Crushing the taboo on homosexuality: An interview with author Nemat Sadat

Nemat Sadat is an author of Afghan heritage who lives in the United States of America. He identifies as gay and ex-Muslim. His incredible openness in talking about love, racism and geopolitics moved me as much as the characters in his novel The Carpet Weaver. The book was published earlier this year by Penguin Random House India, and has gathered a lot of critical acclaim. I reached out to him for an email interview, and he was kind enough to answer all my questions. Here are some excerpts that teachers might find useful. The full text of the interview is available on the website of the Red Elephant Foundation, where it first appeared as part of their Gender Security Project.

High Resolution  (1 of 2) Photographer Elliott O'Donovan.jpg

Question: The novel’s protagonist, Kanishka Nurzada, is deeply aware of his desire for boys and men at the age of 16. Growing up in Kabul in 1977, this isn’t easy for him because he could get killed. What gives him the courage to be who he wants to be, though there is this perpetual fear of being outed?

Answer: Kanishka has the courage to be gay but I do not think he really fears being outed or perhaps he has not properly assessed the risk factor. In the last days of the golden age, it was a fluid time. There was a lot of ambiguity about the danger involved in being gay. Afghanistan was experimenting with cosmetic modernization, and the educated elites in Kabul lived in a bubble of cosmopolitanism. Despite the dangers of upsetting the conservative, religious, and traditional-minded, there were enough Kabulis willing to test the waters and push for progressive change. 

Secular Afghans saw the future of Afghanistan as something akin to post-Ataturk Turkey. Kanishka is a product of this time period. He grows up in this milieu, whether at his French school or surrounded by European tourists on the streets. He takes cues from the growing culture of liberality. He knows about same-sex attraction and desire, and we sense this when he goes with his father to the Durrani hammam. He is keenly aware of it serving as a place for men to cruise for sex with the same gender. Later, he talks about the men of Shor Bazaar lusting for beardless boys.

Question: On Kanishka’s 16th birthday, his father Ghafoor embarrasses him publicly by saying, “No young man is complete without a wife.” Upholding his father’s honour becomes a burden that he is expected to carry throughout his adult life. How different are social expectations in Afghanistan today for queer adolescents who want to live a life of freedom and dignity?

Answer: Unfortunately, there is no social acceptance for freedom and dignity for queer adolescents in Afghanistan. The best a queer person can do is to somehow stave off the blows from the violence of being exposed, and forced marriage to the opposite sex. If the person is fortunate to not be killed for coming out to his or her family, the best one can hope for is to flee Afghanistan and start a life in a country that honours a person’s true sexual orientation and gender identity. 

There is no guarantee that life in exile will be any better for an LGBTQIA+ Afghan person. Even if they are lucky to have the resources to reach a European country, their asylum cases are often rejected on the grounds that Afghanistan is now a ‘democracy’. This is a complete sham since the current Afghan government provides no legal protections to LGBTQIA+ people. The country is still under US occupation. The Taliban and other Islamist terrorist groups have re-emerged and taken control. 

Question: In The Carpet Weaver, queer individuals are spoken of as kuni, kushads, izaks, hamjens baz and hamjens gera. Would you mind sharing a bit about the shades of meaning these words convey in Afghan society?

Answer: The politics of language runs very deep in Afghanistan. There is a wide range of slurs and epithets in Dari and Pashto. Kuni is equivalent to fag or faggot. Kushads means assholes. Izaks is used to identify an intersex person or hermaphrodite. Hamjens baz is used to refer to someone who plays with their own kind—meaning own gender or sex. Hamjens gera is akin to homosexual, and definitely the most socially acceptable term to identify a gay person.

Some may wonder why Kanishka would refer to himself as kuni when he is very articulate and even cites his mother, Parasto, explaining the difference to Shameem. This is intentional, of course. He is reclaiming the word. Kanishka finds a sense of agency or empowerment from pain by taking the power out of kuni, and using the word that emasculates him and other gay people sharing a history of oppression in anti-sodomite society. 

At the beginning of the book, kuni is used as a pejorative. Towards the end, Kanishka sees being kuni as something brave and beautiful. He re-appropriates the word as a badge of honour. This was tricky for me to do, knowing that some readers who have been called kuni or its equivalent in English or another language may be triggered by painful memories — just as the word ‘queer’ was once a term used to otherize sexual minorities, to lump them together as social aberrations.

