A birthday party with all of Kabul’s elite drinking and dancing. The back of Marco Polo, his family’s famous carpet store situated in the heart of Kabul. An illegal internment camp with inhuman, slave-like conditions in Haftbulla, Pakistan. The bathroom of a dive bar in Los Angeles, California. These are some of the settings where Kanishka, the protagonist of Nemat Sadat’s first novel ‘The Carpet Weaver’, finds himself.
Sadat’s book is a heartfelt coming-of-age story of a young boy who not only has to deal with the struggles of being gay in a conservative society but also has to survive war, starvation and intense loss while doing so. The novel opens with Kanishka’s 16th birthday party, when his family and relatives begin to pressure him to date women and become a “real man”, a phrase that comes to acquire many different meanings during the course of the novel and of Kanishka’s life. Without giving away too much of the story, the novel essentially involves Kanishka falling in love with Maihan, his close friend. Their romance blooms despite the backdrop of complete chaos in the country. Kanishka is then forced to leave Afghanistan and eventually makes his way to safety in the US, surviving the harrowing journey primarily with the hope of seeing Maihan again. Although he reunites with his lover in America, the meeting and the novel as a whole is far from a cliche love story.
Written from the first-person perspective, the novel succeeds in having the reader deeply empathise and connect with Kanishka, despite whatever identity they hold. The writing style is that of an adolescent boy, somewhat naive and crass especially when it comes to sexual desire, and at the same time, some of his views and habits are much older for his age, unsurprising, given the life Kanishka has experienced.
The novel’s easy to read language makes it a page-turner, which can comfortably be read in a single day. Moreover, Sadat manages to create complex and 3-dimensional characters. Kanishka has a strong sex drive and the first thing he thinks of when he sees an attractive man is tearing off his clothes, and yet, he can recite couplets by Rumi at the drop of a hat. Similarly, the women in the text are strong and multifaceted; although Kanishka’s mother is heartbroken that he will not lead a heternormative life with a wife and kids, she makes peace with his sexuality because she loves her son and cannot bear to lose him. His sister Benafsha is not a caricature of a religious and regressive young girl but instead, she is the first person who wholeheartedly accepts Kanishka for who he is and stands by him no matter what.
Most crucially, Sadat masterfully manages to weave the personal with the political and shows us the devastating effects of war and injustice on real people. The reader is completely invested in the characters, especially the protagonist, and so, every loss literally pains on a deep emotional level which is not possible by only looking at figures and numbers. Further, Sadat makes us reflect on ideologies like religion and the more political communism, and the danger when they become strict and orthodox and don’t allow for differing opinions and ways of life.
While ‘The Carpet Weaver’ is a must read and a valuable addition to everybody’s Monsoon Reading List, like any book, it isn’t perfect. Sadat paints a very idealized picture of America, ‘The Land of the Free’, where Kanishka and his family of refugees can finally be safe. He does not, however, show the challenges that going to a new country entails, especially one that is predominantly white and has a history of deep and intense Islamophobia. Additionally, there isn’t a critique of capitalism; Kanishka is completely enchanted by the multitude of choices available at American supermarkets and wholeheartedly accepts the convenience that drinking packaged milk from a plastic carton affords him. Through Kanishka, the author, portrays America as the one place of ultimate freedom and happiness and by doing so, unconsciously engages in drawing simplistic binaries of good and bad, liberal and progressive, where America and the West more broadly is the former and the rest of the world the latter. However, it is also crucial to keep in mind that the novel highlights the life of an Afghan refugee who found safety finally and only in America and so, given that, perhaps the author’s romanticized portrayal of the West can be excused.
Lastly, Sadat does not give the reader an epic love story ending where the two star-crossed lovers finally reunite and begin a life together, but instead gives us an immensely less instantly gratifying one, where Kanishka has to deal with a broken heart and ultimately look out for himself. In that sense, the climax of the novel is closest to reality, with an unfinished and only somewhat satisfying love story that ultimately helps the protagonist grow and become his own person.