A few pages into Nemat Sadat’s The Carpet Weaver , the novel’s protagonist Kanishka, having just turned 16, is taken to a hamam in Kabul by his father, who regularly meets a small group of Maoists in the public bath to discuss politics and ideology. For the teenager, however, the covert political gathering pales in comparison to a much more thrilling attraction: the city’s hamams are known to be a “refuge for men seeking the company of men”.
This desire for men is a secret that Kanishka holds in a tight fist close to his heart, torn apart by his yearning for a life of authenticity and a suffocating sense of duty towards his family and religion. The tangled skein is shot through with fear. In 1970s Afghanistan, like today, being kuni (a derogatory term for a gay man) is an offence punishable with death.
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Yet even as he is consumed by the guilt of not being a “real man”, an intimate relationship develops between Kanishka and his childhood friend, Maihan, opening up the possibility, for the first time ever, of going down “a path that had seemed forbidden before”. Through a series of stolen kisses and trysts, the novel paints the giddy capriciousness of a forbidden teenage romance — an erotically charged knot that is equal parts skittish dread and reckless abandon.
Sadat’s canvas for the young lovers is 1977 Afghanistan, a country that is oblivious to the radical transformation it is about to undergo as a pawn in the Cold War. Under President Mohammad Daoud Khan, it is flirting with modernisation but is still steeped in tradition. The novel’s concerns, however, are mostly restricted to a much smaller microcosm, the capital’s wealthy class, who have enough wiggle room to practise a conservative cosmopolitanism. Set at the very end of what some call Afghanistan’s “golden age”, Sadat vividly creates a gateway to a past era that today seems much more distant than it really was.
Nowroze picnics at the city’s verdant Babur’s Gardens, a weekend getaway in the valleys of Istalif village (famed for its mountains views and grapes), and the last wave of hedonistic Europeans (who Kanishka is quick to shepherd into his father’s carpet shop) following the soon to be abandoned hippie trail, Sadat doesn’t hold back in building a strong sense of time, place and the cultural life of Kabul’s residents, with his most evocative writing saved for a sumptuous chronicling of the region’s food. These drawn-out accounts – detours from the storytelling – would be laborious, if they weren’t so fascinating.