Friday 28 February 2014

The Caliph's House: A Year in Casablanca By Tahir Shah

The Caliph's House: A Year in Casablanca

The Caliph's House: A Year in Casablanca

Tahir Shah
This is an account of how the young author moved himself, wife and two young children, lock stock and barrel to Morocco, bought and renovated The Caliph's House of the title, encountered all the strange and marvellous aspects of North African life, grappled with getting things done, the troublesome djinn Quandisha who lives in the house, the guardians of the house whose own houses in the local shanty get flattened by bulldozers, the man who steals and then returns their car, all the difficulties of hiring and firing staff, of managing builders and workmen, of sourcing building materials and finding true craftsmen, deciding whether or not to trust an assistant who seem to good to be true, and of exorcising the aforementioned djinn before the local guardian's remedies poison the children and kill them all off. All this while trying to write and to research the last year’s of his Afghani grandfather’s life in this country.
ashramblings verdict 4* A delightful, extremely readable, oftimes funny book which will just make you smile.

Monday 24 February 2014

Communion for John Veitch


Thursday evening saw our book group meeting relocated from the Library to a house nearby because of an accident. We didn’t know much of the details except that an elderly man had died after a heart attack whilst driving and died on the spot. His car had ended up lodged into the neighbouring shop wall.

This morning I arrived at my Creative Writing Group to be told the sad news that it was one of our number, John Veitch,  who was the driver of the car. I’ve only been going to the group for a few weeks now and am still getting to know people so I knew very little about John except that he had a very distinctive vocal style, with well rounded pronunciation and a voice that carried authority and distance.  In his writings, and to other members of the group, he often spoke about his late wife whom he clearly missed.

As a group we wrote for John today and here is my tribute.


She awaits your hand

at the ending of your days

her open arms hold sway

to dance again with you to some ethereal band

a Moonlight Sonata in heaven’s land

Sunday 23 February 2014

The Last Friend by Tahar Ben Jalloun

The Last Friend



Tahar Ben Jelloun


This novel is the story of a friendship between two men – Ali and Mamed. In the first part of the book, Ali recalls their friendship from its beginnings during their childhood, through their studies abroad – Ali in Canada, Mamad in France – , their involvement with the nationalist struggle, their imprisonment and military service, their marriages – Ali to Soraya and Mamed to Ghita -  and their children.  Being told first, the reader is easily lured into all that is Ali’s perspective and like Ali cannot understand the sudden twist in Mamed’s behaviour and the breakdown of the friendship which had survived so much and thrived over the years. From the proceeding Prolog we know Ali has received a letter from Mamed which he says is “ a letter intended to destroy me.”

The second section is told from Mamed’s viewpoint. He recalls different things about their friendship and their experiences, including more details from their imprisonment. He fills in more about his life in Sweden, their relationships with their wives and his illness. He tells about the decision to break off his relationship with Ali, to not see him and how he uses the bills for the refurbishment by Ali and Soraya of his house in Morocco as the breaking point.

The third section is from the point of view of Ramon, a friend of both, but not as close a friend to either as they are to each other. He provides a independent, non-judgemental friendship especially during the period of its dissolution. He provides the background to Mamed and his family’s return to Morocco because Mamed wishes to die on home soil. He also provides an independent view of the sorrow that Ali feels at his friend’s death.

The final section is the letter that Mamed has written during his final months in Morocco explaining why he broke with Ali.  I read it as Mamed’s attempt to explain, to set the record straight, about his destruction of their friendship as an attempt to save Ali the pain of seeing him die. I found it a powerful tale of friendship, of what one friend will do to ease the pain of the other although this act itself hurts him deeply. But clearly Ali did not see it in this way. Just as the two had different memories, so they had different perspectives on the letter. Mamed seeing it as an explanation, Ali as a final blow. Just as memories are idiosyncratic and flawed so can our understanding be of the actions of others. As a reader we’ve not witnessed the events directly only through the participants one renditions. Ben Jalloun’s clever construction of the book means we need to make up our own minds about what actually happened.  

 ashramblings verdict 4* : a cleverly constructed, beautifully told story of friendship

