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