The House of the Mosque

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The House of the Mosque Page 4

by Kader Abdolah

  Qom was the centre of the Shiite world. The great ayatollahs all lived in Qom and controlled every mosque from within its sacred walls. The mosque in Senejan was one of the most important in the country, which is why the ayatollahs expected it to take a more active role. Qom asked questions, Qom issued orders, but with Alsaberi as its imam, Aqa Jaan would never be able to change the mosque. Perhaps that’s why Almakki had sent the young imam to their house.

  ‘I have a surprise for you,’ said Aqa Jaan, changing the subject. ‘It fits in with the subject of your book.’

  ‘What is it?’

  ‘Someone has come to ask for the hand of your daughter.’


  ‘A young imam from Qom. A follower of Ayatollah Almakki.’

  ‘Almakki?’ the imam said, surprised, and he put down his book.

  ‘He’s not afraid of politics, he dresses well, he’s confident and he wears his black turban at a jaunty angle,’ Aqa Jaan said with a smile.

  ‘How did he find us? I mean my daughter.’

  ‘Everyone in Senejan knows you have a daughter. And everyone is free to ask for her hand. But I suspect that this young man has come not only for your daughter, but also for your mosque and your pulpit.’


  ‘There’s bound to be a political motive if Almakki is involved.’

  ‘We’ll have to consider the matter carefully before we give him our reply. We need to know if he’s after my daughter or the mosque.’

  ‘Of course we’ll look into it, but I’m not afraid of change. Nor do I avoid things that come my way. I don’t believe in coincidence. He knocked on our door for a reason. He’ll fit into this house quite nicely. We’ve had a few fiery imams in our mosque in the past. I’ll go to Qom and talk to Almakki. If he approves of Khalkhal as a person and as a husband, I’ll agree to the match. And I’ll phone your son, Ahmad. He’s not at the same seminary, but he probably knows Khalkhal.’

  ‘Do whatever you think best, but be careful. It mustn’t be a marriage made for religious and political reasons. I’m not going to give my daughter to the first imam who comes along. We have to make sure he’s a good man. I want her to have a good marriage. I don’t want to sacrifice her to the ayatollahs.’

  ‘There’s no need to worry,’ Aqa Jaan said.

  ‘I haven’t been feeling well lately. My heart is often filled with sadness. I’ve become more anxious. I worry about everything, especially the mosque. Sometimes I don’t know what to say during the Friday prayer.’

  ‘You’re tired. Why don’t you go to Jirya for a few days? Take the grandmothers with you and relax for a week. It’ll do them good to be back in Jirya too – they haven’t been there for a while. You’re torturing yourself with those self-imposed rules of yours. Nobody bathes as often as you do. And you’re also isolated. At the rate you’re going, you won’t live very long. Go to Jirya. Who knows, soon you might have a strong son-in-law to lean on,’ Aqa Jaan said. Smiling at the thought, he left the library.

  The next day Aqa Jaan phoned Ahmad in Qom.

  ‘Do you know a man named Mohammad Khalkhal?’

  ‘Where did you meet him?’

  ‘He wants to marry your sister.’

  ‘You’re joking!’ he exclaimed.

  ‘No, I’m not. What kind of a man is he?’

  ‘I’ve never met him, but he’s made quite a name for himself here. He’s very eloquent and has an opinion on everything under the sun. He’s not like any of the other imams. As to whatever else he might be up to, I don’t know.’

  ‘Do you think he’d be a suitable husband for your sister?’

  ‘It’s difficult to say. As far as I can tell, he’s tough as nails. The only imam my sister has ever known has been her father. She thinks all clerics are like him.’

  ‘Your sister’s happiness is my primary concern,’ said Aqa Jaan.

  ‘He’s a decent man, very intelligent, but I have no way of knowing whether he’d make her a good husband . . .’

  ‘Thanks, Ahmad, I think I’ve heard enough.’

  Aqa Jaan’s next step was to phone the residence of Ayatollah Almakki and make an appointment. Early on Thursday morning his chauffeur picked him up and drove him to the station.

  Wearing an overcoat and a hat, Aqa Jaan got out of the car and went into the monumental railway station. As soon as the manager saw him, he put out his cigar and hurried over to him. ‘Good morning,’ he said politely. ‘May your journey be blessed!’

