The House of the Mosque

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The House of the Mosque By Kader AbdolahThe House of the Mosque is home to three brothers and their families and has been in the hands of the family for eight centuries. It’s easy to imagine that very little has changed in all that time. Aqa Jaan is the eldest brother and patriarch of the clan. His brother Imam Alsaberi is the priest at the mosque attached to the house and the final brother, a blind man known to family and townsfolk alike as ‘Muezzin’ is, as his name suggests, the muezzin of the mosque who calls the faithful to prayer. Each of the men has a wife and children and the extended family all live together at the House of the Mosque in a mostly stable and peaceable way. Not everyone agrees with everyone else as you’d expect in any extended family, they have their minor irritations but on the whole, it’s not a bad life.

The tale starts with Aqa Jaan being approached by a handsome and rakish stranger, Khalkhal, who has just arrived from the holy city of Qom to seek the hand of his daughter. All instincts tell Jaan that this man is not what he seems and despite the black turban that identifies him as a direct descendant of the prophet, something doesn’t add up. Jaan wonders if the young man is really after a wife, or if he has his eye on the mosque which is already promised to Imam Alsaberi’s son Ahmad.

Other sons and daughters each have their own complex decisions to make; whether to stay in the town or move to the big city; whether to follow their hearts or their heads in their educational aspirations; whether to take the easy route and comply or the difficult route of rebellion. Some fall by the wayside, lured by the call of opium and unsuitable company whilst others search for a more modern way to make their mark on their country.

The House of the Mosque is pitched as a bit of a ‘simple tale of everyday folk’ who just happen to be Iranian and just happen to live by the mosque at a time of historic turmoil but there’s a lot more to this tale than a simple family saga. The status quo at the beginning of the book is one in which the small town’s society runs around the twin respect for the mosque and the bazaar. Jaan as head of the bazaar and a successful carpet trader has the double kudos of trade and religion to make him a highly respected figure. There seems to be little difference in how their town functions in the 1960s and how it would have been for many centuries before. Indeed up to the point at which one of the sons proposes to bring a television into the library of the house, you could have been reading about almost any period over the previous few hundred years. Give or take a few cars and some electricity there’s not a lot of difference between the 1960s and the 1560s.

Iran’s leader, the American-backed Shah, starts to force unwelcome changes on the country. We as outsiders might consider young women going out into the street without a headscarf or wearing ‘nylons’ as progress but in small town Iran it’s not welcome. The Shah’s secret police intrude into the lives of the family, manipulating the weakness and frailty of one member to keep the family under control. But with Khalkhal, the radical imam, around to stir up trouble and bring the message of the clerics who support Khomeini from his place in exile, it soon becomes apparent that change is inevitable.

“However this fascinating country and its recent history needs to be brought to the attention of more people through books like The House of the Mosque

The march of progress is welcomed by some and rejected by others. When those cursed Americans are about to set foot on the moon, one of the sons insists that the Imam can’t ignore it and he smuggles a television into the house so the Imam and his brother can witness the historic moments. When the ‘grandmothers’ (two elderly ladies related to nobody in the family) go off to make the Hajj to Mecca, you can understand that the change of scene might go to their heads. With so much change on the horizon, who’d want to go home? Not long after, the dastardly dodgy Imam son-in-law is whipping up a frenzy against the opening of a cinema in the town. Freedoms are hard won and with the revolution, swiftly rescinded.

Imams are shown to be a bunch with feet of clay. Poor old Alsaberi has some funny obsessive compulsive tendencies around cleanliness which ultimately contribute to his early demise. His son-in-law, the power hungry Khalkhal turns out to be the biggest bastard in the entire tale, on so many different levels, whilst his replacement has too much of an eye for the ladies. When Alsaberi’s son Ahmad comes back from the seminary to take his place, he’s a little too fond of the good things in life.

I thoroughly enjoyed The House of the Mosque – if one can be said to enjoy a book in which such horrific things are recounted. Oppression and repression are rife, thousands of people are slaughtered for not toeing the line or to settle old scores. Good people turn power-crazy and torture their friends and neighbours, bad people get power beyond their wildest and craziest dreams and in the midst of this, a few get close to the man behind the slaughter, Ayatollah Khomeini.

There are good people in this tale too. One of the sons becomes a film-maker and a close confidante of the Ayatollah without really compromising his personal and artistic integrity. He introduces the leader to the delights of cinema at great personal risk and even starts filming him and his family. Another man helps Jaan when nobody will give a burial space to a member of the family shot dead by Khomeini’s appointed terminator and the same man brings about one of the most redemptive moments of the entire book when Jaan visits him many years later.

I intentionally avoided reading the author’s biographical notes in the back of the book because I didn’t want too much knowledge to get in the way of my reading and equally I don’t want to say too much in this review that might influence another reader. Sometimes you can know too much and it influences your perceptions of the story. I knew only that Kader Abdolah now lives in Europe and writes in Dutch. It was clear from this that he’d probably left Iran at some point but I didn’t want to know when or why until I’d finished reading. There are so many conflicting reasons why people have left in the past few decades. He could have been an opponent of the Shah, a supporter of the Shah or as an émigré fleeing the repressions of the Khomeini regime. You just can’t second guess with so many good reasons to get out. But in the end I didn’t need to know because he writes himself into the final pages, making himself one of the characters in the family and pulling all the loose ends neatly together again.

Abdolah has written several other novels and short stories and I would certainly want to track them down and read them. It’s not easy to find books set in and even more difficult to find ones that tackle the dark side of the Revolution. I’d suspect that it’s only possible to write a book like this if you’ve already burnt your bridges and left the country or if you have a cast iron alibi. However this fascinating country and its recent history needs to be brought to the attention of more people through books like The House of the Mosque. Abdolah’s a brave man to lift the lid on post-Revolutionary horrors and I hope he doesn’t have to live his life looking over his shoulder.

Published by Canongate Books, January 2010, 400 pages


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House of the Mosque (The)
by Kader Abdolah

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Written by koshkha

Koshkha has a busy international job that gives her lots of time sitting on planes and in hotel rooms reading books. Despite averaging about 3 books a week, she probably has enough on her ‘to be read’ shelves to keep her going for a good few years and that still doesn’t stop her scouring the second hand books shops and boot-fairs of the land for more. At weekends she lives with her very lovely husband and three cats, but during the week she lives alone like a mad spinster aunt. She will read just about anything about or set in India, despises chick-lit, doesn’t ‘get’ sci fi and vampire ‘stuff’ and has just ordered a Kindle despite swearing blind that she never would.

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