The Carpet Weaver book cover deisgn

Question: Naming is often a crucial act for people to make sense of themselves and others, and this can be culturally embedded in ways that are often glossed over by queer narratives coming out of the so called first world, and circulating outwards. How do you navigate the politics around this as someone who identifies as gay, and advocates for LGBTQIA+ rights in Muslim communities worldwide?

Answer: We still live in a world of identity constructs, and people tend to self-categorize to make meaning out of life. As an activist-artist, I realized that if I wanted my narratives to resonate with the masses, I needed to tell my stories with the power that comes from labels. What is important when labelling ourselves or others is that the objective should be to use it as a form of empowerment.

Prior to my coming out, gays supposedly did not exist in Afghanistan. They were simply invisible—never mentioned in the national discourse. I applied liberal constructivist theory from international relations, and spearheaded an ongoing queer narrative that gained traction and crushed the taboo on homosexuality. It cemented a gay Afghan identity into the popular culture.

Question: This book speaks to me because it comes from a place of integrity. Instead of peddling an aspirational queer culture uncritically mimicking the West, it explores the cultural spaces — geographic and poetic — within which queer intimacy has found a place to exist, even thrive, within Afghanistan. Could you take me through the process of how you arrived at this?

Answer: I think this integrity comes from my unique place in the world. As I grew up, I began to feel like a dichotomy myself—torn between two cultures, representing both, but not truly feeling either. My overarching identity conflict, and trying to reconcile it, has been a central theme in my life. Being Afghan, American, Muslim, and a repressed homosexual, posed many perplexing challenges in a post-9/11 world. It was hard for me to assimilate and integrate into the dominant white culture in American society. I had to jump over high hoops to prove I was loyal, normal, and worthy, despite all the skepticism and suspicion about those with my ethnic or national origin, religion, and sexuality.  

The reality is that I have been marginalized because I am somewhat trapped in limbo—a no man’s land—between Afghan and American culture, and Islamic and western society. I thought I would be welcomed in the LGBTQIA+ community. Even on the gay scene, I have felt like a fish out of the water. This is why I have made it my life’s crusade to break down all the barriers, and subvert all the labels that divide us. I am, first and foremost, a conscientious humanist and an ethical vegan. I have an open heart, and I love all creatures—human or animal, Arab or Jew, Afghan or American, atheist or ascetic, Christian or Muslim, gay or straight. I believe crusading for the rights of the tiniest minority, the individual, is a noble cause. I cannot think of any better way to promote this ideal than by pushing for gay liberation around the world.    

Question: Kanishka does not care much about faith, and understandably so. He often hears about homosexuality being spoken of as sinful by elders and religious leaders. In the absence of formal sexuality education in schools, what kind of impact do such narratives have on queer youth? 

Answer: Kanishka is a free spirit and kind soul. Of course, he is instinctively going to rebel against dogma. If you only hear about how shameful and sinful you are for simply existing or desiring the same sex, it is going to make you feel inadequate and diminish your self-worth. Disapproval can have detrimental effects on the development of the brain. Not hearing any affirmative messages during our socialization process can trigger mental blocks that permanently stifle creativity and critical thinking.

Kanishka’s story can be empowering for disillusioned queer youth who suffer in silence and do not have visible role models who look like them. Fictional characters make great heroes, especially in the genre of Bildungsroman novels. The Carpet Weaver is a Künstlerroman, a coming-of-age story about an artist, a sub-category of the Bildungsroman. Although Kanishka is technically not real (many have assumed I’m masking myself in this character), he is representative of the values of a society at a specific place and time. The situations he finds himself in are analogous to real life issues and experiences. I tried to narrate the story like a confessional memoir, so he seems like a genuinely real person.

Question: How do you look at the possibility of faith being a source of strength for queer people struggling with their sexuality and identity? Could you talk about this, drawing from your experience of mobilizing a secret gay rights movement while you were teaching at the American University of Afghanistan?

Answer: I know that faith is important for many people around the world.  In the Afghan community, traditional connections among family, culture, and religion are so close-knit that a queer person’s identity is formed from these three agents of socialization. The interconnectedness of culture and religion in the Afghan context means that any homophobia related to faith can have devastating effects on a person’s psychological well-being. 

From my experience working with the LGBTQIA+ community in Afghanistan, I often clashed with queer Afghans who insisted on justifying homosexuality within the framework of Islam. As the de facto leader of Afghanistan’s LGBTQIA+ community, I was not keen on partaking in a circular narrative that would further inflame the sentiments of Muslim purists who felt that we were making a mockery of their religion. How could we circumvent sharia law when the first and final world is that of Allah, which means gays are forever demonised and subjected to evil? 

