A Third Term Is Possible: On Sofia Samatar’s “The White Mosque”

By Safwan KhatibOctober 25, 2022

A Third Term Is Possible: On Sofia Samatar’s “The White Mosque”

The White Mosque by Sofia Samatar

IN HIS 1956 lectures at Black Mountain College (collected as The Special View of History in 1970), delivered 12 years after he resigned from Roosevelt’s Office of War Information and one year after Eisenhower deployed military advisors to Vietnam, Charles Olson spoke of history not as a record of the past but as a people’s right to knowledge. Reflecting on the Greek verb from which “history” is derived — ἱστορεῖν — Olson offered another definition:

By history I mean to know, to really know. The rhyme is still “mystery.” We can’t stand it. Nothing must be left undone. We have to run up against the wall. There is nothing which happens to us which we don’t have the right to know what the --- goes on. Even to know what one can’t know. Which is the hooker.

In these lectures, Olson articulated one of the primary concerns of late-20th- and early-21st-century American writers: to speak not about the past as such but about the past’s relationship to the present — about what happens. This is a task that has become increasingly difficult in a country whose ruling class remains committed to policies of containment — involving proxy wars, clandestine torture, censorship, state propaganda, and psychological warfare — policies that prevent domestic and international populations from making sense of the effects of that ruling class’s military ventures and economic policies.

As Olson understood, the relationship between democracy, literature, and culture became particularly fraught in the late-20th-century United States, when structural transformations in publishing and academia dramatically reduced the circulation of independent magazines, newspapers, and presses publishing politically committed writing. As Ammiel Alcalay points out in his 2012 book A Little History, there was a time when militant leftist writing was closely aligned with the idea of democracy in US culture: “You’re talking about, in 1969, 1970, five hundred and fifty underground newspapers in this country with a circulation of about five million. […] One hundred and forty-four underground papers on U.S. military bases, with headlines like ‘Don’t desert, go to Vietnam and kill your commanding officer.’” The government’s anxiety over the wide circulation of separatist and militant writing that spoke directly to the concerns of people resisting neocolonial rule was key to the formation of US social and cultural policy of the 1970s and ’80s. As Juliana Spahr argues in her 2018 book Du Bois’s Telegram: Literary Resistance and State Containment, this included “a well-funded and powerful counterinsurgency as foundations worked with the U.S. government to fund a mainstream artistic multiculturalism along with a number of economic development initiatives, university area studies programs, changes to school curricula, and other programs.” In many ways, what writing programs and advocacy organizations now hail as a progressive vision of a professionalized multicultural English literature centered in US universities and nonprofits is a result of the efforts of these containment policies, which are still in effect today. The last two decades have seen the creation of both the United States Africa Command, which drastically increased US military presence in the Sahel, and the African Poetry Book Fund, which is funded by the media mogul Robert Sillerman and publishes books by young African poets, provided they write in English.

In light of these developments, a small but important number of US poets and novelists since the 1990s have been producing work that takes a stance against the complacency of multicultural politics. The White Mosque, the latest book by Sofia Samatar, contributes to an important body of literature that speaks to the global conditions forged by US imperialism rather than from the perspective of a given “ethnic background.” As a memoir, the book is something of a departure for Samatar, whose previous works include the award-winning fantasy novels A Stranger in Olondria (2013) and The Winged Histories (2016), the short story collection Tender (2017), and a hybrid work called Monster Portraits (2018), a collaboration with her brother, the artist Del Samatar. A new novella, titled The Practice, The Horizon, and The Chain, is forthcoming in 2024 from Tor.com; as described by the publisher, it will be “the story of carceral and academic institutionalized power set on a generation starship with a centuries-old caste system, written in the vein of Rivers Solomon and Ursula K. Le Guin.”

Like many of the great novelists in the science fiction and fantasy traditions, Samatar understands the way an implausible story can be an effective tool for shaping the political imagination. Her work can be understood as part of an international tradition of science fiction and fantasy novelists whose work compels readers to revise ingrained assumptions about human nature and society that make global capitalism and the persistence of the settler-colonial state appear natural or inevitable. As she points out in a recent interview with Melanie Almeder, fantastical stories are a far older mode of investigating reality than the tradition of “realism,” which has its roots in the 19th century. Fantasy, then, is not so much about an attachment to the unreal as it is about speaking truthfully about the extreme situations that so often define our experience of the present. As Samatar puts it: “You need a monster when somebody left you, you need a monster when everything is ending, when you are afraid the world is ending, when you’re scared, when you’re angry, when you’re experiencing something really intense.”

