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The House of the Mosque, by Kader Abdolah.

June 26, 2013

 The House of the Mosque, by Kader Abdolah.  Translated by Susan Massotty.  Edinburgh : Canongate, 2011.


Historical fiction about an extended family before, during and after the Iranian Revolution by an Iranian man living in the Netherlands and writing in Dutch.

The author of this book was born and raised in Iran and fought against the tyrannies of both the Shah and Ayatollah Khomeini before being granted residence in the Netherlands as a political refugee.  He writes under a pen name which combines the names of friends killed in the violence of the Iranian Revolution.  He writes in Dutch, but The House of the Mosque has almost no other connection to the Netherlands.  That his writings are considered to be part of Dutch literature is a statement about that nation’s contemporary openness to immigrants from other parts of the world.


The House of the Mosque tells the stories of various members of a large extended family who live in a big house connected to mosque in Senejan, a small town in central Iraq. For generations, they have been the imams and leaders of the mosque.  The first part of the book contains a series of loosely connected anecdotes acquainting readers with various family members and with life as traditionally conducted in the house.  The narrative accelerates with the overthrow of the shah and the rise of Khomeini.  Family members had been united in their opposition to the shah, but they quickly divided over the cruelty that religious fundamentalists inflected.  One version of Islam was at war with another, and family members were willing to kill each other over their beliefs.  Abdolah is able to describe the suffering that occurred when people, once intimate, turned on each other.

The prose in this book is simple and straightforward, more journalistic than literary. Abdolah engages in poetic language only in the closing pages when writing about the surviving characters’ attempt to heal from the violence.

The line between fact and fiction is blurred in Abdolah’s book.  He tells us that everyone in the book is fictional, but obviously many of events described actually happened. Khomeini and perhaps others of the characters were all too real.  Abdolah even hints at something autobiographical about his novel.  I was somewhat disconcerted by not knowing where the book was factual and where it was not.  I wish Abdolah had been forthcoming in such a manner, perhaps in an afterword as other authors sometimes do.

I recommend this book primarily to readers interested in the Islamic religion and in Iran.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. June 27, 2013 4:50 am

    Nice review, it seems to be similar to Khaled Hosseini. I will have it in mind when I visit the book shop.

  2. June 29, 2013 3:48 am

    It is interesting to me that you say that the fact that this is Dutch lit is a statement about the tolerance of the Dutch. Which is.. well, if we were ever open to immigration that has definitely changed in the past years. Contemporary politics in the Netherlands is very negative about immigrants, particularly muslims. It makes me sad to live in this country really. Anyway, the reason I consider it Dutch lit is because it was written in Dutch. (I try to stick to that basic rule because otherwise it gets really complicated for me).

    Did you end up liking it? I sense you were not entirely satisfied?

    • June 29, 2013 9:34 am

      Thanks for raising that point. He was granted asylum in 1988. I assumed your country was more open to immigrants then. I agree that any books written in Dutch have to been as Dutch lit, but I was surprised that the book had almost nothing Dutch in it. I don’t see why he wrote in Dutch other than to get more readers.
      I was somewhat disappointed in his book, although it got more interesting as events in Iran got more intense. The book was OK, but I didn’t see any reason to be excited about it, as literature or as a way to learn about Iran. I just found that some critics said he had distorted some of the history of the revolution. Somehow I am not surprised.


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