Aqa Jaan’s family has lived in the house of the mosque for centuries. Two of his cousins also live in the house; one is the mosque’s imam, Alsaberi and the other is the muezzin. Aqa Jaan is an honest man making an honest living of selling carpets and is the head of the house. Set in 1950 Iran, the country is at the brink of a revolution. In the little town of Senejan close to Qom, lives are going about as they have been for hundreds years, television and transistor radio exist but not every household has one, in fact it is scorned upon as these media corrupts the soul. The women cover themselves in chador from head to toe, while the Tehran women drop the veil and followed the way of the Shah.
The Imam Alsaberi has a wife named Zinat Khathom, who bears him daughter Sadiq who married the rebellious and dangerous imam Khalkhal; and son, Ahmad, the successor of the mosque after his father. The House of Mosques also have two grandmothers Golebeh and Golbanu, who only wish for sweeping the floor in secret is to go to Mecca for pilgrimage one day.
There are many colourful characters, so I have to refer to the family tree several times to get around in my head who’s who. In Muslim culture, the bond of father, uncles and community are very close. So when one speak about Aqa Jaan’s nephew such as the Muezzin’s son, Shalhbal, it almost looks as if Aqa Jaan is talking about his own son and less so about his son Jawad and daughters Nasrin and Ensi. So it pays for me to check the family tree. The first half of the book talks about happier times, a little laugh here and a little mischieves there, the household members are up to, some innocent, some naughty and unexpectedly erotic antics.
Near the 1970’s, pockets of dissidents emerged and the intentions of some family members are in doubt as influence of Communism, religious fanaticism and a revolution against the Shah becomes imminent. The revolution changes the Aqa Jaan household beyond recognition and no one can foresee what will happen in the days and months to come.
It’s hard to talk about this book because there are so many characters and stories happening one after another. In a mere 5 pages, Abdolah can take you through the joke about a cow, about Zinat and the hostage incident of Americans in Iran. The truth is I find the first half of the book a little choppy (which I suspect is a translation issue or it may be that Abdolah uses very short sentences that conveys a lot..) and a little frivolous. I was impatient and was in doubt, wondering “What is this greatness people are talking about in this book?” However by the second half of the book, starting from Ahmad coming home to succeed his father, I was hooked.
There were more atrocities and more thrilling actions in the second half as the revolution culminate to a civil war and subsequently the Iraq-Iran War. In the first half, Abdolah tells you about the everyday life in Iran, but in the second half Abdolah tells you snippets of the revolutionary history of Iran, intertwined with poems and songs, about the exile of Shah and the ascend of Ayatollahs Khomeini in between stories of Aqa Jan household.
Perhaps most emotionally searing of all for me is to watch Aqa Jaan suffers through the break-up of his family and his social standings in his community, to see Aqa Jaan begging and crying the Ayatollahs to prevent a death in expense of his dignity was too painful to read. Some of the affable members of the family have become tyrants or murderer.
Perhaps this is what Abdolah was trying to show how different the second half is from the first half. How the lives of common Iranian has changed before and after the revolution. I have read about the Chinese Cultural Revolution and not surprised how family members would turn against each other, in the extreme, mother denouncing her son, in the name of ideology and religion. Apart of me thank the evolution of the modern mind to separate itself from the herd and be a bit more individualistic in our thinking today.
This is my first book about Iran. I know so little about Iran and I feel like this book put me through the thick of all the tension, revolution and pain. More of the characters are flawed but I love character of Aqa Jaan. The House of Mosque is a microcosm of what happens back then in Iran and I doubt the situation now is any better than it is before. It goes without saying that the women characters are all subservient to the male ones. It inflames me how little power women have over their lives in such countries.
I’m fortunate to read so many wonderful translated fictions and I count this one as one that I would urge everyone to read. Thrilling and emotional. It won’t take you too long to finish the book.
I’m reading this for the Middle East Challenge hosted by Helen.
I have read this a year later than most book bloggers, so reviews are many. Do take a look at the few at medieval bookworm, Iris on books, Savidge Reads and Lizzy’s Literary Life. Lizzy also posted an interview with Kader Abdolah 2 years ago.
Paperback. Publisher: Canongate, 2011; Length: 436 pages; Setting: Seneja, Iran. Source: Reading Central Library. Finished reading on: 23 June 2012.
About the writer:
Kader Abdolah (Persian born 12 November 1954 in Arak, Iran) is a Persian–Dutch writer, poet and columnist. He has written books and many articles in Dutch and is known for using Persian literary items in his Dutch works. He regularly appears on Dutch TV channels as well. Kader Abdollah is the pen name of Hossein Sadjadi Ghaemmaghami Farahani.
Kader Abdolah studied physics in Teheran. He joined the left-wing movement opposing the Shah – and later the Khomeini – regimes. He fled to the Netherlands as a political refugee in 1988. In 2006 he was writer in residence at Leiden University. Today he lives in Delft, writing under a pseudonym composed of the names of two executed friends.
Het huis van de moskee (The House of the Mosque) catapulted Abdolah onto the Dutch bestseller lists. It was voted second best Dutch novel ever in Holland. The English translation was released worldwide in January 2010.
Honours and awards
- E. du Perron Prize of 2000 for his novel Spijkerschrift.
- Knight in the Order of the Netherlands Lion (Dutch: Ridder in de Orde van de Nederlandse Leeuw) in 2000.
- Knight in the French Order of Arts and Literature (French: Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres) in 2008.
- Honorary doctor at the University of Groningen in 2009.