Looking for queer love in racist America
By Chintan Girish Modi
“There is no better time than now to challenge the dominant culture of imperialism. What Muslims and queer people in the East have in common is that both are victims of US militarism,” says Nemat Sadat, whose novel The Carpet Weaver (Penguin Random House India, 2019) makes significant contributions to the growing body of academic and activist discourse on queer migration. The following interview is an attempt to learn from his experiences and insights as an American author of Afghan heritage who identifies as gay, advocates for LGBTQIA+ rights in Muslim communities worldwide, and is particularly enthusiastic about reaching out to queer youth who live in isolation.
Sadat’s reflections on the racialized nature of American society, and the heteronormative nature of Afghan society, produce a complex understanding of the ways in which certain types of bodies encounter violence. His remarks about religion and rape could be triggering for certain readers, so personal discretion is advised while reading. They are presented here in the spirit of encouraging free speech and open dialogue, which are often unavailable to individuals marginalized on account of their sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression or sex characteristics.
The Carpet Weaverbegins with one of the characters, Zaki jaan, saying, “The one thing I know is that Allah never forgives sodomy. It’s immoral, impure, unpardonable. And if we let them get their way, then others will find the courage to continue down their path. We can’t let any of our boys become a kuni.” If you were seated with Zaki jaan right now, what would be your response to his remarks?
I would ask him: Why would Allah create homosexuals only to forbid them? What exactly is so wrong about same-sex people showing intimacy? If it is so unnatural, why do non-human animals exhibit homosexuality. An estimated 1500 species practice homosexuality. How can an act be “immoral, impure, unpardonable” if it is a natural phenomenon for two consenting adults to satisfy their basic need to have sex and sexual intimacy with the person they desire?
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?
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.
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? 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.
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?
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 bazis 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. It is as if he is saying, “You think I’m cowardly and weak for being in a passive sexual position. But I will show you how courageous and strong I am as the recipient of oral and anal sodomy, and how I magically defy all the obstacles you throw my way.”
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.
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?
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.
I came out on social media in 2013 as a proud gay, Afghan, American, Muslim. At the time, I still referred to myself as Muslim. I had not made the leap to exit the religion or identify myself as an ex-Muslim as I do now. I also kept referring to myself as the first person from Afghanistan to have come out in such a public way, and started advocating for secular liberalism instead of sharia law in Afghanistan and throughout the Muslim world. Bilal Askaryar, a gay Pashtun Afghan American Muslim who was sort of out at the time felt that I was feeding into the dominant narrative of US cultural imperialism by my self-labeling and provocative rhetoric. He tweeted at me, “Aside from the hubris, why would you give into the #Orientalist construct “1st to Y”?
I did not see the world the way that he did, though we shared almost the same identities. I felt Askaryar was speaking from a place of privilege even though he and I are both marginalized minorities in the US. Still compared to our counterparts back home, Askaryar was living in a freer society. He could act on his sexuality and express his views to me without life-threatening repercussions. Meanwhile, LGBTQIA+ people in Afghanistan and the rest of the Muslim world cannot express their sexuality or thoughts without the risk of getting jailed or killed. I felt that he was so locked into the Islam vs. The West paradigm that he was not even seeing what I was seeing. Indeed, US militarism and occupation in Afghanistan is to blame where blame is due. But does that make it right to turn a blind eye against the religion and theology that is used justify the slaughtering of LGBTQIA+ people or deny them the right to freely live and love?
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.
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?
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.
From the way you have written about the hammam and the pehlwani-kushti, I see an interesting paradox. On the one hand, homosociality seems like a fertile ground for hypermasculinity — even misogyny — but it also provides a cover for gay men who are cruising for sex. As someone who embodies both Afghan and American identities, how do you see homosociality play out for young queer Muslims looking for acceptance?
If you trace back to any institution where there is a congregation of the same sex, you will find homosociality play out. In Afghanistan, like many Muslim countries, society is segregated along gender lines. This militantly patriarchal system reaffirms the hypermasculinity you speak of. It produces a heteronormative culture that induces a chaotic, wild sexual underground. In Kabul, gay Afghan men will discreetly cruise gyms, parks, and shopping malls, and try to hook up for anonymous sex. Men will also try to get frisky on Kabul’s public buses during the peak hours when the passenger load is heaviest. In Afghanistan, there is a sub-culture of ‘Man Love Thursday’, which is a weekly outbreak of homosexuality. It occurs the night before Friday, the Muslim day of rest. I know it sounds hypocritical. A country where it is forbidden to be gay, and frowns upon women losing their virginity, tolerates men to secretly use each other in private.
