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This novel, by Kader Abdolah, had been recommended to be by a fellow reviewer ages ago, and I was glad to finally get round to reading it.
It is set in the town of Senedjan in Iran and surrounds the family of Aqa Jaan, who lives in the house that is next to (and owns) the mosque with his cousins which include the imam of the mosque. They all live with their wives and respective families, and two 'grandmothers' that help clean and look after the imam. The book starts with the moon landings of 1969 and carries on through the American hostage situation and the Iraq-Iran war of the seventies and beyond. I was a bit too young to remember more than superficial details about this latter time, but overall this is a work of fiction existing against real-life events that would have had a dramatic affect on the country and its inhabitants.
It took me a while to get my head around the characters and who was who but in the end I was engrossed in the novel and enjoyed learning about their lives. I found the book informative as I got a better understanding of events that made up the Iranian revolution. It has many parallels with IS and the trouble that is occurring in the present day, in parts of the Islamic world.
This is a character led book and I found all the characters to be well-drawn. Obviously you don't like all of them and they have their conflicts, but you have faith in Aqa Jaan to do the right thing for his family and the mosque, even when events are outside of his control. I found the book jumped about a bit at the end as the author tried to bring things to a neat conclusion, but that aside, I really enjoyed the book and looked forward to making time to pick it up.
This novel tells the story of an Iranian family in the late 20th century. The story opens in 1950. The house of the mosque is a very large house with 35 rooms, and a wealthy and influential extended family live there - 3 cousins and their families. They are the family who serve the mosque, as imams and religious leaders. This appears to be a hereditary responsibility as the same family has lived there for centuries.
Over the years a variety of social and economic changes affect members of the family, then comes the revolution of 1979, when the Shah of Iran is overthrown only to be replaced by the Islamic state ruled by Ayatollah Khomeini.
There is a huge variety of characters and a constantly changing political background in the story, but it is very engaging read. Apparently, the treatment of historical fact in the novel is not that accurate, but I think his concern is to tell a story of the effects on the individuals and the increasingly divided family.
The family has prospered under the Shah, and some of them are very unhappy and scared at the changes of 1979. One is a left wing activist, and others become keen supporters of the Islamic regime, including Zinat, the woman who becomes a torturer.
I was interested in the portrayal of women's roles in the novel. They are not exactly great feminist heroines, and mostly, not really fully-fledged as characters in the way that the men are, but they find a range of ways of asserting their own identity, and they are certainly not just the passive women behind the veil that are often a stereotype of modern Iranian society.
The novel includes a brief glossary of Persian words and names at the end and a family tree at the beginning (in the form of a picture of a tree with birds on it). However, I didn't look words and other references up when reading, I just enjoyed the story, and I didn't even notice the family tree until well after I'd finished reading. Still, it adds a nice touch to the book for readers who like to spend time getting all the details of a novel straight.
Kader Abdolah is a pseudonym, because the author is a political refugee from Iran and his writings are still, unsurprisingly, very controversial in Iran. This novel was originally written in Dutch, as the author has lived in exile in the Netherlands for many years. The translation is by Susan Massotty. I found the writing style, even in translation, very atmospheric and the story flowed very smoothly.
Canongate also publishes a translation of another of his novels, My Father's Notebook, and I hope to read this one soon.
I received a free copy of this book for review through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers scheme, and this has previously appeared there.
Format: Mass market paperback (there is also a larger, expensive trade paperback)
RRP: £7.99, Amazon price £5.95; Kindle format £5.65
~Once Upon a Time in Iran~
The 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 located in a mid-sized Iranian town where it's easy to imagine that very little has changed in all those years. Aqa Jaan is the eldest brother and leader of the clan. His brother Imam Alsaberi is the imam at the mosque attached to the house and the third 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. It's a bit like the Archers but with mosques instead of farming.
One day Aqa Jaan receives a visitor - 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. As a supporter of the exiled Ayatollah Khomeini, Khalkhal brings disturbing influences to the town.
Members of the family 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 with the authorities or the difficult route of rebellion. Some fall by the wayside, lured by the call of opium and unsuitable company, some fall in line with the harsh regime after the Revolution punishing friends and family alike in pursuit of favour with the authorities and power, whilst yet others search for a more modern way to make their mark on their country.
~Simple or Not so Simple Tale of Everyday Folk~
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. Even the language at the start when life is slow and simple is so simple that I double checked the jacket to make sure I hadn't picked up a 'teen novel'. As things move on, the story and the language become ever more complex and darker.
We are shown a stability in the town which is based on respect for the twin pillars of the townsfolk's everyday lives - the mosque and the bazaar. Jaan as a successful carpet trader and head of the bazaar carries 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.
~Being Holy Doesn't Always Make You Whole~
The Imams of the mosque are shown to be a bunch with feet of clay. Poor old Alsaberi has some obsessive compulsive tendencies around cleanliness, the power hungry Khalkhal turns out to be the biggest bastard in the entire tale, 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. Whether he intended it or not, the author seems to have quite a downer on the men who peddle faith.
~I'm Lovin' It~
I thoroughly enjoyed The House of the Mosque - if one can be said to enjoy a book in which horrific things are recounted. Oppression and repression are rife, under both the Shah and his successor the Ayatollah Khomeini. Thousands of people are slaughtered for not complying 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 is some redemption amongst the collapse of civilised behaviour with some characters you can't help but find yourself rooting for. One of the sons becomes a film-maker and almost by accident a close confidante (but never really a friend) of the Ayatollah, achieving this without compromising his personal and artistic integrity. Another man helps Jaan when nobody will give a burial space to a member of the family shot dead by Khomeini's terminator and the same man brings about one of the most redemptive moments of the entire book when Jaan visits him many years later.
Some books simply cannot just be created out of nothing and I was sure throughout this book that there was more than a small autobiographical element. Sure enough subsequent searches for information confirmed that whilst it's fiction, The House of the Mosque draws heavily from the author's personal history. The characters may have been scrubbed up or tweaked here and there but there's little exaggeration of the horrors of the post-Revolutionary regime. You don't have to make that stuff up - it's too horrible for fiction and could only be rooted in fact.
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 about a writer's personal history 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 and 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 Iran and even more difficult to find ones that tackle the dark side of the Revolution. It's not a topic that the current regime want to encourage people to explore in their writing and 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. Don't fly into Iran with a copy of this book in your hand luggage and expect to still have it once you pass security.
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.
Note - a similar version of this review appears at www.curiousbookfans.co.uk - many thanks to Canongate for the free review copy.