A few pages into Nemat Sadat’s The Carpet Weaver, the novel’s protagonist Kanishka, having just turned 16, is taken to a hamam in Kabul by his father, who regularly meets a small group of Maoists in the public bath to discuss politics and ideology. For the teenager, however, the covert political gathering pales in comparison to a much more thrilling attraction: the city’s hamams are known to be a “refuge for men seeking the company of men”.
This desire for men is a secret that Kanishka holds in a tight fist close to his heart, torn apart by his yearning for a life of authenticity and a suffocating sense of duty towards his family and religion. The tangled skein is shot through with fear. In 1970s Afghanistan, like today, being kuni (a derogatory term for a gay man) is an offence punishable with death.
Yet even as he is consumed by the guilt of not being a “real man”, an intimate relationship develops between Kanishka and his childhood friend, Maihan, opening up the possibility, for the first time ever, of going down “a path that had seemed forbidden before”. Through a series of stolen kisses and trysts, the novel paints the giddy capriciousness of a forbidden teenage romance — an erotically charged knot that is equal parts skittish dread and reckless abandon.
Sadat’s canvas for the young lovers is 1977 Afghanistan, a country that is oblivious to the radical transformation it is about to undergo as a pawn in the Cold War. Under President Mohammad Daoud Khan, it is flirting with modernisation but is still steeped in tradition. The novel’s concerns, however, are mostly restricted to a much smaller microcosm, the capital’s wealthy class, who have enough wiggle room to practise a conservative cosmopolitanism. Set at the very end of what some call Afghanistan’s “golden age”, Sadat vividly creates a gateway to a past era that today seems much more distant than it really was.
Nowroze picnics at the city’s verdant Babur’s Gardens, a weekend getaway in the valleys of Istalif village (famed for its mountains views and grapes), and the last wave of hedonistic Europeans (who Kanishka is quick to shepherd into his father’s carpet shop) following the soon to be abandoned hippie trail, Sadat doesn’t hold back in building a strong sense of time, place and the cultural life of Kabul’s residents, with his most evocative writing saved for a sumptuous chronicling of the region’s food. These drawn-out accounts – detours from the storytelling – would be laborious, if they weren’t so fascinating.
On a recent trip to Delhi, Sadat, whose family, like many educated elites, left the country during the Soviet war when he was only 8 months old, explained that a lot of these details came from growing up in the Afghani diaspora community in the US and listening to his mother and grandmother’s memories of home. “They knew the culture and had all these stories and it was very jarring for me growing up in the 80s to see the Soviet Army and the Mujahideen there and then, after 9/11, the Taliban, the war and bomb blasts. And all the while, they still talk about this Afghanistan – this golden age of this paradise lost – in this time warp.”
But as history has repeatedly shown us, eras of glory are often gilded only for the privileged. Even as Kanishka is buoyed by a love for his childhood companion, he knows his fate is sealed. In a heart-rending sequence, he attempts to admit his feelings for Maihan to his parents, only to choose a falsehood and feign an interest in a woman instead. As he swallows his lie “with sips of tea”, the teenager feels like a fool for thinking he could “avoid the beeline that had been set for me since before my birth”.
It’s only several years later, living halfway across the world, that Kanishka is finally able to have a frank conversation with his mother – “the hardest thing for him to do”. It’s a chapter that almost didn’t make it into the book, Sadat says, until a professor encouraged him to write it. It’s easy to understand his initial reluctance. Queer narratives are too often reduced to a moment of coming out, a big declaration that can narrow the space for depicting a deeper complexity of experience. In Sadat’s case however, for a debut novel that he views as a “form of activism”, the declaration takes on an added note of importance.
32 years after he left, Sadat, who had been working as a journalist in the US, returned to Kabul in 2012 to teach political science at the American University of Afghanistan. “Even among the ruin and rebuilding, you can go to the original places from when Kabul was built centuries ago and get a sense of what life could be like,” he said. Unfortunately, his stay in Kabul was far from a triumphant homecoming.
“I was treated as an outsider who was coming back to profit from the country,” Sadat said, adding that as he began to challenge a “cheating plague” among the students at the university, rumours were spread about him being a closeted homosexual and an atheist, prompting him to advocate for LGBT rights and for developing public health programs for men who have sex with men. Tensions came to a head when photos of him dressed as a woman for a play staged in England began to circulate online. Returning to Afghanistan meant being criminalised and his position at the university was terminated soon after.
In August 2013, Sadat ended the rumours and speculation by becoming the first Afghan gay man to publicly come out through a Facebook post. Death threats in the thousands followed soon after. “I felt like my coming out was me waging this war against an entire society, against an entire nation that’s mostly against me,” Sadat said.
While Kanishka’s own process of coming out is a more private event in The Carpet Weaver, the path is long and arduous. The young man’s already perilous existence is turned upside down with the Saur Revolution of 1978, a bloody military coup that ushered in the rule of the communist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA). A year later, his father is imprisoned under suspicion of planning a Maoist attack against the government, and eventually executed. Stricken with grief and unable to continue living under the new regime, Kanishka, his mother and sister decide to escape to the United States.
Kanishka’s heartache at having to leave Maihan behind is soon subsumed by the horrors of their journey, in particular the cruelty of an internment camp in Balochistan, where the family is forced to work as slaves for months, manufacturing carpets while being overseen by an unspeakably monstrous tyrant. They finally flee when a dramatic escape plan is hatched.
Throughout the novel, Sadat’s vision seems to be clear – to tell a sweeping story that hums with the engine of activism, holding within it themes of a grand love, death, secrets, betrayal, and redemption. It’s a form of storytelling that can easily become heavy handed. While set in Kabul, The Carpet Weaver offers moments of quietness to temper this excess. But in Pakistan, the novel, stripped of subtlety, hurtles through gratuitous violence and unlikely scenarios in a bid to frame its hereto nuanced protagonist as the chosen hero of an epic. It’s a disorienting choice, not only for its implausible blockbuster-style turn of events, but also what it chooses to say about the notion of masculinity that plagues Kanishka from the very first pages of the novel – the overwhelming pressure to be a “real man”.
The sheen of the novel’s first half doesn’t entirely return but Sadat finds himself on surer footing when Kanishka’s family’s eventually migrates to the US, as he attempts to unravel the realities of a “promised land”. Kanishka’s reunion with Maihan is particularly affecting. In this country of opportunity where they can finally be together, the lovers find themselves on different paths, their past intimacy crumbling under the weight of starkly different journeys and choices about Afghaniyat in their new diasporic lives.
By rejecting this tidy romantic arc, Sadat’s novel reshapes itself from the story of star-crossed lovers to something much greater: freedom – from the past, tradition, singular love – and the transformative power of hope.