The homosexual acts can occur between co-workers, friends, and relatives. Homosexuality is widespread in the Afghan National Army. The government does not resist since it is so hard to recruit and retain soldiers. What often happens is a bunch of soldiers will get together, travel to a house, and spend their one-day weekend together getting their man fix. Afghan men, regardless of sexuality, love to penetrate an anus. Often the effeminate will be cajoled or willingly be gangbanged by the rest. It is a communal affair. Even though the anus is used for pleasure, the men return home or back to their duties as if nothing ever happened. Even with all this homosexuality that quietly takes place in private, everyone is in denial about gay rights.
There is virtually no room for self-identifying queer Afghans to have their own space out in the open. Those who have accepted themselves, and self-identify as members of an LGBTQIA+ community, are still scared to openly date. They fear that they will be outed, humiliated, tortured, and killed.
I was impressed by how you didn’t go down that road of framing Kanishka’s love for Maihan through the lens of ishq-e-majazi and ishq-e-haqiqi, a trope that is often used in literature to ‘dignify’ erotic love between men, to cloak it with ‘respectability’ using spiritual vocabulary. Maihan’s mother Shameem explicitly names Rumi and Shams as kuni. What are your thoughts on this?
Long before I disbelieved in Islam, I had issue with the concept of channeling romantic love for another human back to the prime source creator Allah. I also never understood all the fuss about sexual intimacy. It should be celebrated, notshamed. I take issue with devout Muslims who treat Rumi as this perfect and pristine figure like Virgin Mary.
Rumi’s poetry is rife with homoeroticism. Itjust seems foolish to deny the fact that he loved another man who inspired his writing. Yet Islamic scholars consistently have interpreted the relationship between Rumi and Shams as an example of the Sufi call to open one’s heart to another human, in order to open one’s heart to God.
Kanishka tells Maihan, “These days, all I do is think about sex. Even when I’m praying and I’m supposed to be concentrating on Allah…When I’m at the mosque, nestled between men behind and in front of me and the imam says Allahu Akbar, I become aroused when we genuflect…I’m wondering if any man behind me is enjoying the view of my buttocks spread wide.” I cannot help but applaud your remarkable queering of the religious space through this articulation of desire. How have readers responded to this part of the book?
So far, nobody has responded to this. But as a transgressive queer writer, this was intentional. Actually, this really happened to me. This was the author using Kanishka as a medium to come into the pages. I wanted to take this part out of the novel, and use it for my memoir. However, my editor at Penguin Random House India was adamant that we keep it.
Kanishka does not care much about faith, and understandably so. He hears Mullah Naqib saying, “When a man mounts another man, the throne of God shakes, so to purify the sin, you have to kill both.” In the absence of formal sexuality education in schools, what kind of impact do such narratives have on queer youth? 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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
Maihan and Rustam make life choices that would give them the social approval that comes from being in heterosexual marriages, and they continue to hook up with men. Do you see them as leading a less authentic life than Kanishka who wants to take on a gay identity? What is your take on the compulsion that gay men feel to protect their parents from the humiliation they might suffer, and the impact of this choice on their wives?
Gay men opt for the heterosexual lifestyle due to the constant fear of being rejected by friends and family if they reveal their sexuality. This is the primary reason why they pursue a secret life, fake life, or double life—whatever you want to call it. If you are a gay man in Afghanistan who is not married by the age of 21, you will soon be questioned about why you have not married a woman. Almost all gay men have to marry. If they refuse, they are beaten and humiliated by their family members. If youare 30 years old, andnot married, people in the community intervene by questioning the parents and spreading rumors that the man is infertile or a kuni or something else. It is a malicious blood sport that even the women will partake in with a dose of schadenfreude.
This is why the likes of Maihan and Rustam just do notbother fighting the oppressive system. They surrender by living a lie, a fake life, because they have to. They feel they do not have free will but they actually do. In Afghanistan, like in many repressive countries where homosexuality is still forbidden, there are people like Kanishka who risk it all to honour their sexuality and be with the person they love even at the expense of hurting their family’s feelings. Whenever a gay man who does have an option—as inconvenient it may be—to not marry the opposite sex but says he does so protect his parents from the humiliation they might suffer, what he is actually doing is trying to convince himself and others that heis doing the right thing to keep the peace and keep the family’s reputation intact. He does not have the courage to walk into the unknown—the uncharted path. He is scared to lose his relatives. He will endure a loveless marriage. His wife, who is the worst victim in this scenario, will be scarred forever.
