keep the masses down because if the masses are liberated then they will have more demands of the ruling class and then in turn there won’t be luxuries in abundance for the ruling class. So they want to keep the status quo and nobody cares.

What is your message to the LGBTQ community in India?

India is still the most seductive country in Asia. No other country in the continent can rival India’s cultural influence, even with K-pop being a global phenomenon. LGBTQ Indians must take full advantage of the power of mass seduction that’s at their disposal and by that I mean, you can use the arts to redefine what it means to live in a society that fully embraces your gender identity and sexual orientation. You are the torch bearers for LGBTQ rights in Asia as there are people looking to you to make a difference.

Value the legal status and rights you enjoy and seize the opportunity to create awareness about this basic human need. Create awareness that it would be unnatural to force a homosexual person to give up his sexuality and pursue something which is against his natural course. While India has provided an opportunity to LGBTQ community to thrive, there are people in the neighbouring Bangladesh and Pakistan who can still be killed any moment for being homosexual. With more freedom and liberty comes a lot more responsibilities and this is the one of the takeaways from my book.