The White Mosque, however, finds Samatar approaching a story of the end of the world without any monsters or magic to drive the plot. What most obviously distinguishes The White Mosque from Samatar’s fictional work is its historical subject matter. The book follows Samatar as she takes a heritage tour that follows in the footsteps of “The Great Trek,” a 19th-century pilgrimage in which a group of German-speaking Mennonites traveled to the Khanate of Khiva (modern-day Uzbekistan) led by Claas Epp Jr., a minister who prophesied that Christ’s return would occur in 1889, not in the West but in the East, in a land where the population was largely Muslim. The millenarian prophecy never panned out, but the community stayed for 50 years, making a life in the wake of the failure. It is an astonishing story, one in which the United States is at the periphery. When the United States is mentioned, it is often as the obscure destination of a few dejected and confused pilgrims who chose to abandon the small village in Central Asia named after Ak-Metchet, a square building with fading white walls that was, for the small community of Mennonites, a church, and for the Muslim majority, a mosque.

Of course, the story of the Great Trek is not a fantasy, but it is, to borrow Samatar’s words, an implausible story. Another author might have written a polite book that begins with the historical context of 19th-century Central Asia and progresses gradually toward her own story as the child of a Mennonite mother and Muslim father, but that is not what Samatar does. She has little patience for totalizing narratives that allow author and reader to remain at a safe distance. Her approach is not to connect this 19th-century pilgrimage to her personal history or to locate herself in a pure historical lineage belonging to either Islam or Christianity. Instead, the implausible story of the Great Trek leads her onward to other stories, other lives, other deserts. She finds herself constantly dispersed among vivid details in the stories of others. Discussing the photograph that led her to spend years of her life on this book, she writes:

Because I saw this church in a photograph, I felt I could hold it in my hand. Because the photograph was a century old, I felt I was holding my century, the one in which I was born, the twentieth century. Because the church was located in Central Asia, in what is now Uzbekistan, a place I had never seen and of which I knew practically nothing, I felt it was very foreign. Because the church was a Mennonite church, belonging to my own denomination, the faith tradition of my mother’s family, I felt it was very close.

This is a writer for whom the immediate experience of the present consists of uncanny opposites and contradictions: intimacy and distance, the familiar and the foreign. As she writes shortly after, “When two sets of images, assumed to be fixed and separate, nonetheless come together, it suggests that a third term is possible. This is the source of light.”

This prismatic approach to knowledge is reflected in the book’s structure: there are three parts — “Wanderers,” “Home-ache,” and “The Place of Refuge” — each of which contains several subsections. Each subsection, in turn, is divided into several vignettes bearing their own titles; some of these vignettes are less than a page long, while others stretch for multiple pages. Often, they are quite like poems, leaping off associatively from one another. Aside from Claas Epp Jr. and 19th-century Mennonite pilgrim-chroniclers, Langston Hughes, Ella Maillart, Hafiz, the Three Affiliated Tribes, Ibn Sina, Cold War–era Mennonite missionaries in Somalia, the medieval astronomer Ulugh Beg, various filmmakers, and a modern Uzbek photographer all make an appearance. Reading through the sections in sequence, one feels that the light source is constantly changing, and that it might yet change at any moment.

What makes The White Mosque an important book, however, is that its eclecticism and intellectual restlessness are fine-tuned for the purposes of cultural intervention — into North American Mennonite culture in particular and the settler-colonial culture of the United States in general. Much of Samatar’s more explicitly political reflections have to do with what she calls the “missionary effect” that permeates the white North American Mennonites’ stance toward their history and cultural self-definition. She notes, for instance, that the 21st century has seen a revival of interest in the Great Trek within the Mennonite community. In this revival, what was once a story of heresy has become a story of bringing “modernity” to Central Asia. Yet Samatar’s often excoriating critique of this missionary effect is subtle — and far from an accusation of white privilege. Samatar diagnoses the arrogance of the missionary effect as bad reading — a kind of illiteracy. There is a cutting irony here: those who boast of bringing books to the Third World are exposed as bad readers, not for their lack of grammar or vocabulary, but for their lack of imagination.

For Samatar, the question we must ask about identity is not Who are we? but rather How do we enter the stories of others? Indeed, a number of neat stories come to mind as frameworks through which one might enter the story of a small community of Mennonite Christians living under a Muslim khanate: the clash or harmony between Islam and Christianity, the perils or triumphs of immigration, the importance of heritage. If The White Mosque has an argument, it is that these convenient angles of approach will not do. It is as if good reading will reveal the fragmentary nature of everyone — even a prophet. In a manner reminiscent of W. E. B. Du Bois in his biography of John Brown, Samatar sees too keenly to paint the minister as hero or heretic. Instead, she pictures him: “I think of Claas Epp Jr. toward the end of his life, sitting by the chicken coop, dressed in his white robe and staring into space.”


Safwan Khatib is a writer and teacher living in St. Louis.

LARB Contributor

Safwan Khatib is a writer and teacher living in St. Louis.


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