A wet winter wonder

At last week’s creative writing class our tutor brought in a small, attractively glazed pot of flowering snowdrops and set us the task of using this item as a stimulus for our writing. Here’s my attempt

Phew! I’m exhausted. But I must keep going. Push, Rest. Push, Rest, Push. Push, rest. All this water, where had it come from? Squish. Squash. Push. Push. Rest. Take stock for a moment. Check the reserves. Clearly my food reserves have been impacted by wet rot. Yeah, OK, good. Just about enough. Well it normally would have been enough but this year, who knew? It was so wet. All that water to push away. All that mud to displace. Off again – push, extend, push, extend….ahggrr! Watch out! Must manoeuvre round that stone. Yes, that’s it now, easy does it, don’t tear anything valuable. Let’s try and conserve as much as possible. On I go extending, growing, pushing forward, upward through the wet dark soil. Surely I ought to be in the light soon? Ok,, concentrate, dig deeper, draw up more reserves, continue pushing onward. It’s still dark. It’s still damp. There’s no sign of light yet at all. Was it an illusion of is it getting less waterlogged?  No, it’s my imagination running riot. Back to growing up, back to pushing forward, back to avoiding obstacles, back to taking hopefully not too long detours round them. Back to being careful to avoid damage to the goods in transit - pale, delicate little things and the whole point of the exercise after all. So keep a tight rein there and steer a strong course forward, upwards, lightward. Come on now, you can do it. You haven’t got all year I tell myself. One last almighty push. Push. Push. Push, no rest, Push, Push. Ah!

Saturday 22 February 2014

The Shahnameh: The Persian Book of Kings

The Shahnameh: The Persian Book of Kings

by Elizabeth Laird

Illustrated by Shirin Adl


The Shahnameh is a long epic poem written by the Persian poet Ferdowsi between c. 977 and 1010 CE . It is the national epic of Iran (Persia). It consists of some 50,000 verses telling the mythical and some of the historical past of the Persian empire from the creation of the world until the Islamic conquest of Persia in the 7th century. It is similar in status to the Arthurian legends in the UK, every child grows up knowing the stories.

This book is a retelling of some of the stories of the Shahnameh aimed at children. It was the only version that my Library system had but I have to admit it would make grand reading to or with children.

It begins with the story of Kayamars, the First King where the devil Ahriman is also introduced. As Kayamars, his sons and grandsons improve the lot of man, Ahriman bides his time and “lurks secretly in a far-off lair” before the “worm of pride” brings down the reign of Kayamars, great-grandson Jamshid and God removes his kingship.  Meanwhile Ahriman has taken hold of Arabia by conspiring to murder its King and place his son Zahhak on the throne, Ahriman turns Zahahk into a evil war mongeror, placing two black snakes protruding around his head which need to be fed by the deaths of two people every day. Zahhak dreams of being conquored by a hero called Feridun. Feridoun’s mothers hides her child in the mountains, with cows and with holy men until he is old  enough to successfully  take on Zahhak.

The next story is a classic “love across the divide” tale, the story of Zal and Rudabeh, in which the son of one of Feridun’s champions falls for and eventually marries the daughter of King Mehrab of Kabul a follower of the Zahak. Zal is left for died in the mountains by his father for having been born with unusual white hair. There he is raised by a giant bird, who graciously returns Zal to his father when he has a change of heart regarding the boy.  This story has Rudabeh lower her hair down for Zal to climb up, very similar to the Rapunzel fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm.  It never fails to amaze me how irrespective of culture folk stories and fairy tales have the same themes – good versus evil, jealousy, love, friendship etc. – all the basic human emotions.

The the story of Rustam, Kal and Rudabeh’s son, who becomes the nation’s champion. Rustom fights the fiercest elephant when still a boy, acquires his horse Rakhsh and sets out to find Kay Kobad who will become King to fight off attacks from neighbouring Turanian prince Afrasyab. However, Kay Kobald’s son, Kay Kavus, was not like his father and when the devil  disguised as a musician tempted him with the delights of Mazanderan he tried, against all advice, to invade and take that country which was ruled by the White Demon. He and his generals ended up blinded and prisoners of the White Demon. Rustam is sent forth to free them. He has to pass seven trials en route and with the help of Ulad finally kills the White Demon and frees Kay Kavus and his generals, installing Ulad as King of Mazanderan.

