Nemat Sadat, a US-based gay activist and ex-Muslim, recently authored his debut novel The Carpet Weaver, a coming-of-age same-sex love story set in Afghanistan. Through the eyes of his protagonist Kanishka, and his relationship with childhood friend Maihan, the story which unravels over three countries (Afghanistan, Pakistan and the US), touches upon an impressive gamut of topics — from Afghan culture to the stigma borne by young members of the queer community.
In a chat with Firstpost, Sadat — who has received death threats for his activism — spoke about his book, and his hopes that it might serve as a catalyst in bringing about change for young LGBTQ individuals. Edited excerpts follow:
What is it to be gay and Muslim in today’s world?
It’s a very confusing space to be. It feels like an oxymoron. Like touting yourself as a Jewish Nazi. The overriding conversation today is, what kind of a Muslim are you? There is the purist, they are those who want to be defined by the Sharia law. I don’t want to pigeon hole myself into anything, that’s why I call myself a gay ex-Muslim.
I also think that as a gay person, I shouldn’t try so hard to seek validation as a Muslim when the fundamentals of Islam are pretty clear about homosexuality. Under Sharia law, is it is permissible to kill homosexuals since it is considered the worst sin in Islam. In fact, LGBTQ people are criminalised three times in Islam. The first, for the act of liwat, or sodomy; the second, by doing zina, or having unlawful sexual relations outside of heterosexual marriage; and the third time for assuming an LGBTQ identity which threatens the predominance of cisgender Muslim men over women and minorities. In other words, in the eyes of devout Muslims, LGBTQ people are regarded as enemy combatants and an affront to the Islamic way of life.
There is a widespread misconception that manhood is linked to heterosexuality, the concept of mardaangi in South Asia, which is something your book too delves into too. Where do you think that concept arose from?
I don’t think it's restricted to South Asia. It’s a universal phenomenon that is also prevalent in Judeo-Christian society. It’s not restricted to geography, community or religion. The idea of ‘a real man’ in today’s world is skewed. The protagonist in the book, Kanishka, works towards changing lives for his mom and sister, stands up for himself and what he believes in, when compared to the other character, Maihan, who plays by the rules and is afraid to put himself out there.
One of the works of gay literature that helped me explore the themes of manhood and masculinity in my novel was Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin.
At the heart of the book is the love between Kanishka and Maihan. How did these characters come to you and how did they evolve?
The love story is the sub-plot. The heart of the story is a coming-of-age narrative about a young gay man growing up in a politically charged, repressive society.
I would say that Kanishka is my alter ego and I’d say that his friendship and love with Maihan comes from an unfulfilled wish of being denied this experience in my own childhood. I have not grown up having close male friends of my age so I invented a character who has two friends, something I didn’t have. It all started from my imagination and over the years they have become what they are.
So that’s why I decided to imagine and create this relationship...
You haven’t skirted the issue of abuse that young members of the LGBTQI communities face. Do you see a paradox in today’s world, when more countries are granting equal rights but there is also visible discrimination against the queer community?
The gay community has been made a scapegoat for the larger narrative going around. Bullying, for example, has become a bigger problem just as young people are expressing their gender identity and sexual orientation at a much younger age.
Initially there was a hue and cry about outsourcing jobs to China and India, now it's automation and AI, so I think what people are doing is finding diversions... and the gay community is at the receiving end of it. Gay people have always been the pawns of politicians and society-at-large across cultures around the globe.
Yes, there is more freedom for the gay community today, but at the same time, more people feel oppressed because of the rapid socio-economic transition taking place on the planet. I also feel that in some places there is a clamping down on LGBTQ rights as a reaction to more freedom and equality elsewhere. For example, most of the western countries now have gay marriage and some form of basic protections for LGBTQIA people. Botswana just decriminalised homosexuality and Bhutan is on its way too. Yet in other places, we see a ratcheting up of violence. For example, the gay concentration camps in Chechnya, or the Kingdom of Brunei's new law that stones homosexuals to death. That’s why I hope Kanishka will become a role model who will lend courage to young people, whether queer or not, to lead lives they believe in, to emancipate themselves from the burdens of customs and traditions that keep them trapped in a life of obscurity and unfulfillment.
Do you believe that the book can start conversations about the LGBTQI communities in the Muslim world?
