Mennonites? In Uzbekistan? The premise of this book caught me instantly, and I was rewarded for my curiosity. Samatar’s white mosque in The White Mosque is a Mennonite church located in the heart of a Muslim community in Central Asia. Perhaps this reveals a biased tendency on my part; the juxtaposition of the Mennonites in Central Asia suggests an irresistible, exotic historical account.
That — in part — is what Samatar delivers, but the memoir is more than that. The White Mosque is also about the embodiment of a Christian/Muslim, Foreign/Autochthon juxtaposition within Samatar via their experience of living as a Somali-German American Mennonite, a second-generation immigrant in a largely White American community. In one sense, Samatar is a “white mosque” in her academic and personal worlds, as unique and unusual as a pilgrimage of German-speaking Mennonites trekking into Uzbekistan.
The White Mosque begins and ends with Samatar’s touristic, scholarly pilgrimage to Uzbekistan in search of these European Mennonites who traversed that path over a century ago. It is a guided tour. Mennonites, non-Mennonites, tourists, and heritage-seekers accompany Samatar; their observations contribute to this memoir and help shape Samatar’s embodied experience of being a Mennonite of color. The White Mosque also treks back in time, not only through this unique tangent of 19th century Mennonite history, but into Samatar’s past as a child of a Somali father and a German-American mother and as a graduate student. The memoir flickers to the present too: Samatar as an accomplished researcher in pursuit of scholarship.
Indeed, what The White Mosque delivers to the reader is less a historical account, and more a commentary on the present moment, a moment in which cultural-ethnic-religious-racial juxtapositions are worth examination because of the violent divisions in our world along those same lines. This memoir suggests that a closer, more nuanced examination of such transcultural connections, persons, histories, and experiences is worthwhile because they are not as anomalous as they might initially seem.
Midway through reading it, The White Mosque forced me to reconsider why I was attracted to the premise of this book: Were the Mennonites so unusual in their pilgrimage? Is the idea of a European Christian sect in Central Asia such an exotic thing? Haven’t such transcultural phenomena occurred all throughout history? …. Mmm. Well-played, well-played. As a historian, a humanist, and an anthropologist, I know that no human phenomenon should be surprising; we have been criss-crossing, mixing, transgressive and transcultured throughout our history. But The White Mosque makes that point poignant, brings it to the forefront cleverly and gently through personal memory, subjective experience, and beautiful prose.
For that reason alone The White Mosque is worth reading.