By Laksiri Fernando –
It is a mixture of history and fiction, not unique to Kader Abdolah’s “The House of the Mosque,” but common to many other novels of the same genre. What might be unique in this case is the extreme difficulty to distinguish history from fiction or more pertinently from fable. It should be read however not to understand the actual history of Iran, during the Islamic revolution, but to feel its distinctive flavour, from of course a leftist or radical point of view.
Kader Abdolah is the penname of Hossein Farahani who fought first against the dictatorial Shah and then the Ayatollahs as a leftist activist and sought asylum in the Netherlands in 1988. Now this ‘Persian-Dutch’ is a writer, poet and a columnist. First published in 2005 in Dutch, the novel was translated into English in 2010.
The ‘house of the mosque’ situated in Senejan, a traditional carpet making town, is a microcosm of the Persian society. The ‘house’ is portrayed as a combination of tradition, pragmatism, belief in Allah and Koran, respect for family ties, yearning for modernity and search for natural sexuality without much pretence. The Iranian society in its essence is not extremist, that is the argument of the novel. Aqa Jan (Loving Master), the most modest and moderate man, is the symbol of this pious society and the head of this extended family.
Then what makes this decent society succumb into political and religious extremism and dictatorial rule? That is the enigma addressed in this 436 page novel in the medium of art, imagination, prose and poetry. It is almost an unnecessary ‘clash of civilizations,’ the West versus Islam, due to impatience, external imposition and fanaticism, not of Islam but the Mullahs. The failure to distinguish, like in many other societies (i.e. Sri Lanka), between a religious doctrine and religious organization is at the centre of this enigma.
One day in 1969, Shahbal, the rebeller in the family, wants to speak to Aqa Jaan, his uncle, about the ‘moon.’ It is not exactly about the moon, but about television to show Aqa Jaan and Shahbal’s father, Imam Alsaberi, the planned human landing on the moon. The Iranian society was already polarised between those who go along with the imposed modernity by the Shah and those who opposed any modernity, influenced by the Mullahs in Qom. The House finally agrees to have a portable television brought by Shahbal. Hidden inside the library, the two male elders, Aqa Jaan and Alsaberi, aided by Shahbal, watch the landing on the moon.
There are many interesting characters in this extended family. The two ‘Grandmothers,’ Golbanu and Golebeh, are not really grandmothers of anyone but traditional ‘maids’ who look after almost everything in the household. They live until their very old age and go to Mecca and disappear to death. The Mueszzin, a born blind, was his title who climbed the mosque three times a day and cries, ‘Hayye ale as-salat!’ Or otherwise he engages in pottery in the cellar all day.
Nozrat was another rebeller in his own way, being a photographer, who came home only once in a while from Tehran and believed only his camera and not even Koran. On the first Nowruz, the Persian New Year, after the ‘moon,’ he came home with a young woman called Shadi. The old were stunt, the young were delighted. “The young woman wasn’t wearing a chador! She did have on her a headscarf, but it was pulled back so far that her hair was visible.”
There were of course women in the family. Zinat Khanom was Imam Alsaberi’s wife but lost her fame having lost a child apparently for her negligence. She lives under the shadow of Fakhri Sadat, Aqa Jaan’s wife. Fakhri was the near ‘queen’ of the house, almost equal to her husband in private. Zinat regains her fame only after joining the Islamic movement, first in secret, after her husband’s death, and in fact becomes in charge of a torture prison for women dissidents. That was much later in the story, after everything in the house goes upside down.
All doom starts after Khalkhal enters the family. He is a young and ambitious Imam, trained under Ayatollah Almakki, supposedly a close follower of Ayatollah Khomeini, the enemy of America and the Shah. He comes in search of Alsaberi’s daughter Sadiq’s hand, quite an unconventional feat without a matchmaker. It is a marriage of convenience and the objective on Khalkhal’s part is to organize Islamic rebellion in Senejan, otherwise a conservative town. He doesn’t care for his wife or children, but political opposition to the Shah. He leads a violent demonstration against Farah Diba, Shah’s wife who comes to open an ‘evil Cinema’ in Senejan. It was almost a mutiny. This is not a historical event but gives a flavour of what was unravelling in Iran at that time.
Political events unfold and story becomes little boring to an average reader. There were two movements evolving in Iran against the Shah: the Islamic revolution under Khomeini to establish Islamic Republic and the radical left divided along ideological lines to establish ‘socialism’ against encroaching capitalism. Apart from the Tudeh (communist) Party linked to Moscow, there were more authentic left wing groups where Shahbal belonged. Mujahedeen is a later development. There is interesting information about the Red Village where they even practiced some form of ‘primitive’ communism, living collectively with common property.
By this time Khomeini has moved to Paris from Iraq, leading the revolution. He was given publicity by the BBC! A Revolutionary Council was formed, Khalkhal taking a leading role. These were not necessarily the actual events except for their close resemblance. “In Tehran millions of people took part in demonstrations being held almost daily. It seemed that no earthly power could prevent Khomeini’s return,” the author noted. “The revolution also left its mark on the house of the mosque. Zinat openly distanced herself from the family, and Sadiq went out more often. Both she and Zinat often attended mass gathering of Islamic women.”