The Carpet Weaver is a book that anyone can relate to. If you see in popular culture, the turning point for the queer community in the US and western society was when the movie adaptation of Brokeback Mountain was released in 2004. That was because it affected the mainstream community and started changing attitudes among heterosexual people. The characters were relatable – men who were married to women, and fathered children, and led doubles lives. Brokeback Mountain was one of the defining moments of our generation. Now the world is effectively split on LGBTQ rights.
I firmly believe that The Carpet Weaver will be the catalyst to tip the scales in favour of a gay-friendly planet. In other words, what Brokeback Mountain did by breaking fresh ground as the first gay romance to crossover into the mainstream and transform American culture and the West with overall acceptance of marriage equality, I expect The Carpet Weaver is well-positioned to do by being at the heart of the conversation about LGBTQIA rights in Indian society and across the East.
I envision Kanishka as a voice and The Carpet Weaver as a vessel for the aspirations of the hundreds of millions of LGBTQIA people who live in one of the 69 or so countries in Asia and around the world where they are still criminalised and struggling for their liberation. It is my hope that The Carpet Weaver will become the defining book of our generation to spearhead the petition to legalise homosexuality wherever LGBTQIA people still have no right to exist.
A great parallel story in the book was the description of the Afghan way of life, its cuisine, culture and festivals. Is this now — thanks to the relentless unrest — a world lost forever?
Some of it is. You can’t help it. But after 40 years of war and deprivation, you can’t expect the culture to remain exactly the same. Some of the cuisine, culture, and festivals were carried out by Afghans in the diaspora but as second and third generation Afghans become absorbed by their new host countries, it’s inevitable that some of these customs will either be co-opted or a thing of the past.
I left Afghanistan when I was eight months old, so I heard a lot of stories from the Golden Age of the country in the ’60s and ’70s. It was when Omar Sharif filmed a movie in Afghanistan, Vogue shot a cover spread with the majestic Afghan hinterland as backdrop, and the hippie trail drew hundreds of thousands of tourists a year from the West, on their path from Turkey to India.
No one really talks about Afghanistan's beauty — its lush meadows, vast mountain ranges and diversity of culture and topography. It was idealised as a Shangri-La like paradise. But thanks to the Cold War and the constant to and fro between the US and Soviet earlier on, and meddling of countries in the region (such as Iran and Pakistan), Afghanistan is bogged down in a seemingly never-ending war.
It’s important to understand what’s lost. And I did hope that by recapturing the images of this golden age of ‘paradise lost’ from Afghanistan’s glorious past, that somehow I would be preserving and resurrecting the old culture — at least in the imaginations of the readers of my novel.
Afghanistan doesn’t recognise same-sex relationships, yet grants informal concessions to horrific crimes like bacha baazi. Why isn’t there a huge hue and cry against it?
There has been a lot of talk about it. Be it Kite Runner, the many documentaries such as The Dancing Boys of Afghanistan and lots of news coverage, they have brought it to the fore. Bacha bazi needs to be understood for what it is, for it wasn’t acceptable in my parents’ generation. Also, a lot of the perpetrators are those who themselves were victims of sexual abuse. What they need is help and treatment, as unpopular as this suggestion sounds. So of course, it happens in circles and definitely needs to be done away with. But it won’t stop unless you decriminalise homosexuality.
You started the book in 2008. What were the most trying aspects of it in the past decade?
Yes, Obama was running for President then! [laughs] It has taken quite a while, considering that it’s not a very large book. For example, Donna Tartt takes 10 years to write a book, but her books are like 900 pages long! I found writing to be an evolutionary process and considering it is expansive in setting and scope of characters, locations and stories, I wanted to get the story just right. I reworked it as I felt it wasn’t quite ready. Also, being rejected by almost 450 agents in the US didn’t help!
Do you dream of returning to Afghanistan one day?
Yeah, I would love to go back. Going back will mean I have triumphed. That I was able to turn around the first jihadi state in the contemporary era into a gay-affirmative nation. That’s when I can really celebrate my success as an activist. Hopefully, this opportunity will come soon. I want my mother and friends and relatives who have supported along this journey to be alive to see this day.
Updated Date: Jul 22, 2019 08:35:21 IST