I believed that initiating progressive change to secularize Afghanistan made more sense. In the long-term, we were better off justifying homosexuality on the grounds of science and humanism, and mustering the courage to debate creation theory versus evolution science.

Question: According to you, how important is it for queer youth to have teachers and mentors who make them feel safe and supported? In The Carpet Weaver, when the teacher Vadim agha learns about the sexual abuse that Kanishka and Maihan have suffered, he shames them for not being ‘real’ men and threatens to notify their parents. He neither confronts nor punishes the boys who are the perpetrators.

Answer: Bullying of queer youth is still a problem around the world even with more acceptance of LGBTQIA+ rights in many countries. In The Carpet Weaver, Vadim’s approach of doing nothing about the problem is a perfect example of an ‘absentee’ management style. The person is in a leadership position where they can and should make a difference but they are psychologically absent. Studies show that the impact from being ignored and silenced by one’s teacher is more alienating than being treated poorly. I would say that LGBTQIA+ inclusion in classrooms everywhere is the most urgent priority for teachers. It cannot just be lesson plans about the gay rights movement. It requires a holistic approach that starts from the basics like speaking to queer students using appropriate language and respecting them.  

Question: Though Kanishka’s sister Benafsha is one of the minor characters in the novel, she is perhaps the only one who consistently models what it means to be an unconditional ally. She feels his despair, and encourages him to come out to their mother. How do you think children and teenagers who do not identify as queer can help create safe spaces for their queer friends and siblings?

Answer: Benafsha is the most likeable character in the novel, if not Kanishka himself. She has a prominent role, and is quite useful. She aids Kanishka in coming to terms with his sexuality. She embodies all the qualities that an LGBTQIA+ person dreams of in a sibling. Kanishka’s sexuality is a non-issue for her. Benafsha feels like a minor character in the sense that she is under the radar for much of the book, does not have a sub-plot of her own, and does not necessarily drive the plot forward. However, her character is rounded. She anchors Kanishka in situations of conflict.

Question: When Kanishka moves from Afghanistan to the United States of America, his reference points for queer history and queer literature change quite rapidly. He begins to dream of living in New York as he reads about the history of Stonewall Inn, and the gay liberation movement. What would life be like for him as a queer Muslim refugee, who is also a person of color, under the Trump administration? In the US, gay marriage is legal but sexuality education in large parts of the country is heteronormative because homosexuality is unacceptable to several conservative Christian groups.

Answer: Kanishka does absorb a lot of American culture but that is due to his giftedness as a carpet weaver, as an artist. Artists tend to make keen observations, and see associations that others may not notice. That is where genius lies. Kanishka comes to the US after the civil rights movement of the 1960’s, and the golden era of Hollywood and popular music. At this time, AIDS has not received the public attention to equate it with man-on-man sex. The LGBTQIA+ community has not been stigmatized but the US is still struggling to accept native-born gay white men. What would they know about a gay Afghan refugee? The best someone like Kanishka can do is to connect with the gay community, and try to blend in.

Under the Trump administration, it is virtually impossible to do that. Gay men of color are marginalized by conservative gay white supporters who champion the Republican cause, regardless of who is running for President. Liberal gay white men pay lip service, and speak up for civil rights for all people, but too often engage in sexual racism. They may not openly admit it but they will not consummate with a non-white man either because they are not attracted to the race or do not want to be further marginalized by dating someone like Kanishka who is brown, an immigrant, and from a Muslim background. 

There is also a lot of resentment towards Afghanistan since it is perceived as a hostile country that is still at war with the US even after nearly 18 years of occupation that has cost the Americans thousands of lives and over a trillion dollars. In a recent meeting with (Pakistani Prime Minister) Imran Khan, Trump said that the US could win the Afghan war in a week but he does not want to kill 10 million people. Comments like this by the US President, nonchalantly boasting how he could exterminate 10 million people, do not make Afghans desirable in the eyes of the world.

The same goes for queer people of color from other Muslim countries. Those who have it the worst are probably queer Muslims who hail from one of the countries that the US Supreme Court has banned from travelling to the US. In a nutshell, gay Muslims get it from both sides of the cosmic battle between Christianity and Islam. Christians, by and large, do not accept gay Muslims because of their homosexuality and/or faith. Muslim Americans still have a long way to go to accept LGBTQIA+ rights.   

(About the interviewer: Chintan Girish Modi is a fellow with the Prajnya Trust, creating resources to sensitize teachers about LGBTQIA+ identities, experiences and issues. Get in touch with him at chintan.prajnya@gmail.com)


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