Nemat Sadat’s debut novel tells the powerful story of a young gay carpet weaver from Afghanistan
From war-torn Afghanistan to a refugee camp in Pakistan to the US, the plot covers a wide geographical arc
Nemat Sadat’s debut novel, The Carpet Weaver, opens with the protagonist Kanishka Nurzada celebrating his 16th birthday with his family and friends in Kabul. They are all gathered for a special feast to mark the occasion of him becoming a “man". But Kanishka, who is the son of a successful carpet seller, is stricken to hear his godfather speak about men who are disparagingly called kunis—slang for being gay in Afghanistan. In his heart, young Kanishka already knows that he is one of these despised creatures and suspects his godfather of already having an inkling of his proclivities. Yet, even as he dreads a life of misery and danger in a country that punishes homosexuality with the death penalty, he is smitten by his childhood friend Maihan, who, much to his delight and relief, returns his affections.
The story of this relationship, plotted through the turbulent decades of the 1970s and 1980s in Afghanistan (and later in the US), forms the core of the novel. Kanishka and Maihan affirm their love for each other in spite of the inclement society they live in. They refuse to succumb to its oppressive norms or the pressure of family honour. In 1977, under the reign of prime minister Mohammad Daoud Khan, Afghanistan is steeped in Islamic values. But like many repressive regimes, it is also rife with double standards. The hamams (public baths) and body-building gyms are hotbeds of licentious activities, where men of all ages and stations seek out each other. Sly signals are exchanged, body parts flashed.
Sadat conveys this ambience with erotically charged vignettes that leave a deep impression on Kanishka’s mind. Alongside these glimpses into his inner life, Sadat offers painstaking descriptions of customs and rituals that are germane to Afghan life. Almost every delicacy is described in lavish detail, from its inception to its ingredients to its cooking. In some scenes, the writing seems to almost wallow in titillating details of violence and homophobia. In yet others, the burden of historical information and local colour slacken the pace of the narrative.
The scenario changes dramatically with the Soviet invasion, when Kanishka’s father is hauled up for being a Maoist. As he is incarcerated and later condemned to death, the family fortunes dwindle drastically. Left to fend for his mother and sister, while steadily becoming alienated from his beloved Maihan (whose family allegedly has ties with the US intelligence agency CIA), Kanishka sets off on an arduous journey with his family to escape to the US. His hope is to rebuild their lives in a foreign nation, far from the barbaric tribalism prevalent in Afghanistan, where the Shias and Sunnis, Islamists and royalists, anarchists and Marxists, are forever at loggerheads. His biggest dream of all is to reunite with Maihan, resolve their differences, and live happily ever after in the land of freedom.
The trials that Kanishka and his family suffer on their way to the US are many, most devastatingly a long spell of internment at a refugee camp in Pakistan. It is during those months, under the tyrannical rule of the manager Tor Gul, that Kanishka experiences a sexual awakening while also discovering his true calling as a carpet weaver. A profession that his father had once forbidden him to pursue becomes, by a twist of fate, his passport to safety, and, later, a means of sustenance.
In Sadat’s novel, such moments of ironic reversal are many, though the most poignant one is the bittersweet reunion between Maihan and Kanishka. Far away from their homeland, where he was once willing to wager everything for the sake of their love, Maihan fails to muster up the courage to defy his family’s wishes. In Sadat’s account, these moments of reckoning remain complex, the emotions behind them are not fully knowable. The ending, in spite of the shadow that creeps over a love that was once untainted, isn’t without its redemptive grace.
The Carpet Weaver seems to leave the promise of a sequel hanging. But if the story does have a fresh lease of life, Sadat would hopefully resist the urge to digress, as he does in this one, and focus more sharply on telling a leaner and crisper story.