I saw Kader Abdollah at the Sydney Writers’ Festival earlier this year, talking about multiculturalism in Europe, and what it means to be an immigrant writer. He was hands down the most interesting person on the panel, with his hilarious retellings of his initial impressions of the Netherlands less than complimentary. Having escaped Iran, he now writes in Dutch, about Iran, and The House of the Mosque is his most successful novel, though it has only recently been translated into English.
The imam of the mosque in Senejan has died, and a new one must be found. It is up to Aqa Jaan, the head of the family who live in the house of the mosque, to find another one while his nephew grows up. But Iran is changing – it is the 1960s, and revolution is in the air. And so, as the country is plunged into political turmoil, the finding of a new imam becomes the least of Aga Djan’s problems.
Just as with any other part of the world in the 20th century, Abdolah shows us how Senejan reacts to the rapidly changing world around it. Once a proud carpet making town, complete with a bazaar the envy of all those around, things begin to change. Television, for example, takes focus. Indeed, we open with the landing on the Moon – surreptitiously watched by three men crowded in a small room. The new imam Aqa Jaan eventually finds is less than ideal, though, as a young man with big ideas, Khalkhal stirs up trouble in Senejan, leading something of a mini revolution against the West sympathising central government in the big city. He eventually leaves, though the damage he causes means Senejan will never be the same again.
Alas, this novel did nothing for my theory that Islam is a deeply misogynistic religion (in its defence, I tend to think that about the other two ‘Big Three’ religions, anyway), though Abdolah works with that, and presents us with some surprisingly well written female characters. For sheer adorableness, you can’t go past the two grandmas, who fulfil a maid-like role in the house of the mosque. They have spent their lives in service to the mosque, and their dream is simply to go to Mecca. They are at once comedic relief, and also a perfect portrait of religious devotion. But I also like the other women – Sediq, for example, who is the poster child for living through an abusive relationship, as well as Zinat, who goes on a journey that may well qualify her for the title of World’s Most Terrifying Superbitch.
There is an element of poetry, too, in this novel, which no doubt stems from the fact that Abdolah originally wanted to be a writer of epic Persian poetry. And rather than just working in a hobby, unrelated and unconnected from events, this poetry has a point. Because it is through poetry that these people are able to express their true feelings – about love, about sex, about each other, and about the world. It’s a nice touch, and an important reminder that the Islamic tradition is at least as intelligent a culture as the Christian one on which Western democracy is based.
About half way through the novel, there is a discernable shift. We move away from the small town dealings of one mosque, and pick up the story of the revolution on a far grander scale. Using the characters he introduced in the first half, Abdolah shows us the series of events that led to Khomeini’s rise, and how this affects the daily lives of those people. Somewhat coincidentally, many of the main characters now have important parts to play in the Khomeini regime – Khalkhlal makes a stunning return, and we discover than any ill feelings we may have had towards him at the beginning of the novel are completely justified. Nosrat, a man who just wants to make art, turns out to have a surprisingly close relationship with the Ayatollah. And Aqa Jaan realises that he is actually an old man, whose power and influence over the bazaar no longer exists, because the bazaar no longer exists.
The novel closes with a letter from a man who has escaped the persecution of the regime, and moved to Holland. This is, no doubt, Abdolah breaking the fourth wall, and writing a letter to his own family, still in Iran. It’s touching, and provides a reminder that these are real events, and Abdolah did indeed escape for fear of his life.
Obviously, with the recent uprisings throughout the Arab world, this book has perhaps more resonance than usual. The story Abdolah tells us – the installation of the ultra-conservative Khomeini government – is in many ways deeply ironic, and deeply sad. Ironic, because the left-wing supporters of Khomeini thought they were doing the right thing by kicking out the previous pro-West government, only to have their support be obliterated by religious conservatives, and sad, because the lengths Abdolah goes to highlight the way these world famous events affect one small village are beautifully realised.