But Kay Kavus was not done fighting and raised his standard against the King of Hamaveran, subdued him and married his daughter. But the King rebelled at this and once again Kay Kavus and his generals were imprisoned only to be freed once again by the heroic Rustam. The devils were not done with Kay Kavus and persuaded him to go on and conquer the heavens. Kaya Kavus built a throne or wood and gold, which had 4 powerful eagles strapped to it chasing meat held on lances attached the the throne. Thus Kay Kavus flew higher and higher into the heavens until the eagles were exhausted and Kay Kavus fell down to earth. Finally  repenting of his pride and folly he was forgiven by God and reigned peacefully for the rest of his days.

Rustam’s horse was stolen by Turanian horsemen and taken to Samangen. When Rustam approached the King of Samangan for his help in locating his horse, he met and married his daughter Tahmineh. Upon the return of his horse Rustam returned to Iran, keeping his marriage secret and leaving Tahmineh in Samangen to give birth to his son, Sohrab, who grew strong like his father whom he had never met. But the overlord of Sohrab’s family was Afrasyab, an enemy of Iran, who when he heard that Sohrab was raising an army to  attack Iran and find his father planned that Sohrab should not discover who was his father and so would end up facing him in battle. This battle was a tremendous fight between the two men. Each had seen signs that the other was a relative but had been swayed by falsities from their advisors so they did not believe their own eyes. Rustam brought Sohrab down and as he lay dying the whole sad story comes out and Rustam is consumed by grief, having killed his own son.

I loved these stories, and can well imagine children in Iran being brought up on these tales and playing Rustam and Sohrab games and dreaming of a love such as Zal and Rudabeh found.

ashramblings verdict 4* – a great book for reading to your kids

Wednesday 19 February 2014

The Blood of Flowers by Anita Amirrezvani

The Blood of Flowers


Anita Amirrezvani


A young girl and her recently widowed mother, without a male family member to tend their fields, have to leave their home village to seek the protection of her father’s half brother, a carpet maker, in 17th century Isfahan.  He and his wife taken them in, but they are treated like servants.  The aunt is manipulative and resentful of their presence but the uncle recognises the young girl’s talent for carpet design and teaches her because he has no sons to pass his skills and business on to .

Her skills increase and he lends her money to craft her own rug for sale, the sale of which will start to raise money for her dowry. In a moment of frustration with the quality of her work and choices of colours she cuts all the knots, shredding and wasting lots of expensive wool. Without dowry money her marriage prospects are non-existent and she ends up in a secret, although legal, temporary marriage, a sigheh, with the son of a horse trader. Effectively her family have sold her virginity for money on a renewable 3 month contract. She gradually realises just what is really required of her in this arrangement and her contract is extended for a second period securing her and her mother’s wellbeing for a bit longer.

However, she has always been a headstrong child and realising that she is being used by her husband who has no intention of making her a proper lifetime wife, declines the next extension. Retribution by her husband’s new wife and their social circle, the consequences of having kept the sigheh secret from everyone not directly involved,  see strains put on the family’s rug business and without male protection and without money, the girl and her mother find themselves on the street without  money having been tricked out of the payment for her rug by a Dutchman buyer.  Finding shelter with a poor family and with her mother becoming sick, she risks everything in an attempt to keep them alive and to survive.

This a coming-of-age tale which sees the girl, unnamed throughout the book, transform from a headstrong child, doing the rash and impulsive thing without thinking of its consequences, into a bold and determined young woman in charge of her own future. It has all the twisted turns in fortune as seen in the knotted threads of one of the carpets so vividly described in the book – her change in circumstances in her uncle home, the vindictiveness of her aunt, the opulence of her husband’s home, the squalor of loom worker Melaka's one room shack, her insightful relationship with Homa the woman who runs the hamman, her friendship with the neighbour's girl Naheed, how she learns the tricks of how to survive begging from the blind beggar – all these experiences knot together to form the up and down pattern of her life. That life story is interspersed with folk stories, told mainly by her mother, to build up as rich a storyboard as any Persian carpet’s design.

