“bless that man’s mouth, the song we sway sloppy to, the beat, the bridge, the length
of his hand on my thigh & back & i know not which country i am of.
i want to live on his tongue, build a home of gospel & gayety
i want to raise a city behind his teeth for all boys of choirs & closets to refuge in.”

— From "The 17-year old and the Gay Bar", Danez Smith


Dateline 06/09/2018. A legendary day for India’s history, when a five-panel judge from India’s Supreme Court decriminalised homosexuality. “Forbidden” love became legal – but will it ever be accepted? I remember walking into my best friend’s room to find him pacing the room up and down. I asked him what had happened, and he replied with the most serious look on his face:

“I am legally protected. But I am still one of the oppressed. I have my rights, but does that stop anyone from calling me a chakka? Does that mean that I can now come out to my parents and friends as gay, and they are not going to say anything about it? I am still going to feel guilty, even though I can now legally be a homosexual in India.” What he had said was right. I could only imagine what he was going through – when would there be acceptance?

Nemat Sadat walks us through a similar journey for acceptance in his powerful debut, The Carpet Weaver.

Kanishka Nurzada, the story’s sixteen-year-old gay protagonist is in love with Maihan, his best friend. Surrounding these boys are the Islam-centric policies of the politically charged Afghanistan, which look down upon those whom they call kuni-ha. Added to this is the war taking place in Afghanistan, which makes life hell for this love to exist. The story is unwrapped as we watch Kanishka trying to deal with his love, which is reviled, and also keeping up with his father’s Maoist tendencies.

The scenario changes dramatically with the Soviet invasion, and Kanishka and his family try to flee to the US. Sadat manages to wrap an immensely intimate narration of “forbidden” love with the politics of war, and identities of religion and citizenship, to produce an immensely powerful coming-of-age story.

From real life

Nemat Sadat is the first native from Afghanistan to have publicly come out as gay and campaign for LGBTQIA rights in Muslim communities worldwide. He posted his statement on Facebook on August 22, 2013 – a month after he had posted a written message and was terminated from his job teaching political science at the American University at Afghanistan. Sadat faced the consequences when he was forced out of his home country for his unapologetic attitude towards his sexuality, and a fatwa was issued against him.

Sadat never let this affect him, though – he continues to make his voice heard as he campaigns for LGBTQ rights amongst Muslim communities worldwide. The Carpet Weaver also comes out of such a movement and represents his work over 11 years.

This book has an eye for detail, as we see the setting being described elaborately – we can almost smell the food Kanishka eats at his sixteenth birthday party, watching as onlookers, and feel the goosebumps on his skin as he kisses Maihan. We can also hear the political whispers in the background as we witness the secret activities of Kanishka’s father and his friends, who are part of a secret leftist movement fighting for democracy.

Covering a span of about eight years from 1977 till 1984, the novel also serves up immense awareness of spaces, even though this is somewhat inconsistently spread out over it 300 pages. This element sucks the reader in – Sadat’s powerful story, strengthened by detailed narration, creates a space for the reader too. It’s almost as if the reader occupies the position of a silent character in the novel.

Creating spaces

The movement in the novel is controlled by the use of the coming-of-age technique of storytelling. The bildungsroman is classically a narrative in which the protagonist progresses from being a naive or callow youth towards becoming an adult with a sense of a mature consciousness, while also developing a sense of duty towards the society.

In The Carpet Weaver, the sixteen-year old Kanishka grows from identifying only the gay Muslim in himself to standing up to his overall Afghan identity. He takes the decision to flee to the US with his mother and sister, confronting constant struggles and also dealing with the consequences of his sexuality.

Sadat ensures that the core of Kanishka’s existence is not just his sexuality, but also his religion and nationality. This helps him maintain the balance between the personal and the political as Kanishka’s love for Maihan also occupies a political space because of his identity as an Afghan and a Muslim.

This is further strengthened as Sadat introduces the space occupied by the family. We see familial ties not just of blood, but also of friendship, religion, and political agreement. This is precisely what brings the story full circle – we see what Kanishka has to give up in order to build his own identity. This is also what makes this story universal in spite of the specifics.

You might not be one amongst the LGBTQ community. You might not be an Afghan. You might not even be a Muslim. But thanks to Sadat’s immense skill at weaving love, sexuality, friendship, and politics into the beautiful tapestry that is The Carpet Weaver, the novel might make you all of them, at least while you’re reading it.

The Carpet Weaver

Excerpted with permission from The Carpet Weaver, Nemat Sadat, Penguin Viking.