Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 28, 2010

The House of the Mosque by Kader Abdolah, Translated by Susan Masotty

I picked this up at the library because I was intrigued by the subject matter.  I know very little about Iran other than what I read in the local media, and the country has been demonized for so long that it seems hard for anyone in the West to have an objective opinion about it.  I read Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi ages ago, and felt pity for the conflicted views of the author, but it didn’t help me to understand why Iranians hate the West as they apparently do.  It would be interesting to travel there to see for myself, but they insist on women wearing the hijab, and I refuse to do that.  I don’t mind donning a head covering in a church or a temple out of respect, but societies that demand that all women cover themselves in everyday life can do without my tourist dollar until they move into the 21st century…

Anyway, The House of the Mosque is apparently a world bestseller but I suspect that this may in part be due to the novelty value for Western readers discovering a novel set in Iran.  It’s ok to read, but it’s not exactly riveting, although it ought to be considering its subject matter. Though it may perhaps be due to being read in translation, it has a rather plain narrative style which is pedestrian compared to the books I usually read,  with none of the poetic flourishes I was expecting.

The plot is a bit clunky too.  It’s written in two sections: the first, beginning during the reign of the Shah, is a long and mildly interesting tale about the diverse inhabitants of a house attached to a mosque in a small village called Senejan.  Aqa Jaan is the head of the household, at a time when traditional ways are being challenged by modernity, exemplified by the acquisition of a TV with which to watch the moon landing.   His brother, Nosrat, isn’t religious and he leaves the household to explore a career in photo-journalism.  Unexpectedly, the household isn’t particularly pious: they quote the Koran a fair bit and the women cover themselves with a chador –  but smoking opium is commonplace, and the women whip their kit off quickly enough when they’re having illicit affairs. (There is apparently an erotic attraction to imams.)

Actually, the mosque has a fair bit of trouble with its imams.  When the old one,  Alsaberi, dies, his replacement is a fundamentalist firebrand called Khalkhal but before long he shoots through to spread his revolutionary politics throughout the country.  After that there’s Ahmad who gets himself in trouble in a different way.  There are marriages, births and deaths over three generations but tragedy erupts when the Ayatollah Komeini takes power in the 1979 Revolution. The authorities then impose a hardline fundamentalist regime with cruel punishments and arbitrary executions, suppressing individual liberty and any opposition to the imposition of Sharia law and an Islamic state, and they oversee a catastrophic war with Iraq from 1980-1988 in which half a million Iraqi and Iranian soldiers died.  These events impact on the family in disastrous ways.

It is this second part of the novel which seemed to lose the narrative drive.  It degenerates into a catalogue of hardship, cruelty and corruption, and while I don’t doubt that it is all grounded in truth some of it seemed a bit like reading Wikipedia summaries.  I do admire the courage of the author Kader Abdolah who fled Iran for the Netherlands and now writes in Dutch, but having read in the media about fundamentalist atrocities for over a decade now, I was looking for something different.     I was expecting that this book would explain the psychological transformation that takes place for a moderate Muslim looking forward to the expulsion of a corrupt regime under the Shah, who then finds that the long-anticipated replacement Islamic regime is unexpectedly infinitely worse.   The book does do this to some extent, but the author seems to have suppressed the emotional response of his characters.   It focusses on events and mostly not on what must have been confused and unhappy human feelings about the transformation of their religion under Khomeini.  Also, while it’s obviously written with a Western non-Islamic audience in mind so it explains why Muslims perform various rituals and believe this or that,  it doesn’t convey any sense of why Islam might be an appealing religion.  I didn’t want preaching, but I did want to try to understand more about the attraction of this religion which has spawned such appalling adherents in its extreme form.

There’s a very enthusiastic (if somewhat naive) review at Afterthoughts, another at The Independent, and one critical of Abdolah’s manipulation of the facts for his narrative at The Guardian.

Author: Kader Abdolah
Title: The House of the Mosque
Translated by Susan Masotty
Publisher: Canongate 2010 / Text Publishing
ISBN: 9781847672407
Source: Casey-Cardinia Library


Responses

  1. I’m just embarking on an Arab reading challenge over summer, I’ve seen postive and negative reviews of this too. I’m sure you’re right about the novelty value of it being popular – some books seem to grab the zeitgeist like The Kiterunner, when I think Patience Stone is a better book. All the best, Stu

  2. Interesting review… Canongate sent me a review copy months and months ago, but I’ve not been much inclined to read it.

    One of the members of our book group is from Iran; I must ask him if he has read this and, if so, what he thinks of it.

  3. Hi Stu, an Arab reading challenge! That would be a whole new literature to explore. I’ve read Adab Soeuf and Naguib Mahfouz, but that’s all, I think.
    But I think you’ll find that Kader Abdolah won’t count because Iranians are Persian, not Arabic.

  4. I shouldn’t put you off, Kim, it’s an easy read, and it’s probably one of those books that are worthwhile reading for their educational value if not their literary value.