I absolutely flew through this book, loving not only the story the author had put together but also the interspersing Iranian stories. Each of these begins with “First there wasn’t and then there was. Before God, no one was” which in  an Author’s Note to the edition I read is described as a rough translation of the Iranian equivalent of “Once upon a time” expression used at the start of European folk and fairy tales.  Of the seven such tales in the book, two are the author’s own and five are retellings. I was also intrigued to read that the book’s title is taken from a poem called “Ode to a Garden Carpet” by an unknown Sufi poet c 1500 which portrays the garden carpet as a place of refuge that stimulate visions of the divine, whereas within the book the blood of flowers is the dye created from flower petals. This poem is so beautiful I reproduce it here:

Ode To A Garden Carpet – By an unknown Sufi Poet (Circa 1500)

Here in this carpet lives an ever-lovely spring; Un-scorched by summer’s ardent flame, Safe too from autumn’s boisterous gales, Mid winter’s cruel ice and snow,’Tis gaily blooming still. Eyes hot-seared by desert glare find healing in its velvet shade. Splashing foundations and rippling pools, In cool retreats sore-wearied limbs restore, And tired hearts awake with joy once more. The way was cruel.
Baffled by monotony and mocked by phantoms delirious, Beset by stalking Death in guises manifold; The dreaded jinns, the beasts ferocious, The flaming heat and the exploding storms; Form all these perils here at last set free; In the Garden all find security.
Here the long-laboring Earth at last gives birth. From apparent death, a new and lovely world is born; Below the desert’s dusty floor, the jacinth imprisoned lies. The stony wilderness so bleak and bare, In ageless patience broods, aware of a life within, the promise of fertility and abundance. Ever longing for deliverance. The world at last reveals its destiny.
Can we not then capture and restore The loveliness that gave us hope, Still brightly mirrored on memory’s gliding waters Or snared in the poets’ invisible net, So wide, so fragile, Yet captor and conqueror of realities elusive?
Wrought in gold and azure, bright as carved metal. Dream-like foliage in sparking tones is caught, Or else, in sumptuous shades of glossy lacquer, Quiet but intense; in muffled browns and honey pure, Jasper cool and mellow cinnabar, That fairy land comes real again.
In sudden collisions find sweet embrace; In rhythms enchanting, with stately pace, Or rollicking speed; emerging, retreating, Reversing, in peaceful finality . Their conflicts reconcile, All in confederation blending Like a chorus in part-song gladly singing, In contrapuntal play rejoicing, Floating soft or wildly free; Yet anchored in eternity

ashramblings verdict : 4* This rapid read will ensure that you’ll never look at a Persian carpet the same way again!

