DELFT, The Netherlands — In 2007, a book recounting three decades of one family’s life in a provincial Iranian city was voted the second greatest Dutch novel of all time.
The author’s achievement was made all the more remarkable by the fact that he had never written, heard or spoken a word of the Dutch language until he was 33 years old.
“I knew nothing about the Netherlands, I had never heard about it,” explained Kader Abdolah, author of "The House of the Mosque."
“As a boy of 14 or 15 I had a dream to be a writer, a great Persian writer, but the time changed everything … . I am a Dutch writer now.”
“The House of the Mosque” has just been published in English, three years after an internet poll organized by the Dutch national broadcaster and a leading daily newspaper made it the runner-up on the all-time-great list.
Largely based on the experiences of Abdolah's own family, the book tells the story of the inhabitants of a venerable house in the city of Senejan during the final decade of the Shah’s rule, the turbulent times of the Islamic Revolution in 1979, and the terrors of life under the ayatollahs.
“My audience in the Netherlands, they didn’t know about Islam, about Muslim culture, about our houses, our women, our men and what they were doing in that country,” Abdolah said during an interview in his adoptive city of Delft. “I said, ‘OK, I'll take you for a walk behind the curtains. I’ll take you to have a look in our house, into the bedroom of my mother and the others. I'll let you see how they make love, how they enjoy their life.”
Abdolah was born in Iran in 1954 with name Hossein Sadjadi Ghaemmaghami Farahani. He worked for a leftist underground newspaper opposed to both the Shah and Ayatollah Khomeini and adopted his pen name both to protect himself and to honor two Kurdish friends: “Kader and Abdolah, one of them was a young doctor, the other a young architect, both of them dreamed of a free Kurdistan and because of that they were arrested and executed.”
Abdolah, who initially fled Iran over the border to Turkey in 1985, lacked the thousands of dollars needed to pay smugglers to get him into the United States, Britain or France, so ended up as a refugee in The Netherlands.
At first, he tried to continue writing in Persian, but cut off from his homeland he found he could no longer function in his mother tongue.
“When I was writing in Persian, I felt tired, I felt sick. Maybe because I had no audience,” he recalled. “I had lost my power as a writer and I had lost my power as a man, as a husband, I was out of touch with life.”
Encouraged by a teacher at language school in the Netherlands, Abdolah tried his hand at writing short stories in Dutch. Eventually they began appearing in local newspapers and his reputation gradually spread until the release of "The House of the Mosque" in 2006, which went on to sell 300,000 copies in the Netherlands and has been translated into 27 languages.
For the first two-thirds of the book, Abdolah weaves a picture as intricate and rich as the Persian carpets sold by the family patriarch Aqa Jaan, the novel’s main character.
There are illicit affairs, moonlit trysts beneath the minarets, opium-smoking imams, dashing mountain poets and subversive sophisticates visiting from big-city Tehran. Everybody is opposed to the Shah and his American-backed regime, but politics is largely left in the background until the Islamic Revolution ushers in the new fundamentalist rule and Khalkhal, a surly imam who had once married into the family, begins to gain an ever more dominant and disastrous influence over the household and the whole city.
Abdolah hopes the appearance of the English edition will make his work more accessible to a younger Iranian audience who, he fears, have little knowledge of their country’s recent history.
"The English translation comes closer, comes very close to them and that's very important for me,” said Abdolah, who has a striking appearance with a shock of black hair that contrasts with his bushy white moustache. "I am writing this sorrow down on paper. … I am telling this story to give a balance back to the country.”
He is confident the new generation protesting against regime on the internet and on the streets of Tehran will eventually bring about change in Iran.
“There is a strong movement, but it takes time. They are on the good path. … They are correcting the mistakes that their parents have made. When we started in the 1970s part of us was pro-Washington and part of us was pro-Moscow, and we got Mecca. Now we have understood that we have to be ourselves.”