In a Nutshell: Once read never forgotten, The House of the Mosque is one of these rare titles that both nurtures the soul and informs at the same time. It’s perfect for those wishing to learn a little about one of Iran’s most tumultuous periods, without getting bogged down in scholarly text.
Before I began reading it I thought, or at least hoped, that it was going to be something a bit special. But I didn’t realise then just how special it would turn out to be. I said in my forethoughts that the book offered a real prospect of a ‘culturally rich reading experience’, and its author certainly delivers on that score. But this exquisite creation offers so much more. Welcome to my afterthoughts for Kader Abdolah’s The House of the Mosque (Canongate).
For those wishing to know what The House of the Mosque is all about I’ll be brief. You can read more on the background of the book and its dissident Iranian author in my forethoughts post, but for the benefit of completeness, here is the official cover blurb:
In the house of the mosque, the family of Aqa Jaan has lived for eight centuries. Now it is occupied by three cousins: Aqa Jaan, a merchant and head of the city’s bazaar; Alsaberi, the imam of the mosque; and Aqa Shoja, the mosque’s muezzin. The house itself teems with life, as each of their families grows up with their own triumphs and tragedies. Sadiq is waiting for a suitor to knock at the door to ask for her hand, while her two grandmothers sweep the floors each morning dreaming of travelling to Mecca. Meanwhile, Shahbal longs only to get hold of a television to watch the first moon landing. All these daily dramas are played out under the watchful eyes of the storks that nest on the minarets above. But this family will experience upheaval unknown to previous generations. For in Iran, political unrest is brewing. The shah is losing his hold on power; the ayatollah incites rebellion from his exile in France; and one day the ayatollah returns. The consequences will be felt in every corner of Aqa Jaan’s family.
In many ways The House of the Mosque is a difficult book to categorise. It’s part fiction, part fable and part fact. And what Abdolah has done with this story is to take many of the key facts from the 1979 Revolution and the succeeding ayatollah theocracy, and replay them in a narrative way, using the house of the mosque and the people within it as a kind of ‘living’ projector screen to show the radical changing face of Iran, during one of its most turbulent periods. Now I know this may all sound a bit heavy but in reality it isn’t. Abdolah has such a way of telling his story – very much in the style of the old Persian storytellers – that it’s accessible, engaging and on occasion, incredibly warming.
‘Keeping schtum’ on the characters
Unusually I’m not going to say all that much about the characters in The House of the Mosque because the way that the story is presented – in its kind of fable-like, allegorical way – probably makes it read better if the characters are largely unknown to begin with. I will say that it takes a while getting to know all of the characters and their relationships to one another, but rather thoughtfully there is a family tree (of sorts) at the front of the book which helps to some degree in establishing relationships.
What I will also say is that there are a number of ‘real life’ characters mentioned in the book; key figures in the Revolution and subsequent theocracy. And although these figures have to some degree been fictionalised in this book, it’s worth keeping an eye out for the ones who have trodden for real on Iranian soil.
A cultural masterpiece
I really am thrilled to proclaim The House of the Mosque a cultural masterpiece because the prospect it offered in journeying deep into Iranian and Islamic culture was one of my main motivations for reading it in the first place, and it truly doesn’t disappoint in this respect. Iranian poetry – both traditional and the more contemporary – features heavily, very much in the Persian tradition, and Abdolah’s use of it never makes it feel superfluous or out of context. I admit to being one of the world’s biggest haters of poetry, but even I welcomed its use in this book. That’s progress right there isn’t it? 🙂
As one would expect from an Islamic-based creation, Qur’anic passages also feature heavily in The House of the Mosque. But again their context is wholly relevant, and their inclusion never feels unnecessary; quite the opposite in fact. Abdolah is masterly in remixing Qur’anic verses, employing his own interpretation of them, and offering an even more culturally stimulating reading experience for the reader.
From exploring religious convention and family living, to looking at life in the traditional bazaar, many aspects of Iranian social and religious culture and tradition are also touched upon in this novel (along with a number of non-orthodox practices. Opium anyone? :)). But more importantly it’s shown how these fundamental traditions change and evolve throughout the period from pre-Revolution to post Iranian-Iraqi war. So I think I can conclude without fear of contradiction, that The House of the Mosque is very much a veritable culture-fest.
Relating the history of Iran’s recent troubles
Lest we forget, another of my main motivations for reading The House of the Mosque was to gain more of a working knowledge of the 1979 Revolution and the succeeding theocracy. Did it do that for me? To some extent yes it did. Although the book never really goes into the finer points of these events (which in all fairness would have been way outside of the scope of this book), it certainly provides enough detail to put everything into context; perfect for those who know nothing or little of the recent history of Iran. What’s more it presents the facts in a wholly engaging and unstuffy way, making the learning of what can be a very dense and complicated subject a lot more interesting.
For those who do want slightly more learning from this book, I’d recommend keeping some kind of reference on the history of Iran next to you as you read The House of the Mosque (preferably a book – Ali Ansari’s The History of Modern Iran Since 1921 is a good one (written by a professor at my former university :)), or at the very least Wikipedia), because as I said before, Abdolah does ‘name drop’ a number of key figures in Iran’s recent history, and their mention provides a ‘launchpad’ for finding out a bit more about them, and their involvement in the events.
Applause for the Translator
I’ve almost come to the end then but the final mention in these afterthoughts must go to the book’s translator Susan Massotty, whose skill and intellect in translating The House of the Mosque from its original Dutch into English has to be applauded. So many times we see works-in-translation spoiled by poor and lazy interpretation, but it is clear that Massotty has worked tirelessly and meticulously to produce a translation that seems to be (I’m not entirely sure because I can’t read Dutch), true to its original. Bravo Susan!
It’s only very occasionally that a book comes along that touches me so deeply and so profoundly that I remember it for always. The House of the Mosque is one such book and I wholeheartedly recommend that everyone read it. If that’s not convincing enough on it own then bear this in mind – It’s rare enough for me to award a full five stars for any book as it is, but for this one I was desperately seeking out a sixth.
Canongate Books | 21 January 2010 | £12.99 | PAPERBACK | 400 PP | ISBN: 9781847672407