Khalkhal chanted ‘Astaghfirullah’ repeatedly when he was going to Khomeini’ room. Now the Shah has fled to America and Khomeini was in power. He knew he would be assigned to commit ‘sins or crimes.’ He becomes the revolutionary Chief Justice or the Butcher! The actual historical figure was Sadeq Khalkhali. The trials and brutal executions, for example Shah’s Prime Minister Hoveida, take place in the Teheran abattoir in the story. But its actual location was Qasr prison. There were many such brutal executions in Tehran and in provincial places like Senejan. The brutality of the new regime, like in the old one, is attractively revealed in the novel. The judgements were swift, without any rules or law, and only by orders.
The story ends both in tragedy and comedy. Revolution creates rifts in Aqa Jaan’s family or in the Iranian society at large. Iran goes to war with Iraq, or the other way round, and thousands and thousands are killed on the warfront on both sides. Aqa Jaan’s son Jawad is executed for his leftist activities, on the orders of Khalkhal, and Aqa Jaan finds it difficult to find even a decent burial ground for him. The Red Village is razed to the ground. ‘Violence begets violence’ and Khalkhal is executed by Shahbal finally in Kabul hunted down on the ‘orders’ of the Mujahedeen.
There is comedy as well, created by the author for sarcasm. This is not historical. Khomeini, a loner in many respects, watches movies in secret lured by Nozrat, the ‘cameraman and the artist’ who becomes close to the Leader for some years. Khomeini’s wife Bartul allows Nozrat to film her. In one scene on the videotape it shows “Bartul standing by the window and looking out at the lake. She had exchanged her black chador for a milky white one with blue flowers. Nozrat zoomed in on her face, on the silvery hair that that could just be seen. Then she slowly let her chador slip down to her shoulders. It was a revelation.”
“Bartul was beautiful,” the author says, “She yearned to be seen through the lens of a camera.” “Her wishes was the same as that of every other Iranian woman who had suffered centuries of male oppression and had never been given the chance to display their beauty.”
Shahbal’s letter to Aqa Jaan is the climax of the story. This last short chapter is titled “He is Light, Light upon Light.” Beginning with “Salaam!” it says: “My dear Aqa Jaan, I’m writing to you from a country I never expected to live in. If I were you, I’d say that it was God’s will that led me here. But I’m not you, so I chalk it up to a series of coincidences.”
“I left our house, but I haven’t turned my back on it. I live in Holland now, and I dream of the day when you and I can walk along the canal in front of my apartment. That day is bound to come. It must!”
There are two special characters in the novel, ‘Lizard’ and Crazy Qodsi; the narration of their lives shows the unique humanist character of the novel. “Owing to a congenital spinal defect, Lizard was unable to sit up, but he grew quickly and started exploring his surroundings at an early age.” “Nobody knew how he got his nick name. Officially his name was Sayyid Mohammad, but he didn’t respond when he was called that. He only crawled over to those who called him ‘Lizard.’ He often crawled under the bed and under the blankets like a giant lizard.”
Aqa Jaan had a special liking for Lizard and he was there when all important events happened in the house; most often on the side of Aqa Jaan. When Shahbal came to assassinate Ayatollah Araki, Lizard was there alongside Shahbal and got killed by the soldiers. The family was devastated and could not bear his demise. Muezzin moved out the house and said “I hear the boy crying, all night long.” It was the same for others. They simply liked him; any other family would have sold him to a circus when he was living.
Qodsi came from a traditional family. “Her father, a distant relative of Aqa Jaan, was rich nobleman who owned a couple of villages in the mountains. But something was amiss in his family: they were all crazy.” Qodsi roamed the city like a tramp, but no harm came of her. During all the turmoil, she survived. Qodsi knew almost everything that was going on. “Got any news, Qodsi? People asked when they ran into her.” “She didn’t pass on her information for free either. First you had to give her a few copper coins, which she promptly stuck in her mouth. Only then did she tell you the latest news.”
There are other events and incidents; the story is almost a fable. The first is about ‘The Ants.’ This is the first chapter. They were in millions which came crawling towards the house and then disappeared into the ancient wall surrounding the house and the mosque when Al-Naml surah was chanted. Then was ‘The Birds’ who used to come before the arrival of the winter in the Asiatic Russia and made a stopover at the house compound. They were following the old silk route. The ‘grandmothers’ used to catch a few of them and “the house drew its inspiration for the patterns and colours of their carpets from the feathers of migrating birds.” And then they were released unharmed. Thereafter was the arrival of “The Locusts” which symbolized the impending disaster.
There is so much of allegory and symbolism. The smooth flow of the story, meaningfully titled chapters, and intelligent and intelligible dialogues are the special beauty of the novel.