Writer Nemat Sadat turned forty last week and celebrated it with the launch of his debut novel The Carpet Weaver (Rs 399, Penguin Random House) at New Delhi’s Imperial Hotel. Born in Afghanistan, he was only five when he fled to the US with his mother and siblings after the war broke out in 1979. Life in southern California went on as usual, till 9/11 happened. Soon Sadat moved to the East Coast and studied at Harvard and Columbia. At 23, he came out to himself as gay but the family was told seven years later. In the year 2012, the journalist was in the news for initiating an underground queer rights movement in Afghanistan, when he was teaching at the American University of Afghanistan. Now his book is a talking point. It tells the tale of Kanishka, the 16-year-old son of a leading carpet seller in Afghanistan, who falls in love with his friend Maihan. They keep their romance a secret to avoid the death penalty meted out to those deemed to be kuni (a derogatory term for gay men). The book chronicles Kanishka’s search for Maihan after the two are separated during the war. Excerpts from an interview with Sadat:
How did this book come up? Was there a trigger?
I think it was due to the rejection and persecution that I faced, not only for being gay but also for being an Afghan refugee. Coming from a Muslim background and being an immigrant in America, my identity seems to be a threat. After 9/11, it became worse. I got myself educated just to show people that I’m as accomplished as they are. But it did not help because by then I had become a threat to the dominant culture of white America. So I thought of creating a character that can break these chains of oppression and is empowered by his identity. That is what Kanishka does when he comes out to his mother and charts his own path. He doesn’t cut off with his family. The story was jarring for the publishers because they felt it is was not accurate. Over 450 agents rejected the manuscript on the grounds that there will be no market for it.
How did you develop the storyline?
I think Kanishka and I share the same core values. He is shrouded by fear and doubt in the beginning but overcomes that and finds the courage to speak up. It takes the readers through the plight of the family when the war is going on when they end up in a refugee camp in Pakistan and their journey to the US. It also discusses the exploitation of children in the carpet weaving industry in Afghanistan. Carpet weaving is tied to the war economy. Pakistan was able to profit from the migration of talented Afghan carpet weavers who moved to the country. But the middle class does not want to get into carpet weaving, which is why Kanishka’s father objects to the profession. This is also a coming-of-age story of an artist.
Why did you name it The Carpet Weaver?
I like the symbolism The Kite Runner had. Besides agriculture, in Afghanistan handicrafts have been a primary source of income for the population and carpet weaving has been a lucrative profession. The carpets were in great demand in the West. So I think the title weaves the history, culture, politics and literature of the place together.
How difficult was the process of writing the book?
It was incredibly difficult to write. Most of my peers in Oxford had read Russian and French classics at a very young age. I started reading seriously after high school, especially about Afghanistan and US foreign policy. Indian writers such as Arvind Adiga and Kiran Desai also had an influence on me. Kiran’s richness and scope in the setting in The Inheritance of Loss really encouraged me. I think I have inherited the loss of that golden age of paradise. While growing up in the diaspora community of southern California, we would hear stories from our elders. People question me about the little time I have spent in Afghanistan, but they don’t know I am a household name in the country. I had essayed the role of a transgender in a play in the UK, and I had to cross-dress. The photos were shared across social media by people in Afghanistan. I returned home after receiving a fatwa and death threats and was shunned by my near and dear ones. I cried last night (at the book launch party), as I feel that I’ve found a home with Indians. I’ve never felt integrated in the US by being Afghan, refugee, brown, gay, and from a Muslim background.
You started writing the book 11 years back. Why did it take so long?
I was inspired to write this book the day Barack Obama got the nomination instead of Hillary Clinton for the presidential election. I had this story bottled up inside me. It wasn’t as much about creating a love story, as much as it was about creating an alter ego where Kanishka had his childhood friends who supported him — the kind of male friends I did not have. I grew up playing with my cousins and their dolls. It was kind of a radical escapist fantasy for me, where I am growing up in Afghanistan and romanticising. I thought if a biracial black man can win a nomination from such a powerful political party in the US, then I can surely write this book. For the next few weeks, I had an outburst of emotions and wrote over 45,000 words. It was a cathartic experience. After my stint in Kabul, nobody wanted to give me a job and my father did not allow me to come home. I could go home only if I returned to the closet. My siblings did not support me either, and I had to live in a homeless shelter. My sister wanted me to meet my twin nieces and it was then that my family saw my state — lice in my hair, damaged skin and weight issues. My mother asked me to move in with her, not find a job and only focus on The Carpet Weaver. I think this novel saved me because there were moments when I wished I was dead, but writing kept me alive.