Sunday 16 February 2014

Beneath the Lion’s Gaze by Maaza Mengiste

MengisteBeneath the Lion’s Gaze
Maaza Mengiste

In 1974 the Ethiopian Marxist Derg, Coordinating Committee of the Armed Forces, Police, and Territorial Army, staged a coup against Emperor Haile Selassie. The resultant Civil War lasted until 1991, left around 1.5 million people dead and imprisoned thousands of others without trial. This novel charts the fortunes of an Addis family - Hailu, a doctor, his sons Dawit and Yonas, Yonas’s wife Sara – through the build up to the Civil War and through part of it.
The first part of the book introduces the family as it deals with private tragedy (the death of Selam, Hailu’s wife, the sickness of Yonas and Sara’s only surviving child, Tizita) amidst increasing instability in the city caused by the mounting pressure on the emperor to do something about the famine in Wollo/Wello, Tigre and Shoa/Sewa provinces and rebellions amongst soldiers.  Dawit becomes increasingly involved in the student movement whilst his childhood friend Mickey is exposed first to the horrors of the famine and then to the brutalism of the Derg commanders.  I was particular struck by the writer’s sensitivities such as when she writes about the imprisonment of the Emperor  I thought she encapsulated both the awe in which ordinary Ethiopians held their Emperor and the endlessness of solitary imprisonment - “He’d been taken to the great hall that had once belonged to the late Emperor Zewditu.All of the furniture had been emptied out of the big room and onlu a small cot with thin sheets and a blanket sat in its center. Soldiers were posted outside his door, which was locked in triplicate and then chained. Their fear of him was heartbreaking, compounding his loneliness and the largeness of this empty space he was trapped inside. They walked backwards into the room whenever they escorted his old servant inside with his food, doubly armed and wearing sunglasses. They scurried out as quickly as they could, too afraid to glance his way. The mournful whispers of his old lion, Tojo, lulled him to sleep, and he tried to make himself forget about the garden just outside his window which he was no longer allowed to walk in. Under the weight of this solitude, all the emperor’s hours, minutes, and seconds blurred and ran together like a slow, dying river.” Similarly at the end of Part One when we see Mickey being threatened at gun point, one of his comrades having already been so threatened and killed, to force him to perform the execution.
In the second part, realities of the Derg regime begin to hit home, Dawit becomes increasingly involved in the production and distribution of opposition pamphlets which causes friction with his father and brother. He witnesses the dumping of the body of a neighbour ‘s daughter and cannot do anything about it. Mickey, having confessed all to Dawit and having handed over his pistol, appears to be continuing to work for the authorities and to be rising in their ranks. Hailu has to care for one of the horribly beaten victims of torture who was required by the regime to recover. Instead of permitting the terrified girl to go back to suffer further torture Hailu gives her a cyanide pill and “wanted to think that last look before she closed her eyes was gratitude” As a result he is summoned to the jail and by the end of Book 2 he is alone in a cell in the dark.
In Book 3 the family try in vain to find out what has happened to Hailu: they go to the jail, they try to see Mickey, Yonas and Sara’s relationship feels the strain. Meanwhile, Dawit builds up his support cell with the help of Sara and Melaku, the man who runs their local kiosk. During the curfew hours, they undertake the unpleasant and dangerous work of collecting victims bodies dumped roadside and returning them to their families. In a horrid turn to the story line their neighbour’s young son, just starting to work the streets selling newspapers, witnesses the assassination of a Derg official and is taken into custody. Being a child offers no protection against the brutality of the Derg and he becomes one of the victims. Dawit graduates in the ranks of the opposition and is transformed into a legend, Mekonnen, killer of soldiers. 
Hailu’s torture continues. As a doctor he realises his jaw is broken and he is swallowing his own dislodged teeth, that his assailant is good at accurately placing blows to get no blood on his own clothes. He tries to stick to his story that the girl was dead, but of course finally cannot.  Finally Hailu is freed, after a real twist in the tale when the truth behind the interrogator’s fervour to find this girl is revealed, and somehow find his way home to the warmth and safety of his family.
The final part of the book brings Mekonnen’s legend to its peak, with the attempted assassination of the Derg leadership. Somewhat predictably, the storyline has Dawit primed to target the vehicle in the convoy of dignitaries in which Mickey sits. But their previous friendship is no  protection in civil war. The regime retaliates by mounting an exhaustive search for and elimination of all opposition in what became known as the Red Terror period of Ethiopian history. With no where left to hide Dawit goes home and in a final ‘family stand together against terror’ scene is successfully hidden from the authorities, this time.
I think the author writes very compassionately about the horrors, although in places they may be a bit too graphic for some sensibilities, they seem well researched and grounded in reality. The New Yorker writes. “But the real marvel of this tender novel is its coiled plotting, in which coincidence manages to evoke the colossal emotional toll of the revolution: on a crowded street, soldiers force the doctor’s elder son to drag away a prisoner whom they shot, and who turns out to be a family servant’s long-lost child; the younger son becomes a legendary resistance fighter, killing soldiers and collecting civilian bodies for burial, while his fumbling childhood best friend thrives under a senior officer of the junta”. By bringing together all these coincidences into the life of this one family the author encapsulates all the tribulations of the whole of the opposition and ordinary people of the country during this time in a highly credible first novel.
ashramblings verdict 4* a very readable account of a family’s journey into the horror’s of a civil war which set brother against brother, father against son, husband against wife.

