Published: 14th February 2020
Valentine's Day: Why this gay Afghan author's love story is the dash of romance you need
Afghan-born author and activist Nemat Sadat talks to us about his debut book 'The Carpet Weaver' and how it is to live as a gay man in Afghanistan
Let us talk of chance encounters, that too on a day before Valentine's Day, in a bookstall. That is where I met Nemat Sadat, who was signing copies of his bestseller debut novel The Carpet Weaver. The novel's premise immediately caught my eyes — it tells us a love story of two gay men in Afghanistan.
I was curious. I had to know more about the author, his life and what had prompted him to tell a tale this unique and powerful, which he later told me had got him 'death threats and a tsunami of hatred' from conservatives in Afghanistan. But keeping all that aside, he says that his book is the perfect Valentine's Day gift for everyone. "It will enchant you, charm you and warm your heart — just like a lover," he says. We agreed to meet the next day for an elaborate chat.
Someone who spent almost all his life in the US after Afghanistan's Soviet invasion, Nemat is the first Afghan native to have come out of the closet. This was in 2013 when he was teaching at a university in Afghanistan. "When I came out in August 2013, I was persecuted for being a practicing homosexual. Fast forward 6 years, in June 2019, my book was published in India — the only country to so far publish the book. Since then, I've received nothing but love bombs," he says. Nemat jokes that he calls himself the 'lovebomb of Afghanistan'. "Actually, the gay lovebomb," he laughs.
The Carpet Weaver is probably the first LGBTQIA+ love story set in Central Asia. That could be the reason why Nemat says that a lot of people could relate to the story more than André Aciman's 'Call me by your name', which was later made into a movie. He has, in fact, kickstarted a tour across 55 Indian cities, to promote his book and meet more fellow LGBTQIA+ people. "In a lot of these places, many people have come out to me. They feel comfortable around me and see me as a role model. Their stories must be no different than 'Romeo and Juliet' or 'Layla and Majnun'. In fact, we need more gay role models today," he says.
The author was quite happy about India decriminalsing Section 377 in 2018. At the same time, he laments about how people are persecuted, killed and imprisoned for being gay. "That way, I feel that this book could be a voice for hundreds of millions of people who are living in one of these countries, which are practically open-air prisons," he says. "Even though people talk about pedophilia in Afghanistan, no one actually showed the position of LGBTQIA+ people in the country," he adds.
Keeping the threats aside, Nemat says that he had also received a lot of support from Afghans and Muslims all around the world. "Recently, I was in Bengaluru, when a group of Syrian students had asked me to get the book translated to Arabic. They told me that the Arab world needs it right now," he says.
Nemat began writing his novel 11 years ago, in 2008. " I started writing a day after Barack Obama secured the nomination to fight the presidential elections. I thought if a black man can do this, despite the history of racism and slavery, nothing can possibly stop me from telling this story. In a month, I wrote around 40,000 words," he says.
But the draft wasn't perfect. For that, he had to travel to Afghanistan, the country where his mother and father grew up. "I returned to Afghanistan, my homeland after 32 years. I had to transition myself as an author and understand the stakes of it," he says. Nemat also says that he has portrayed the glorious past of Afghanistan, before the Soviet invasion and the Taliban's takeover. "Some people study the cold war, I had right in my living room. My mother comes from the ruling tribe and my father from the religious elite who became a communist, after the Soviet era. During that time, my mother's kin fled to Europe. After the Soviet withdrew, my paternal family relocated to Europe and the USA. I heard these stories over and over and I could visualise these things," he says. " It was different in 2013. But with the remnants of what they've told me, I could imagine what the world was like back then," he adds.
Nemat admits that authors like Khaled Hosseini had influenced him a lot. "My book is also a coming of age one, like the ones that he has authored. Books in that genre have helped me," he says. Before we wrapped up, Nemat adds two last things about his book — the reasons why he wrote it "I wanted my book to unite more people under the rainbow. Also, I wanted to show a different version of my country. It wasn't always a villain," he says.