Here we are at last. My thanks to Canongate for supplying copies of the book, to bloggers Rob from Robaroundbooks and Simon from Savidgereads and to literary translator, Eric Dickens, for supplying some great interview questions. And finally many, many thanks Kader Abdolah for such a thought-provoking book and taking the time to answer all this in English.
Language seems such a good place to start ….
Eric: What is it like writing in a foreign language? (For info, Kader Abdolah is from Iran and now writes in Dutch).
KA: Writing in another language is difficult. How can I put it . . . You can compare it with ploughing the ground of your mind to plant a new product. If you write in another language, you produce a new kind of literature. It is fresh, it is imperative. You create a new you, a new writer, a more interesting one.
Lizzy: I was struck by the simplicity of the language in the first half of the book. The abuses of the Shah’s reign were hinted at but never described in full detail. Come the Iranian Revolution, the language became more vivid and intense with revolutionary zealotry and terrors described in detail. Are you suggesting by this that Iran jumped out of the frying-pan and into the fire?
KA: Indeed, you are right about the language changing in the second half of the book. In the first part, the characters live in harmony in their loving house. Everybody who reads the book has the feeling that he/she knows that house, and he/she has lived there and likes living there. But when the dark political tension grows, you need another language to tell the misery, to explain the complications of terror, to carry the pain, to find a way.
Lizzy: Other sections, the surahs in particular, strike me as almost impossible to translate. Did you advise your translators in any way and are you happy with the final product?
KA: I am a lucky writer, I love life, and I think life loves me too. I was always lucky to have excellent translators. The English translation is wonderful, I am grateful for the great job the translator did.
Simon: Aqa Jaan is a marvellous character, and one of my favourites (he has some of the qualities of Atticus from To Kill A Mockingbird). Where did the inspiration for him come from?
Nearly every character in my story is based on a real person, someone I lived with. Aqa Jaan is a real person; he was my uncle and he died a few months ago. He is a typical character in traditional Iranian society: a devout man, a father, a husband, an uncle and a neighbor. Every Iranian knows a man like Aqa Jaan.
My own father was deaf and mute, and Aqa Jaan was my ‘adopted’ father. Often I see him in myself, his traits. I needed him as a role model in order to become a strong man and a writer.
Lizzy: Yes, I admired Aqa Jaan in the main but I was not at all happy with the way he gave his daughter to the first man who asked for her – despite his misgivings. Poor Sadiq.
KA:. Let me tell you the truth about ‘Poor Sadiq’.. Aqa Jaan did not give Sadiq away to Khalkhal. I did, I mean, as a writer. I made the decision. So you can still admire Aqa Jaan.
Rob: I need to ask about your choice of fate for the utterly despicable Khalkhal. In real life, as I understand it, Sadegh Khalkhali (the regime’s ‘hanging judge’ whom Khalkhal is undoubtedly modeled on), retired to Qom and eventually died of cancer. In The House of the Mosque his end is a lot more ‘executionary’. I wondered whether your choice of fate for Khalkhal was made because it fitted better with the story, or whether you chose it more for self-satisfaction?
The facts you mention are correct. However, being a writer gives you endless possibilities. Sadegh Khalkhali has killed hundreds of people. But life let him die in his own bed. This was a mistake of life. A writer is more powerful than life. It was necessary for our literature and for our people to have him killed with a gun. It is my duty as a writer to kill him on one of the pages of my book. It was justice in the right way.
Rob: With regard to to Khalkhal and Sadiq’s son, Lizard. I find the character to be hugely fascinating but also incredibly odd. There’s a real sense of the allegorical or fable-like about this character – perhaps more than can be seen in any of the other characters in the book (with the possible exception of the ‘grandmothers’) – and I wondered if you could explain your reasons behind creating Lizard?
KA: I don’t know why I have created the character Lizard. Writing is a strange process. While writing I never know what kind of characters will appear in my book. Suddenly they emerge, out of nothing. They fascinate me, and let me create my story.
Eric: How much of the action is mythical, how much derived from experience? (This refers to life around the hooz – where the womenfolk are termed ‘grandmothers’ and appear to have a collective soul, whilst the menfolk are more delineated as individuals.)
KA: I can’t say exactly, but in my imagination a lot is real, no fiction. I needed the house to be this way; I needed to make it real. All of the people in that house are gone, have disappeared, but my characters keep on living, in your mind. They are real characters, I think. They have to be.
Simon: Which characters were personally closest to your heart and which were the hardest to write?
KA: I wanted to show more of the Iranian traditional life of women, but I couldn’t show it completely. The House of the Mosque didn’t give me enough room to write about it, but I have created some strong female characters. Closest to my own character are Nosrat and Shahbal.
Eric: The book appears to be a triangular fight between those loyal to the Shah, to the Ayatollah and maybe to people looking to Moscow. How did this pan out in real life back in 1979?
KA: Iran is an important country; our border with the ex-Soviet Union is 2000 kilometers long. America and the Soviet Union wanted to take control of the country. Some groups were pro-Moscow, some other groups were pro-Washington. But you see now what has happened. No Moscow, and no Washington, but Mecca.
Lizzy: The novel ends with Khomeini’s death. Are you planning a sequel that will bring us up to date with Iranian history?
KA: No, I am going back into history to an east-west story, about the presence of England in Iran. It is a novel about the time before the ayatollahs, when there was a king of Iran and about the influence of the industrial revolution on our country. I tell our story in a time when you were present in our daily lives.
Eric: What sort of people does the author consider to be his core readership: Western people with little knowledge of Iran beyond what they read in the newspapers, or the exile Iranian community?
KA: I have written it for you. I don’t know who you are, but I have written it for you. And at the same time, I have written this book for myself, to understand myself better; I wanted to know why this has happened. And I wanted to explain it and share it with you.
Lizzy: Finally a question on behalf of all booklovers, everywhere! Do you keep a copy of your books in every language? How does the Canongate cover rate against others?
Yes, I do keep a copy of each translation in my library and it feels great. The cover of Canongate’s edition is beautiful; it matches the first part of the story. It is mysterious.
When I escaped my country and came to Holland, I didn’t have a single book. I bought a book case, an empty one. That bookcase is now filled with my own books and books of other great writers.