Wednesday 12 February 2014

My childhood landmark

Red weighing machine
Public Weighing Machine
In the bustle of the Woolworths store. amidst the polished mahogany counters and the shoppers’ stockinged legs, it was unmistakable. Rising over 6 foot high, it towered over everything and everyone to be see from far and wide.
Standing like some erect, stationary guardsman in his household cavalry livery, the bright red “lollipop” shape shone and sparkled.  At its foot was a square, polished, silver metal footplate, dotted with raised rivets and floating like a weighbridge pontoon over the heavyweight base.
From there, its trunk rose up like some giant redwood sequoia, wide enough to play hide and seek behind, except that it was placed flush against the shop wall, close by the shop’s main doorway, strategically positioned to catch people on their way out . Of course that was why mum had chosen it too.
I’d always been fascinated by its face of concentric circles and its slot which ate coins. The inner circle was full of the machine’s mechanical innards of interworking cogwheels, then there was the numerical middle circle and finally, encasing them both, the pillar box red outer coat. Crossing these, one gigantic, forked clock hand always rested in the noon position to show zero stones. This  hand would only swing round after someone had stepped onto the footplate and fed the machine’s small mouth with requisite amount of coins. As a three year old, my fascination to see this happen again and again would guarantee I’d stand there and wait, wait for mum to find me if we’d been separated in the crowd and not to be tempted to go of exploring, wandering off into the town traffic to get lost or worse.

Thursday 6 February 2014

Shadow of the Serpent by David Ashton

Shadow of the Serpent


David Ashton

Scottish author David Ashton first wrote an Afternoon Play for BBC radio about James McLevy, who lived from 1796–1875 and was a prominent Edinburgh detective in the mid-19th century. Brian Cox played McLevy in the following radio series which ran for nine series from 1999 to 2012. Ashton adapted these into novels of which Shadow of the Serpent was the first to be published in 2006. An online book club buddy recommended them to me following a discussion about detective genre and from only a few pages in I fell in love with the writing, the words and the detail.  The Scotsman wroteThe key to the success of the McLevy series, however, is …. the dialogue, which somehow sounds of its time even though it slips easily across the centuries. Because he (Ashton) spends so long getting it right….”  It is also speckled with vernacular, just enough to be authentic, not so much as to make it undecipherable and in need of a glossary for those not acquainted with the Scottish tongue. 

For me, McLevy is a typical Scottish “hard man”, a  detective who frequents the “wrong side of the tracks” in the Leith of the 1880s, the pubs, the whore houses or bawdy houses, can stand his own ground in a fight and knows the wynds, closes and backstreets of Leith intimately. But he is also a detective with a deeply ingrained and real passion for justice for all irrespective of who the victim is and of where his investigations take him and whose nose he ruffles. In this novel this takes him into the circles of political power surrounding William Gladstone's Midlothian Campaign of 1879 and 1880 in a lead up to the 1880 election defeat of Benjamin Disraeli as he tries to resolve the brutal murder of one of Leith’s prostitutes.  I liked the way Ashton intertwines the political clash of Disraeli and Gladstone into this murder mystery as someone high up is out to stop Gladstone’s election – he shows the different social classes of Edinburgh at that time, the enfranchised and disenfranchised, the well heeled and the hard knuckled, each in their own way striving to better themselves and their lives. Of course we know that the historical figures cannot be the murderer, and we suspect that the woman messenger, Joanna Lightfoot, is a femme fetale, but it is the characterisation of McLevy, his side kick Mulholland, his whore house owning “friend” and supplier of “good coffee” Jean Brash that makes this book and I assume all of these will appear again in the following books in the McLevy series. I liked they way he provides McLevy’s own back story to show how his character has developed from his childhood experiences – the suicide of his mother, and being brought up by a widow woman neighbour.

ashramblings verdict 3*: an exceedingly readable murder mystery and definite worth reading another in this series

Monday 3 February 2014

The user is about to commit an indiscretion


At our Creative Writing Group, the tutor brought in an article for us to use as a creative trigger along with the words “The user is about to commit an indiscretion”. The article was a round, silver hand mirror, fairly large perhaps about 6 inches across, embossed on the rear side with an animal relief .

The vanity cabinet was laden with all sorts of makeup – Maybelline, No.7, Max Factor, Revlon – she had them all. Every shade of mascara, every colour of lipstick, a huge collection of rouges and blushes and a grand variety of applicators and brushes.