  5. Hi Lisa,
    Thank you for the mention. I’m honoured. But one question, my review was naive in what way? If it’s because I appear to be suggesting that The House of the Mosque stands as a definitive authority on the Revolution and subsequent theocracy, then I apologise because that wasn’t what I meant.

    Rather, that it’s a perfect ‘taster’ for those wishing to know something of Iranian history without bogging themselves down in dry academic textbooks.

    Regardless, it’s a beautifully written novel – in the first half at least (I agree with you about the 2nd half being a little too summarised) – presented very much in the Persian tradition. And that I guess is why I wagged my little tail so much over it.
    Warmest
    Rob

    • Hi Rob, perhaps I should have written ‘over- enthusiastic’ instead of naive. It’s fair enough to like the book a lot – and many people do like this book a lot – but (as you acknowledge in your comment) it does have flaws.
      On the other hand, perhaps I’ve been too hard on it, criticising it for what it’s not, rather than what it is, but I was puzzled by the cursory treatment of the kidnapping of the US Embassy staff. Why wasn’t the family appalled by this? I was uneasy also about the way they caved in so quickly to being bullied e.g. by Zinat. Maybe a female author would have considered how women *felt* about being forced to cover up and submit to the loss of their freedom after the revolution? Didn’t the men care about this?
      I really do wish that someone would write a book that explores how moderate Muslims *feel* about their religion being morphed into repressive and violent extremism. It must be a very strange pyschological state to share some of the religious views of Islamic terrorists and possibly their anti-Western hostility too yet reject the suppression of women and the use of terrorism. John Updike came close to doing this in his book ‘Terrorist’ but his character Ahmad isn’t a moderate and the ending doesn’t resolve his issues and the reader is left wondering if Ahmad will try again. And (as far as I know) Updike isn’t a Muslim.

  6. Re. I’m just embarking on …

    Is that the challenge here: http://arablit.wordpress.com/2010/05/26/take-the-arabic-summer-reading-challenge-and-win/ ? Tayeb Salih is posterboying it in their recommendations.

  7. That looks like an interesting list, Deane – the ones that include a description as well, that is.
    I wonder how readily available they would be here in Oz…
    But no, I must *not* begin another Challenge!

  8. Hi Lisa,
    Have you read the cartoon novels Persepolis and Persepolis II by Marjane Satrap? These two cartoon novels by this Iranian cartoonist are wonderful. The entire books are cartoons, they do tell a story, and are easy to read. They really humanize the Iranian people. I highly recommend these two books. The right-wing Christian fanatics are nearly the same as the right-wing Muslim fanatics. Both want to return to the Dark Ages where women have no rights at all.

  9. Where did you source them from, Tony?

  10. I haven’t read this book, but I’ve read another one of Abdolah: I’m not sure if it’s been translated to English. I remember that I enjoyed reading it.
    I have to admit that like you I wish that there’d be a little more attention for the “moderate” Muslims in literature catered to the West. Abdolah has translated the Quran in Dutch with the intent to reflect more of what the religion is like and without focusing on the “extreme” interpretations of it. However, I haven’t read that one either.

    • He’s apparently quite prolific, but The House of the Mosque is the first one of his I’ve seen.

  11. Persepolis and Persepolis II are quite popular in the United States. I actually checked them out of the Minneapolis Public Library.

  12. Hmm, Tony, the Book Depository doesn’t have these titles…so I tried World Cat to see if a library near me does – and lo! Its clever search facility showed up that there’s a missing i from the end of Marjane SatrapI – and my local library has Persephone.
    I’ve reserved it:)
    Wonders of technology, eh?

  13. Sorry for my misspelling!

    • Not a problem, Tony, if I had a dollar for every type I’ve made online I could buy all the books in the Library of Congress…

  14. […] you to the positive review of Rob from RobAroundBooks and the less positive review of Lisa at ANZ Litlovers. Also, Lizzy at Lizzy’s Literary Life has done an interview with the author, which can be […]

  15. I actually found this book captivating. I have lived in Iran headscarf, manteau and all with my husband and children. I guess it transported me back a little and the interesting thing, although the
    Guardian found the facts manipulated , was that depending on whom you speak to in Iran those are pretty much the stories you hear depending who is pro shah , pro revolution , pro Khomeini…each has a different story on what happened and what should have happened and their experiences of course will differ in the same circumstances.
    None of it straight forward and all of it complex.
    The West’s interference has had a huge impact on their society for generations and of course that is not viewed favourably by anyone….not enough space here to explain fully!

  16. For an example of Iranian culture that cannot possibly be blamed on the West, see http://www.gopetition.com/petitions/save-sakineh-mohammadi.html#sign and for how it was western outrage that prevented this atrocity see http://www.smh.com.au/world/death-by-stoning-in-iran-international-outrage-leads-to-lastminute-reprieve-20100709-102py.html


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