Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The House of the Mosque by Kader Abdolah

Title: The House of the Mosque
Author: Kader Abdolah
Pages: 436
Edition: Paperback
Publisher: Canongate books

Kader Abdolah, born in Iran, in 1954, joined a secret leftist party that fought against the dictatorship of shah and subsequently against the Ayatollah during which he wrote illegal journals before publishing novels. He arrived in Netherlands as a political refugee. He published his original dutch version of this novel in 2005. It took almost 5 years for the translated version to appear for the western audience. What allured me to this book was the intriguing art on the book cover and the constant buzz about the novel that circulated in the blogosphere. 'Never judge a book by its cover' never applied to me. I always bee lined towards books that had artistic, intriguing and charming book covers. That beguiling little bird on the minaret of the mosque, standing next to the hunched man in front of the TV set, the hordes of faces that peek out of the windows of the mosque, the stylish turbans, unveiled women and the erotic kissing couple on the inside cover almost made me yearning to devour it at the very first chance. When the opportunity surfaced itself last weekend, I swan-dived into this gem of a book and lost myself into a space and time that left me breathless at the end.

Even though the political upheaval during the 1979 Iranian Revolution took the center stage in the novel, the book served as a window to the Muslim culture as a whole. The beautiful renditions from Koran (extracted from various pieces and loosely coupled by the author), the beautiful villages of Iran with its ever cawing crows, and migrating birds with its fascinating feathers that land on the minarets each day, the ever buzzing bazaars run by adept carpet merchants, glass blowers and such, the beautiful women concealing their flesh behind their chador during the day, yet adoringly bold and seducing, the subtle eroticism evoked through the poems and passages, the many traditions and customs of the Iranians, their weddings, funerals, birth and all, no other book could ever come so slightly close to what the author had attempted through this novel. Beginning at the shah regime, the novel would certainly pull the readers deeper and deeper into the dark times of Iranian history, leading up to the revolution and the return of Khomeini and finally to his death.

Aqa Jaan, the head of the bazaar, carpet merchant and the family of mosque, enjoyed a high reputation among his people and was much adored by everyone in the little town of Senejan. He was also the keeper of keys and jotted down major events in his journal. His wife, Fakhri Sadat, helped Aqa Jaan with his carpet business, by designing patterns for the beautiful carpets that were sold worldwide. How she came up with such exquisite patterns was simply a wondrous feat. With a son training for Imam and two wonderful daughters, Aqa Jaan led a peaceful, quiet life. Alsaberi, the imam of the mosque, was weak and inept at the task of leading his people. His Friday sermons were never fiery, but he kept the mosque goers happy with his renditions from Koran and ancient stories. Even though parts of Iran were covertly opposing the shah regime, Senejan plays a neutral role. Nevertheless, Qom (revered as the 'Vatican of East') dissatisfied with Alsaberi, sent Khalkhal, a young imam, to stir things up in Senejan. Khalkhal asked for Sadiq's hand and quickly took over Alsaberi (after his sudden demise) as the imam of the mosque. His fiery friday sermons slowly awakened the people of Senejan from a deep slumber, finally leading up to the riots against the queen, Fariba one day. Khalkhal fled Senejan, leaving Sadiq pregnant only to return with the Khomeini as Allah's judge. He lashed out punishments to anyone who opposed the Ayatollah and times were difficult for everyone, even those who opposed the shah and were in support of the current regime.

Political riots and speeches from the ayatollahs sparked the Iranian revolution and hundreds of people died during the demonstrations. The younger generation of the house of mosque covertly took part in underground movements and soon the 'House of Mosque' family was torn apart. The bloody war with its violent protests rocked the entire Iranian society with the ouster of Shah and installing Khomeini in his place. When the Iran-Iraq war reared its ugly head, the country screamed with pain, terror and violence. Men and women were tortured, humiliated and executed. The story ended with the death of their leader and the people slowly emerging from their dark, horrific days of the past.

The story featured more than a dozen characters which made it rather confusing and difficult to read at the beginning. However, the pictorial representation of the family tree came to my rescue many times. It soon made me realize that it was not just the story of a family, but that of a nation altogether. Like in most Muslim communities, Men had an upper hand in family and business matters and the oppression of women in the society was very obvious. Nevertheless, the oppression gave way to betrayal, extra-marital affairs, violence and more, which in the least was not surprising. Iranians yearned for a better life, a better future, yet when they were bereft of all hope and happiness, they resorted to violence unfortunately. Hundreds and thousands of killings and public humiliations and executions shattered their dreams, hopes and passion. Every passage that described about the violent breakouts and mass killings choked my heart and suffocated me. A lump rose over to my throat and tears rolled down my cheeks as my heart ached in pain. Though it was rather a fictitious extension of a real story, the readers would certainly be able to pull strands of the real life sequences that were skillfully woven into the tale. A pleasant, welcoming digression to this otherwise grim tale were the beautiful surahs (poems) extracted from Koran and some of the contemporary poems. Quite often, I reveled in the beauty of the rich, luscious words, lingering in the moment a bit longer than necessary before moving on to the depressing story. I was simply astounded by the fact that I had remained oblivious to the Islamic culture and history on a deeper level, which was why I feel eternally grateful towards this book. Overall, this would make a great read for someone who wants to know more about the 1979 Revolution along with the historic events that eventually unfolded.

One of my favorite poems from the book:

Eyes that strike your soul like the lash of a whip
And so green that they look like apples
Your eyelashes have stolen my heart.
Your lips speak of justice, but your eyelashes steal.
Now you demand a reward for the stolen goods.
How odd: I, who was robbed, must fence them for

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