  ‘Inshallah,’ Aqa Jaan replied.

  The long brown train that Aqa Jaan was about to board had arrived half an hour earlier from the south. From its starting point in the Persian Gulf, the train would continue on towards the east, stopping at dozens of stations on the way, until it finally reached the border with Afghanistan. Aqa Jaan had a three-hour train ride ahead of him.

  The station was filled with hundreds of passengers and people waiting to pick up the travellers. There were men in hats, women in long coats and a surprising number of women not wearing chadors.

  Outwardly, the country had been transformed. Aqa Jaan was struck by the change every time he travelled. The people from the south were freer and more relaxed than the people from Senejan. In the train you saw all kinds of women: women with bare heads (and even a few with bare arms), women who wore hats, women who carried handbags, women who laughed and women who smoked. Aqa Jaan knew that the shah had been responsible for these changes, but the shah was a mere puppet of the Americans. The religion of this country was being undermined by America, and there wasn’t a thing anyone could do about it.

  The manager invited Aqa Jaan into his office, offered him some freshly brewed tea and, when it was time for his train to leave, escorted him personally to the VIP compartment.

  Three hours later the gleaming dome of Fatima’s tomb came into view.

  The train lumbered into Qom. Arriving at the station was like entering another world. The women were swathed in black chadors, the men had beards and there were imams everywhere you looked.

  Aqa Jaan got out. The loudspeakers on the roofs of every mosque were blaring out the Koran recitations of the muezzins. There wasn’t a single portrait of the shah in sight. Instead there were banners inscribed with Koranic texts. The shah would never dream of setting foot in Qom, and no American diplomat would even dare to pass through it.

  Qom was the Vatican of the Shiites – the holiest city in the country, the place where Fatima, the daughter of Muhammad, was buried. The golden dome of her tomb glittered like a jewel in the centre of the city.

  Aqa Jaan took a taxi to Ayatollah Almakki’s mosque. At twelve noon on the dot, the taxi pulled up in front of the mosque, and he got out.

  The ayatollah came walking up with his students – young imams escorting him to the prayer room. Aqa Jaan nodded politely. The ayatollah held out his hand. Aqa Jaan shook it, went into the prayer room with him and took a place in the front row.

  At the end of the prayer, Aqa Jaan sat on his heels beside the ayatollah.

  ‘Welcome! What brings you to Qom?’ the ayatollah enquired.

  ‘First of all, I wanted to see your blessed face. But I also came to talk about Mohammad Khalkhal.’

  ‘He was my best student,’ the ayatollah said. ‘And he has my blessing.’

  ‘That’s all I need to know,’ Aqa Jaan replied. He kissed the ayatollah’s shoulder and got to his feet.

  ‘But . . .’ said the ayatollah.

  Aqa Jaan sat down again.

  ‘He’s a maverick.’

  ‘What are you trying to tell me?’ Aqa Jaan asked.

  ‘Well, simply that he doesn’t follow the herd.’

  ‘I understand,’ said Aqa Jaan.

  ‘May the marriage be blessed and blessings on your journey home,’ said the ayatollah, and he shook Aqa Jaan’s hand again.

  Aqa Jaan was pleased with what Almakki had said about Khalkhal. The ayatollah had given his approval.

  But deep inside, Aqa Jaan sti
ll had his doubts.

  When he got home, he called his nephew into his study. ‘Shahbal, would you please bring Sadiq in here?’

  When she heard that Aqa Jaan wanted to speak to her, Sadiq knew instantly that something was afoot.

  ‘Sit down,’ Aqa Jaan said to her. ‘How are you?’

  ‘Fine, thanks.’

  ‘Listen, my daughter. Someone has asked for your hand in marriage.’

  Sadiq’s face went pale. She looked down at her feet.

  ‘He’s an imam.’

  Sadiq turned to Shahbal, who smiled and said, ‘An excellent young imam!’

  Sadiq smiled.

  ‘I went to Qom and talked to his ayatollah. He spoke highly of him. Your brother also approved of him. What do you think? Would you like to marry an imam?’

  She was silent.

