The Carpet Weaver
The chill of the evening promised a cold winter was approaching; the dry wind chapped my lips and cut through my smart blazer. As the sun faded over the encircling mountain chains, shades of violet painted the sky. A sturdy man with a chinstrap beard wrapped in a camel wool patu and wearing a pakul cap cast me a lecherous glare as he passed by. A tingling sensation crawled up and down my spine, but I promptly collected myself when I saw Maihan approach. He smiled with a look of seraphic contentment that glowed on his flawless skin. His windswept hair had been trimmed in layers. I suddenly felt incredibly underdressed and uncool. Maihan, as usual, looked like a runway model, decked out in a designer button-down cardigan over a turtleneck, wool trousers and burnished tan shoes.
‘Well hello, professor!’ he shouted over the traffic as he extended his arms to hug me. I held him, inhaling his citrusy cologne. We made our way into the chai khana. We had grown accustomed to going out on our own by now, but only Maihan had frequented Pata Khazana before. Inside, the rustic-chic decor accented with Taloqan salt crystal lamps, caramel onyx tiles and liver-red Chob Bash Ersari rugs transformed the space into a romantic echo chamber. The fragrance emanating from incense sticks burning in anchored silver censers infused the air. A qawwali ensemble performed the spiritual song ‘Dama Dam Mast Qalandar’ on an elevated stage with the lead singer playing a harmonium, two percussionists with a tabla and dholak, and a chorus of five men repeating key verses and clapping their hands. Maihan and I were the youngest people there without the company of our parents. We walked through the arcade of arches towards the back where a conference of men jabbered away and siphoned shisha from bubbling copper water pipes as they reclined on carpet-covered takhts. Other customers sipped the aromatic kahwah brewed from green tea leaves with saffron strands, cinnamon bark, cardamom pods and Kashmiri roses.
We found a semi-secluded spot where we could converse freely. For drinks, we both started with qai magh chai. I ordered a platter of lamb shami kebabs with masala fries. Maihan opted for a large plate of aushak dumplings.
‘You know, I’m very happy to be here with you,’ I said.
‘Me too,’ Maihan replied.
‘I’m afraid to say this, yet I must. I want us to be together. For everything. No matter what anyone says, when I’m around you, I feel like I’m where I’m supposed to be. I believe we’re meant for each other.’
The words had been on my lips for weeks, possibly for my entire life. I couldn’t believe I had just uttered them. The room suddenly felt hot.
Maihan smiled warmly, but then looked pensive. ‘It’s not so easy to have what we want.’
My heart skipped. ‘Maihan, what do you want?’ I asked.
He appeared to bristle for a moment, but then smoothed out the gathered folds of his cardigan, as if composing himself. ‘Kanishka, you’re my best friend. I feel closer to you than I do to anybody. Now’—he paused and took a deep breath—‘I wasn’t entirely honest with you the night we were together.’ He looked down at his dumplings, then back up at me. ‘You . . .’
He breathed in again. ‘You weren’t my first.’ The words shot out of him quickly.
I froze. ‘Your first what?’ He said nothing. ‘You told me about the girl.’
He fidgeted uncomfortably in his seat and went on. ‘There were a couple of guys too. Guys I hardly knew, who meant nothing to me. I know how I feel about you. I also know that my family would never accept it.’
Each word he spoke, he couldn’t look at me. I couldn’t decide whether I was more upset that he had had sex with men or women.
Then he finally turned his eyes to me. ‘I was serious about what I said to you that night, that I need to be a good son to my parents.’ ‘But you are the perfect son,’ I said. ‘Why can’t you be that and also be with me? I won’t tell anyone. You know I won’t. I want us to be together however we can.’
‘My family and I are set to leave again for the winter recess, and we won’t return until school starts up again in March.’
I blinked, unsure what he meant by this.
‘How does you leaving change anything between us? We can still write to each other, can’t we?’
Maihan looked down at his half-eaten meal, apparently no longer hungry, and exhaled. ‘I think it will be a good break for us. Or maybe I need a break. My time with you is fun and spontaneous. You make living in a dream sound so easy. But it’s not as easy for me. I’ve neglected my family these past weeks. Plus there’s school and sports and the art competition. I need to be focusing on other things.’
I reached out for Maihan’s hand underneath the table and wished that we could stay there the whole night, with no one we knew around, and finally say all the things that we felt for each other. Maihan looked up at me, his eyes filled with a mist of doubt and tenderness, until he became distracted by something across the room.
‘Don’t look now, but guess who walked in.’ ‘Who?’ I asked, unsure whether to turn around.
His face was hard, slightly panicked. ‘Faiz and Zaki jaan,’ he said.
‘Do you think they saw us?’ I asked.
‘If they haven’t seen us yet, they probably will. Why don’t we leave now?’
Maihan and I split the bill, left a tip for the waiter, and approached the back door.
But just as we approached, a voice shouted over to us. ‘Maihan. Kanishka. Where are you going?’ We turned around to see the inquisitive features of Faiz spread wide in confusion. We sheepishly made our way over to him and said our hellos.
‘How come you came here without me?’ he asked.
‘We came over to your house earlier and knocked on your door,’ Maihan said. ‘There was no answer.’
I was surprised to see how easily the lie came to him.
Faiz seemed to believe him. ‘Why don’t you join us?’ he asked.
‘We already ate,’ I answered.
‘Maadar’s expecting me,’ Maihan said. ‘Can we do dinner this weekend?’
‘Yes, let’s,’ Faiz said.
‘Say hello to your baba,’ I said.
Once we were outside the restaurant, I said, ‘I feel terrible about lying to Faiz.’
‘What else could we have done?’
‘Do you think he’d stop being friends with us if he knew?’ I asked.
‘I don’t think so, but you never know,’ Maihan said. We hugged each other and he whispered to me, ‘Whatever happens, never tell anyone about us. Ever. Understand?’
I nodded. But it bothered me that I couldn’t be my authentic self. I felt a bitter taste in my mouth. I thought of Rustam and how he had made jokes about kuni-ha, despite leering at me in the showers. Afghans postulated about sadaqat and imandari but these principles of honesty and integrity were impossible for us to uphold in our society. We had an apophthegm in Dari, ‘Preserving yourself is a duty’, and I understood that I had to keep myself away from danger. But I hated the tangled web of lies.
I wanted to go home and tell Maadar and Baba that Maihan and I loved each other. But even if they knew a lot about forbidden love, about standing up for their beliefs, they would never understand my feelings—or me. I knew I would have to choose between my love for Baba, my family and my devotion to my Afghaniyat on one side, and my yearning for Maihan on the other. I wondered if he thought about the choices he had to make.
Nemat Sadat is the first native from Afghanistan to have publicly come out as gay and campaign for LGBTQIA rights in Muslim communities worldwide. The Carpet Weaver is his first novel.
Excerpted with permission from The Carpet Weaver, Nemat Sadat, Penguin, available online and at your nearest bookstore.