Behind the cabinet was an ornately framed wall mirror, bordered by fruits of the forest, being pecked at by tiny songbirds embossed into the silver metal.  But she wasn’t using that one, not yet. Its time would come. Instead she sat with her hand held one, back towards the wall.

She stretched back for her first brush and started to apply her foundation, rather white and too young one might have said for her ageing and wrinkling skin. Slowly she built up her base, then she started on her eyes, painting lines to define a shape and hiding those crows feet she so detested. Blue would be her colour today, youthfully complementing her greying irises. She chose her favourite Boots Best Buy No. 7 for this and with her smallest brush delicately applied the first layer of colour. She finished them off by fixing new lashes, long and silky, enhancing them, by using the extra spacing applicator to give the fluttering look she wanted.

She glanced into her hand mirror with satisfaction, stood up, composed herself, pulled in her tummy and turned to face her nemesis in the wall mirror asking it “Mirror, mirror on the wall…..”

Sunday 2 February 2014

The House of the Mosque by Kader Abdolah

The House of the Mosque


Kader Abdolah

Reminding me of reading Latin American family sagas and of first reading Khaled Hosseini, The House at the Mosque provides a sweeping account of the various branches of a household in the Iranian town of Senejan before, during and after the return of Ayatollah Khomeini .

Head of household, Aqa Jaan, is loyal, caring, thoughtful, loving, well respected but he has remained as ever, been somewhat complacent, and has let the world go by without noticing the winds of change. He struggles to realise and cope with the changes happening to the world, to Iran, to his small town, society and his family’s position, role and response to these. From the first use of television to watch the moon landings of 1969 to the modernisation and westernisation of the country under the Shah to the changed level of respect within in the community for him as elder statesman of the bazaar business community as carpet manufacture gives way to oil production and religion is politicised his eyes are finally opened to what is going on.

The writer is clearly a good storyteller: his opening chapter about the courtyard invasion of ants could stand on its own as a short story but could also be seen as symbolic of the march of change. The characters of Golbanu and Golebeh, “the grandmothers”, like two ancient giggling girls, percolates the first half of the book. They are always there, often unseen in their regime of bringing order to the household. I’d love to hear how they ended up in the house at the mosque and what they got up to on their trip to Mecca. The first half of the book build for us a picture of the life and people in and intimately associated with the house – Fakhri his wife and their children Narin, Ensi and Jawad; Aqa Jaan’s brother Nosrat always with his camera; Muezzin, the blind muezzin and potter and father of Shahbal; Zinat the old iman’s widow; Sadiq her daughter who marries Khalkal, a politicised iman , their son Lizard, and crazy Qodsi a local girl, a mystic whose incoherent ramblings provide a deceptively insightful visionary thread to the tale.

The second half ups the pace and is quite different. It is here that everything is destabilised, that change rears its ugly head and religious and political fervour run riot over all Aqa Jaan holds dear. The reader cannot help but feel for the man as he is both physically, emotional, socially and religiously caste aside as he tried to help and save the various members of his household who in one way or another fall foul of the regime. For me there were two heart rending moments in this: as he desperately tries to find a honourable burial plot for his executed son and is turned away time and time again and as his nephew, Shahbal, kills Aqa Jaan’s grandson as he assassinates an ayatollah.

The author weaves history into his story; he weaves snippets from the Koran into his story and creates a storyboard as beautiful and intricate as how he has Aqa Jaan use the colours of the feathers of migratory birds as an inspiration for his carpet designs. The translator’s note to the edition I read indicates that the passages from the Koran are a composite of several different English translations. The author also acknowledge that he has reworked  the passages, taken them out of context, mixed lines from one surah with another. Whilst this may not appeal to some readers I accepted this as writer’s license and went with the flow. Likewise there could be some criticism of how he has mixed historical fact and fiction: he has taken real people, created fictionalised accounts around them and woven these into his story such as when Nosrat photographs the wife of Ayatollah Khomeini. The reader needs to be alert to separate historical fact from fiction. At the end, in the final chapter, when Aqa Jaan finally receives a letter from  the exiled Shahbal he thought of like a son, this reader was left wondering how close the letter was to the writers own story – ending up in The Netherlands and working as a writer.

ashramblings verdict 4*: very readable, a very good piece of storytelling.