Brief Reviews

Sofia Samatar – The White Mosque [Review]

The White MosqueFinding Ways to Connect the Disparate

A Review of

The White Mosque: A Memoir
Sofia Samatar

Hardcover: Catapult, 2022
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Reviewed by Cate Desjardins

It was a surreal year to be a Mennonite. First, a movie about Mennonites was not only nationally distributed but nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars and won an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. “Women Talking” never explicitly uses the word “Mennonite” but the story and book that it is based on are well-known to be true events that happened in a Mennonite colony in Bolivia. The culturally Mennonite hints were dropped throughout the film. And then I began to hear talk of a book nominated for the PEN/Faulkner Award for Nonfiction – a book about Mennonites. The book is “The White Mosque” which traces, through memoir, the history of the Mennonite Great Trek through Central Asia – largely Uzbekistan.

I was instantly curious, but life got busy and I nearly forgot about the book until a few weeks later when it was prominently displayed at my local library under “Librarian Picks!”. There was something yet again surreal about seeing a book about Mennonites displayed in my urban public library.

As I read The White Mosque, I discovered more and more of those surreal moments – like being subtly seen in a way I hadn’t known I needed to be. And, true to anything Mennonite, there were even more connections. For instance, when I was reading the book at a women’s retreat, one woman noticed, “Oh, you’re reading Sofia’s book. She used to date my husband.” (And no, I wasn’t quite sure how to respond to that!) And sure enough, later in the book, her husband is mentioned.

Being Mennonite, even if you aren’t an “ethnic” or “cradle” Mennonite (which is a series of distinctions Samatar describes in perhaps the most moving part of the book) comes with an invisible web of both connectedness and alienation that forms and reforms you. It is just that web Samatar bravely navigates, as a half-Mennonite, half-Somali woman, exploring a pilgrimage narrative that is part travelog, part memoir, part creative non-fiction, and perhaps part fiction too.

Samatar is best known, prior to The White Mosque, as an author of science fiction novels: A Stranger in Olondria and The Winged Histories. This is her first foray into memoir writing, and the power of description and imagination from her fiction background certainly shines through in The White Mosque.

The title of the book doesn’t refer to a Mosque at all, but is the name of the town and the church the Mennonites eventually settle in: Ak Metchet – The White Mosque. The book itself is inspired by and traces a Mennonite Heritage Tour (which is quite popular among Mennonites but mostly to places like Germany and Switzerland) that took a group of Mennonites to retrace the Great Migration to Central Asia. In the late 18th century, this Great Migration of Mennonites (also known as the “Bride Community”) undertook a perilous journey to follow the prophecies of a certain Claus Epp Jr. – who believed fervently that Jesus Christ would come again on March 8, 1889, in Uzbekistan.

Samatar is a consummate researcher, and The White Mosque is filled with excerpts from the journals of Mennonites in the Bride Community, and from Epp Jr.’s narration of the trek. Additionally,  Samatar has done meticulous research on the histories of Central Asia, Mennonites, and her own personal history and narrative. The book loosely follows her journey with the group, replete with scenes of long bus rides through the desert, overnight stays in spare hotels, and conversations with tour guides and fellow travelers. Overall The White Mosque doesn’t read entirely like a travel narrative, and while it delves sporadically into memoir, it doesn’t quite achieve the effect of the particular becoming universal that I have come to expect of the greatest memoirs. You can, as the reader, clearly see the threads that weave between Samatar’s own experiences of Muslim-Mennonite heritage, and her dance with being both an insider and an outsider. But even as an insider-outsider myself (French Canadian and Mennonite convert), I didn’t always resonate with the disperate and often academic connections Samatar makes.

Samatar’s writing is episodic, sometimes with chapters lasting a mere page, other times long stretches of narrative or reflection. There were a few of these episodes that were profoundly moving to me, particularly the parts where she directly reflects on Mennonite identity and history. In expressing being half-Mennonite, someone questions how it’s possible to be half a religion. This question has continued to haunt me and I have raised it to great discussion with my congregation, which is comprised mostly of half-Mennonites. These explorations of the intersection of religious, cultural, ethnic, and racial identity are poignant in our world today where identity is central to so many of us, yet also confusing and difficult to explain to others.

In other places, the episodic nature of Samatar’s prose often led me into a scene where I felt I was just getting to know the characters and situation and then whisked me off to a place or time quite disparate and different in tone. I found reading The White Mosque, especially the second half which includes long and lengthy reflections on Uzbek photographer Khudaybergen Divanov and Uzbek films, difficult at times. Throughout the book you can see Samatar’s obsession with various aspects of the material cultures she is exploring: the journals of the Mennonite migrants on the Great Trek, Divanov, and films – but I never quite felt like I understood Samatar’s motivations. Perhaps they are simply inexplicable. To this day I have a more than mild obsession with Armenian Christianity and the story of the Armenian diaspora although I have no personal Armenian heritage – and I’m not sure I could give a truly understandable account of how that happened, yet I’m also not trying to write a memoir about it.

Samatar’s mind is a marvel in this book; it has an expansive way of making connections between seemingly unconnected bits of history both cultural and personal. Yet as a reader, I didn’t always feel fully ‘along for the ride’ – more like a spectator watching an artist and author play with some extraordinary elements, but never quite seeing the full picture come together. There was no real “aha” moment in The White Mosque. The narrative ended with a lengthy memoir-style group of episodic moments from the author’s time at Mennonite boarding school (many of which were extremely familiar to me, but I couldn’t quite relate back to the rest of the book I’d just read; perhaps this scene should have come much earlier), and then the return of the travelers to the USA. I was left a bit agitated, not fully satisfied. There was no neat bow to The White Mosque.

And perhaps that’s exactly what Samatar intended after all. The narrative she recounts of the Mennonite migrants on the Great Trek ended without fanfare or completion – Jesus did not come back at Ak Metchet on March 8, 1889, but instead, the community slowly either assimilated with the Central Asian culture through marriage, or people migrated to Germany and America. People whose ancestors I know.

This is an important book for those of us who find ourselves in the liminal spaces between two religions or races, two ways of being, and two cultures. I think it’s an important book for Mennonites to pay attention to and offers some potent cultural critique of our ways of ostracizing and boundary-defining. I’ve been surprised, since seeing it on my library shelf, that it hasn’t been discussed more in Mennonite circles. But then we do have a tendency to hush things that make us uncomfortable. I’ll admit that some of Samatar’s critiques, while certainly accurate, are uncomfortable even for me albeit necessary. For the casual reader of nonfiction, The White Mosque is worth reading with the knowledge that it is a more complex, difficult book. It’s less a summer pleasure read with iced coffee, and more a book to study and ponder and discuss. There are probably neater and more overall moving travel narratives available if that’s the primary genre you are looking for. Overall, The White Mosque is an important accomplishment, and my hope is that we will see ever more complex and nuanced books by and about Mennonites.

Cate Desjardins

Cate Desjardins is a Mennonite reader, writer, chaplain, and researcher in Cincinnati, Ohio. She blogs about faith and travel at sacredwanderings.com.

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