  ‘I need an answer,’ Aqa Jaan said. ‘You can’t greet a marriage proposal with silence.’

  ‘He’s handsome,’ Shahbal told her. He grinned. ‘He wears a stylish imam robe and shiny light-brown shoes. He’s the answer to every girl’s dream!’

  Aqa Jaan pretended not to have heard his remarks, but Sadiq had heard every word. She smiled.

  ‘What do you think? Shall we talk to his family?’

  ‘Yes,’ she said softly, after a long silence. ‘Let’s do that.’

  ‘There’s one more thing we need to discuss,’ Aqa Jaan said. ‘He’s not at all like your father. He’s a follower of Ayatollah Almakki. Does that name mean anything to you?’

  Sadiq looked over at Shahbal.

  ‘He’s not a village imam,’ Shahbal interpreted.

  ‘Your life is bound to be stormy and difficult at times,’ Aqa Jaan said. ‘Do you think you could live that kind of life?’

  She gave it some thought. ‘What do you think?’ she asked.

  ‘On the one hand, it would be a great honour. On the other hand, it could be a living hell if you didn’t support it fully,’ Aqa Jaan said.

  ‘May I talk to him first?’

  ‘Of course!’ said Aqa Jaan.

  A week later Shahbal ushered Imam Khalkhal into the guest room, where a bowl of fruit and a pot of tea awaited him.

  Then he fetched Sadiq and introduced her to Khalkhal.

  She greeted him, but kept standing awkwardly by the mirror. He offered her a chair. She sat down and loosened her chador, so that more of her face was visible.

  Shahbal left them alone and gently closed the door behind him.

  The grandmothers stood by the hauz and kept an eye on things. Fakhri Sadat, the wife of Aqa Jaan, had caught a glimpse of Khalkhal from her upstairs window. Alsaberi’s wife, Zinat Khanom, was in her room, praying that her daughter would have a good marriage. It was all she could do, since no one had asked her opinion. Her thoughts on the subject didn’t count. Fakhri Sadat was the woman who made the decisions in this house.

  Aqa Jaan’s two daughters hid behind the curtains so they could see Khalkhal when he left the guest room.

  The meeting between Khalkhal and his prospective bride had gone on for almost an hour when the guest-room door opened and Sadiq came out. She looked happy. She glanced at the grandmothers and went up to her room.

  Shahbal gave Khalkhal a tour of the courtyard and introduced him to the grandmothers. Then Fakhri Sadat came downstairs. ‘This is Aqa Jaan’s wife – the queen of our household,’ Shahbal said, laughing.

  Khalkhal greeted her without looking directly at her. Then the girls were introduced, one by one. After Khalkhal had met everyone, Shahbal took him to the bazaar, so Aqa Jaan could speak to him.

  A few days later Aqa Jaan received Khalkhal and his father in his study. Alsaberi was also present. Their conversation had little in common with traditional marriage negotiations, since not a word was said about money or carpets. The bride would present the groom with a gold-embossed Koran, and she would leave her father’s house in a white chador, taking with her a collection of poems by the medieval poet Hafez. After all, everyone knew that the daughters of the wealthy families in Senejan weren’t sent to their new homes empty-handed. Of course Sadiq would be provided with everything she needed. And so the rest of the conversation was about the mosque, the library, the books, the centuries-old cellars, the blind muezzin and the cedar tree in the courtyard. Lastly they set a date for the wedding.

  ‘Mobarak inshallah,’ the men said, and they shook hands.

  When they were done, Sadiq came in bearing a silver tray with five silver teacups.

  The wedding was scheduled to take place on the birthday of the holy Fatima – one of the best days for a wedding. The weather would be relatively hot, but a breeze from the mountains would cool things down and make you want to take your bride in your arms and crawl under a light blanket. During the summer, most people slept on their roofs. Here and there you saw a gauzy white canopy on the roof, which is where the brides and grooms slept.

  There would be a special ceremony, to which the leading families in the city and the bazaar would be invited. After all, this wasn’t an ordinary wedding, but the wedding of Imam Alsaberi’s daughter. And the groom wasn’t an ordinary teacher or a registry clerk or even a merchant. He was an imam in a black turban who came from Qom.


