A historical tapestry of border-crossing travelers, of students, wanderers, martyrs and invaders, The White Mosque is a memoiristic, prismatic record of a journey through Uzbekistan and of the strange shifts, encounters, and accidents that combine to create an identity
In the late nineteenth century, a group of German-speaking Mennonites traveled from Russia into Central Asia, where their charismatic leader predicted Christ would return.
Over a century later, Sofia Samatar joins a tour following their path, fascinated not by the hardships of their journey, but by its aftermath: the establishment of a small Christian village in the Muslim Khanate of Khiva. Named Ak Metchet, “The White Mosque,” after the Mennonites’ whitewashed church, the village lasted for fifty years.
In pursuit of this curious history, Samatar discovers a variety of characters whose lives intersect around the ancient Silk Road, from a fifteenth-century astronomer-king, to an intrepid Swiss woman traveler of the 1930s, to the first Uzbek photographer, and explores such topics as Central Asian cinema, Mennonite martyrs, and Samatar’s own complex upbringing as the daughter of a Swiss-Mennonite and a Somali-Muslim, raised as a Mennonite of color in America.
A secular pilgrimage to a lost village and a near-forgotten history, The White Mosque traces the porous and ever-expanding borders of identity, asking: How do we enter the stories of others? And how, out of the tissue of life, with its weird incidents, buried archives, and startling connections, does a person construct a self?
About the Author
SOFIA SAMATAR is the author of the novels A Stranger in Olondria and The Winged Histories, the short story collection, Tender, and Monster Portraits, a collaboration with her brother, the artist Del Samatar. Sofia’s work has received the William L. Crawford Award, the Astounding Award for Best New Writer, the British Fantasy Award, and the World Fantasy Award. She has also been a finalist for the Locus Award, the Hugo Award, the Nebula Award, and the Italo Calvino Prize. Her work has appeared in several year’s-best anthologies, including The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy. Sofia holds a PhD in African Languages and Literature from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and she currently teaches African literature, Arabic literature in translation, world literature, and speculative fiction at James Madison University.
"Fascinating . . . In evocative prose, Samatar captures the Odyssean sojourn and awakens the stories of the past—painting in harrowing detail the unspeakable horrors that befell the first settlers—while reckoning with her own identity . . . A vivid mosaic that interrogates the spirit of the faithful while celebrating the beauty of storytelling. This riveting meditation on the 'great tides of history' yields a wondrous take on the ways the past and present intertwine." —Publishers Weekly
“This is a perfect memoir: a mosaic (or as Samatar calls it, 'a shattering') of self that elevates the genre of nonfiction to new heights, and an exploration of what it means to stand in the illuminated intersection of history and identity, and bring precise language to the diffuse and unknowable. It is my dearest hope that this book brings Sofia Samatar into the wider public consciousness, something we have not earned, but which she so very richly deserves." —Carmen Maria Machado, author of In the Dream House
“There are very few contemporary writers—if any—who can match Sofia Samatar's kaleidoscopic inventiveness and wonderful wild. She is a genius and The White Mosque is the most mesmeric book I've read in years." —Diriye Osman, author of Fairy Tales for Lost Children and The Butterfly Jungle
“A brilliant quest narrative like none you've ever read. The White Mosque is a passionately researched memoir-helix, written by a genius of genre, and composed of strands of other histories twisted with Samatar's own. As with all her books, one imagines Sofia Samatar emerging from the scene of its creation like a victor having wrestled questions and forces we are too timid, or not-equipped, to face on our own. Samatar conducts epic battles for her books—to make them real and to give form to what, before we read it, would have seemed impossible to imagine. The result is a work of profound scholarship and kaleidoscopic beauty.” —Jordy Rosenberg, author of Confessions of the Fox
“The White Mosque is a luminous, brilliant gaze into some of our most profound questions about identity, inheritance, and all that we carry forward as we move through this world. Page after page, Samatar writes with electrifying beauty, treading that fine balance between lush metaphor, philosophical evocation and unwavering clarity. This is a spellbinding, riveting book.” —Maaza Mengiste, author of The Shadow King
“The White Mosque is a text of immense richness, complexity, and beauty. Tracing the Silk Road journey of 19th century Mennonites into central Asia and written with poetic grace, Sofia Samatar finds and marks out innumerable parallel paths across time, space, literatures, and histories, including her own personal story.” —John Keene, MacArthur Fellow, and author of Counternarratives