Nemat Sadat: ‘I too would like to go back to Afghanistan and not be stoned for being gay’

Nemat Sadat, Afghan LGBTQ+ activist in his first book, ‘The Carpet Weaver’, touches upon the different identities one is forced to take up as being part of the LGBTQ+ community

Photo Courtesy: Swarup Mandal
Photo Courtesy: Swarup Mandal

Sarahbeth George

Nemat Sadat, Afghan LGBTQ+ activist, left Afghanistan at the age of five. He was the first openly gay member from the Afghan community. He faced a threat to his life when he first came out while he was working at the American University of Afghanistan. He was promptly fired from his job. In his first book, The Carpet Weaver, he touches upon the different identities one is forced to take up as being part of the LGBTQ+ community. He spoke in detail to Sarahbeth Nimmi George.

The plot of the book is set in three places —Afghanistan, Pakistan and the United States of America. His protagonist, Kanishka Nurzada, is a 16 year old who is coming to terms with his identity as someone who is gay in a place where it is considered a crime, punishable by death and is in love with his best friend.

As the story moves forward, the political situation in the country become violent. Kanishka escapes from Afghanistan but is subjected to a life of exploitation as he works as a carpet weaver in a cramped camp in Pakistan. He eventually escapes from the camp and makes it to the US. Strangely even though he is in a place where he is safe and can live his life as he wants, he still feels like he can’t live truthfully as a gay man, thereby countering the notion of America being a land of complete freedom.

The book is especially relatable to its readers because of the many themes it follows as it moves forward. It speaks to those struggling with their identity within the confines of religion and culture, whichever it may be. He even throws light on the intricacies of the concept of home and feeling safe within the so-called confines of the home.

What was the inspiration behind writing this book? What parts of your experience lent itself to the creation of this book?

The day I started writing was the day after Barack Obama, a biracial man, won the elections in America. I thought if he could win, then surely, I could write about my own experience. It began as a personal project and didn’t show it to anyone.

I had also started it because I had moved away from California and the Afghan community. I felt repressed within the Afghan community. Living in Boston, away from the Afghan community, allowed me to live the way I wanted to, without having to prove myself to anyone.

I had initially joined a writing programme that was a very scarring experience for me. I had shared my writing with those in the programme but they responded negatively to it. They wouldn’t have understood it anyway. They were all white, heterosexual and my experience would not have meant anything to them.

I was still figuring out what I wanted to do and had taken up a course in journalism. It was there that my professors encouraged me to write in the narrative format and they directed me in a positive way. I realised that the only way for me to accept myself and for other people like me was by writing this book.

How can Afghanistan be able to accept homosexuality and make a move towards decriminalizing it?

Afghanistan will move forward once more people start coming out to their families and other members in the community. People have started coming out but in smaller ways than I did, but it is still making a difference. People of the younger generations are talking about homosexuality and refusing to fall into conventions like straight marriages.

Millennials today are doing things differently from what people in my generation did. My generation would not have come out. They would have settled for the conventional notions of marriage, family. Millennials today in Afghanistan are seeing people supporting LGBTQ rights and celebrating pride. They see the move other parts of the world are making towards decriminalizing homosexuality and they know that there is a community for them. It is just a matter of time before Afghanistan makes a move towards decriminalizing homosexuality.

If this book does well in the US and England, then Afghans will term people like me “infidels” and say that the west is trying to push its LGBTQ agenda. At one point they were pushing for the Buggery Act, and now they are pushing for LGBTQ rights. The west is known for imposing its ideas and notions. They have historically not allowed people to make their own decisions and so with the West pushing this book, it will get pushed as an agenda.

But it’s different when countries like India and other South Asian nations talk about this book and homosexuality. It will help in changing things. I believe Afghan people are malleable; if they see other people accepting it, then they too will change their stance on it. For me, it was not just about bringing about change but also about being accepted by the Afghan community. I would like to go back to Afghanistan and not be stoned for being gay.

For those within the Afghan community, I was someone they had pushed to the fringe but now, after this book, I hope that they will see me as someone from their community whose book could bring about some change. I have become a mainstream voice outside of the community and now the Afghan community views me differently. I hope that it helps me bring about change in the community and inspire others from the LGBTQ community.

Is it necessary for one to completely leave behind religion to be completely true to your own identity, especially in terms of sexual-orientation?

For me Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Religion and belief is very important. In the US, it is one of the redeeming factors and it is essential for every person. I personally view myself as an atheist and I do not seek any support or comfort from religion. But for some other people, religion plays a very important role and they see it as a source of support. I would not impose my views on them and that’s what is important.

But even though my novel focuses on the LGBTQ community, it does include the intersection of other identities. Another reason for the interest in this book is because of the atheist underpinnings, which begins right where the book starts and is seen till the end.

In India, the LGBTQ community is full of gay Sikhs, gay Hindus, gay Muslims, who are always reinforcing religion in order to get accepted by the community. Even in my family, my father and uncles do not openly state that they are atheist but refer to themselves as communist Muslims.

How was your experience writing about Afghanistan and its past, especially as someone who has grown up for most of his life in the US?

I had spent my first eight months in Afghanistan and then one year in between as an adult, but it had a lot of impact on me. I think an insider, or someone who grew up all their life in Afghanistan, would have a personal bias. If I were an insider, I wouldn’t have chosen to write about Maoism and its links to my own family. But being an outsider has allowed me to talk about everything within, without being beholden to any group or ideology. It has been freeing for me, but regardless of that, I still am sympathetic to the Afghan people. That doesn’t change.

Photo Courtesy: social media
Photo Courtesy: social media

What about this Maoist in the book?

Anyone who knows Afghan history knows of the Soviet involvement in Afghanistan and everything that followed. They would know about Pakistani and Arab hands as well. But very few know about the role of Maoism and China in Afghanistan. Maoists have been persecuted by royalists, Islamic groups and by most others. Even today, there are still some people who believe in Maoism but they don’t call themselves Maoists. For me, it was another label and an identity that had never had its own voice.

What was the experience of reconciling your sexuality with your Afghan culture and the family?

There was mixed reaction to my coming out. It was during my time as a professor at the American University of Afghanistan. While some of my students,who were more liberal, accepted me, a vast majority of Afghans were writing against me online and on the social media. Even my own father and brothers were against it. Now, I think the situation has changed.

Is your portrayal of America an intentional move away from the classic and common belief of the “American Dream”?

It is an intentional move away from the common notion of the ‘American Dream’. I have critiqued the very fundamentals of what drives the American dream, and it’s actually none other than capitalism. I show both sides of the world that drives capitalism. On one side, there are people being exploited for their labour and being forced to work in concentration camps. And on the other side is the white man who is buying from the Pakistani trader and is quoting a high price for it.

My critique of capitalism is also why I had such a hard time finding a publisher. People in the publishing business want to read about very specific experiences. They would much rather like my book to be “Call Me by your Name”, but my experience is different. I can’t relate to that. I am not a white person, I am a queer, Afghan, Muslim immigrant.

Do you have any plans on continuing the story in a sequel?

This book is about the coming of age of Kanishka and we see him become more confident and secure about himself. The book follows him as he learns of the things that will help him survive any obstacle that he encounters later in his life and he is equipped with knowledge that will guide his decisions all his life. This book encompasses all the growing up he needed to do.

No, there will not be a sequel. It is the culmination of one part of Kanishka’s journey, but it also gives the reader a sense of what the future might hold for him. For me, the ending is one that brings together the past,the present and the future. After this, there are other novels to come but not a continuation of the same one.

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Published: 07 Jul 2019, 3:00 PM