  The day of the arusi, the wedding, had arrived.

  Zinat Khanom asked her daughter to come to her room, then closed the door and kissed her. ‘Are you glad you’re going to marry Khalkhal?’ she enquired.

  ‘I don’t know . . .’

  ‘You should be. He’s handsome and your father says he’s very ambitious.’

  ‘That’s what scares me.’

  ‘I was scared too when I married your father. Girls are always scared when they have to leave home with a man they barely know, but as soon as the two of you are alone together, your fear will disappear. After all, a girl has to marry and leave her father’s house one day.’

  Zinat Khanom calmed her daughter with soothing words, but deep in her heart she too had doubts. She didn’t know why. Suddenly the ghastly memories of her past came flooding back, though she hid them from Sadiq.

  ‘I still can’t believe it,’ she said to her daughter.

  ‘Believe what?’

  ‘That you’re grown up, that you’re going to marry and move away.’

  ‘Why do you sound so sad?’

  Zinat’s eyes filled with tears.

  ‘I wish you joy,’ she said, and kissed her daughter.

  Zinat had been afraid of losing Sadiq from the moment she was born. She was terrified of finding her dead one day – in her bed, in the garden, in the hauz.

  The years of Sadiq’s childhood had been filled with anxiety, and those years had taken their toll. Zinat was terrified of going to sleep at night, because she had such horrible nightmares.

  Zinat Khanom and Alsaberi were cousins. She had married him when she was only sixteen. First they had a daughter, Orza, born five years before Sadiq. When she was eighteen, Orza married a man from Zinat’s family. She now had three children and lived with her husband in Kashan.

  Next Zinat had a son, Abbas. The hopes of the family had been pinned on him, for he was to be Alsaberi’s successor as the imam of the mosque. But one hot summer’s day, when Zinat and Abbas were alone in the house, a dreadful thing happened.

  Abbas had just learned to walk and was merrily chasing the cats on his wobbly legs. Zinat had gone up to her room and forgotten about the boy. At some point she noticed that it was quiet outside and looked out of the window. Abbas was nowhere in sight. She raced down the stairs and saw the cats sitting by the hauz, and there, floating in the water, was the body of her son. She screamed and rushed to rescue him.

  Two men, who had heard her screams, appeared on the roof of the mosque and hurried down to the courtyard to help her. They pumped the boy’s stomach, but couldn’t revive him. Zinat wailed. They turned him upside down and shook him, but to no avail. Zinat wailed. They lit a fire and held him above it to warm him. But it was too late.
Zinat wailed again. The men lay the child on the ground and covered him with Zinat’s chador. Abbas, the hope of the house, was dead.

  No one blamed Zinat for what had happened. But she retreated to her room, shocked and grief-stricken.

  Aqa Jaan went up to talk to her. ‘I tell myself it was God’s will, Zinat. You should do the same.’

  From that moment on, no one in the house ever talked about Abbas. For months Zinat wept in silence, but his name was never mentioned. Zinat thought of the silence as her punishment, and a very harsh one at that.

  A year later she became pregnant with Sadiq. She left her room and helped the grandmothers in the kitchen. Only two years later, after the birth of Ahmad, could Zinat hold her head up high again and resume her normal life.

  Even so, Zinat never regained her position in the household. She lived in the shadow of Fakhri Sadat and felt herself to be inferior.

  If Fakhri Sadat had suffered a similar fate, Aqa Jaan would have stood by her and done everything he could to ease her pain, but Alsaberi was weak. Though he had never blamed Zinat, he hadn’t supported her during those difficult years either. At no time had he hugged her or spoken lovingly to her.

  If your husband ignores you, everyone else will ignore you too. If you’re invisible to your own husband, you become invisible to others.

  Zinat was still invisible. Her daughter was about to get married and no one had asked her permission.

  ‘It doesn’t matter,’ Zinat said to her image in the mirror as she wiped away her tears. ‘My time will come.’

  The house was a beehive of activity. The men had borrowed a curtain from the mosque – the long one that separated the men and women during prayers – and strung it across the courtyard.

  Expensive carpets had been laid on the ground, and some men from the mosque had covered the walls of the house with tapestries woven with joyful sacred texts.


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