I’ve been promising to read some Dutch literature for a while. I would never have guessed that a refugee Iranian author, writing in Dutch would get me started! Another key fact is that a public vote in 2007 declared The House on the Mosque to be the second best Dutch novel ever! Not bad considering it was only published in 2006!
The House of the Mosque charts the history of a privileged family caught in the turmoil of the 1979 Iranian revolution. The family of Aqa Jaan have lived in the house of the mosque for 8 centuries. It is their inheritance, their treasure, they are the guardians of the mosque. The imans may come and go – and they do – but the family of Aqa Jaan remain. The first half of the book shows how deeply the roots are planted. As an introduction to the history of Iran and Islam, it is enlightening. Reality is juxtaposed with edited surahs from the Q’uran to reveal life as it was in the final days of the Shah. There are major elements of fable woven into the tapestry – an appropriate metaphor given that Aqa Jaan is a carpet merchant. I’m thinking particularly of the grandmothers – more fairy-tale characters than flesh and blood. The disaffection with the Shah and his corrupt regime, the anger at American interference and, in some quarters at least, the increasing freedoms for women slowly coming into focus as trigger points for the Iranian revolution and the return of Khomeini ….
and the betrayal of the Iranian people that that represents. There’s no mistaking the author’s viewpoint. Any political ambiguity disappears from the text at this point as Aqa Jaan’s family is torn asunder by Khomeini and his cohorts. Not that his family is targeted in a particular way – that’s what makes this more chilling. Gradually brothers, sons, and daughters are destroyed by being married to the wrong people, being in the wrong place at the wrong time, not following Islam with the purity demanded …. their close associations with the mosque and some of Khomeini’s stalwart supporters no protection. While the text takes on the precision of terror, Aqa Jaan’s daughter, Sadiq, gives birth to a deformed child. The deformity is not exactly clear but Lizard, as the child comes to be known, can only slither around – a statement about the reptilian and cold-blooded nature of Khomeini’s regime?
During it all, Aqa Jaan fights both for his family, his dignity and his faith. You have to admire the man, even if some of his decisions are hard for a Western female to swallow. But he deserves respect and the author, who is obviously very fond of his creation, gives him a happy ending of sorts. He receives what I suspect is a heavily autobiographical letter from his exiled nephew, Shabal.
I left our house, but I haven’t turned my back on it. I live in Holland now ….
My dear uncle, I’m still writing. For the last few years, I’ve spent all of my time committing my stories to paper. I have done this for you and for our country.
I write in another language now, and I don’t know whether I should apologise or jump for joy. It just happened, it wasn’t in my power to do otherwise. Actually, writing has been my salvation. It was the only way I could express the suffering and pain that you and our country have undergone. Even though I write in a new language, I still try to imbue my stories with the poetic spirit of our ancient and beautiful language.
It’s the perfect summary of both the novel and the author’s motivation by the man himself. And there’s more of that to follow. Come back tomorrow evening when Kader Abdolah will be answering all the questions we asked a couple of weeks ago.