How did you work through the moral ambiguity around the relationship between Kanishka and Tor Gul? Kanishka saw him as a tyrant who forced poor refugees to weave carpets in a shady camp in Balochistan, killed the weak and disabled, but also as someone who appreciated his artistic talent and fulfilled his sexual needs. How do you think about consent in a scenario like this where Kanishka does not know if he should think of Tor Gul as a rapist or a lover?
I allowed Tor Gul to emerge as an aesthete, straight off the bat, in the scene where he is introduced in the novel. Tor Gul mobilizes two polar personalities, one of kindness and another of brutality. I wanted to make him far more compelling as a character, to show the complex contradictions that make him both a charming aesthete as well as a brutal tyrant. From the reader’s point of view, it does not really matter whether Tor Gul was born a good person or not. What matters is that he is now a complex individual with many facets to him. Whether or not he can be fully redeemed is a question for the reader to answer, not the writer.
Kanishka also complicates the image of Tor Gul as this generous lover who bestows this penis-starved Kanishka with the gifts of his penetration and semen. But at the same time, Kanishka is repeatedly raped. Every single person experiences rape differently. Most rape victims hate their rapists. Some want to. But he tries to change the narrative by losing himself in the moment, and finding himself halfway between pleasure and confusion. Kanishka tries to make the nature of his relationship with Tor Gul change. He wants to make the rape turn into love like the kind he has for Maihan.
Kanishka’s moral compass, albeit very controversial, goes like this: If you are going to get raped, you can either reject and rebel, and suffer the hurt of being controlled and violated. Or you can fully surrender, as a coping mechanism, to your rapist, and enjoy. In the scene where Tor Gul rapes Kanishka, and in the encounters that occur thereafter, Kanishka shrouds himself in excuses to escape the reality of what happens around him. Kanishka tricks his mind to think it is consensual, and derives pleasure from pleasing Tor Gul.
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?
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.
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.
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.
As the discourse around queer rights expands around the world, would you say that there is a danger of American queer history occupying centrality in a way that erases global and local queer histories? Are foreign consulates and multinational corporations shaping queer politics in ways that are culturally uninformed, promoting homogenity in the name of solidarity, and also weakening community spaces and networks by pumping in money?
The US has not always been on the forefront of all LGBTQIA+ issues. Same-sex love is as old as heterosexual love but, from US popular culture and pro-LGBTQIA+ media, you would think that queer civilization started with the Americans. In terms of legal protections, surely the first activist movement on US soil can be traced back to the Stonewall Inn riots in New York City in 1969. But if we look throughout history, there were thriving queer communities in indigenous cultures and countries all around the world at various points in time.
Let’s take Germany, for example. Berlin, prior to the arrival of Adolf Hitler, was the gay capital of the world. Apparently lesbian life was so abundant that there were twelve social clubs and more than two bars where women could meet other women. Unfortunately, the extermination of homosexuals during the Nazi period largely erased German gay history from international consciousness, and even from German memory. When the US occupied Germany, it did not try to resurrect the gay-affirmative German culture back to consciousness. Instead, the US exported its own version through US embassies and diplomatic posts and multinational corporations to re-orient queer politics in a way to make inroads and breakdown the local culture to pave the way for Americanization. This goes on until this day where the US uses gay people as pawns in its foreign policy posture. Take, for example, the news that broke out earlier this year that US Ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell, was spearheading the Trump administration’s launch of a global campaign to end criminalization of homosexuality around the round. It turns out that this bid was aimed in part at denouncing Iran over its human rights record by isolating the Islamic Republic.
So far, the Trump administration’s campaign to liberate the world’s LGBTQIA+ community hasn’t gone anywhere. How could it when the Trump administration has been rolling back civil protections for gay and trans people since he came into office? (Chintan Girish Modi is a fellow with the Prajnya Trust. He has previously worked with the UNESCO Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Education for Peace and Sustainable Development, and the Hri Institute for Southasian Research and Exchange. He tweets @chintan_connect, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)