Reading Sofia Samatar’s “The White Mosque”

It might’ve been in 2015 or thereabouts, that Andrew came across the unusual story of Claas Epp Jr. who predicted the world would end in 1889 and urged his followers to join him in Uzbekistan to meet Jesus there.
Skip to September 2022. Andrew returned home from the Mennonite/s Writing conference filled with tales of writers he had met and books we should read. That night, The White Mosque appeared on my bedside table.
He had learned that Sofia Samatar discovered the story of Epp too, and was so haunted by the strangeness of it all, so intrigued, that she researched the story deeply, and traveled to the site of where Epp and his followers lived for several decades. She then wrote this memoir about her experience, and all she had learned about Epp’s story… and her own.
The first thing Andrew told me about Samatar is that she’s of Swiss Mennonite descent, not Russian Mennonite (as Epp and his followers had been), which makes it even more neat, that she was fascinated by this story of wayward Russian Mennos. She calls this “writing across bloodlines”. You might notice her last name is not what you’d expect from a Mennonite, before checking yourself and remembering that Mennonites are in all parts of the world, most of all Africa and Asia. Samatar’s father is Somalian.
I think maybe the most important thing to know about Sofia Samatar at the outset is that she is an award-winning fantasy author.
Before reading the book, I wondered how a fantasy author became interested in a story of Mennonites on a futile trek to Central Asia. But now it all makes perfect sense. She writes fantasy… and Epp’s apocalyptic vision of Christ returning in Central Asia and their need to meet him there is truly fantastic.
She writes with imaginative velocity, thoughtful and curious. Pressing at the edges, where stories intersect and entwine.
I learned that the Mennonite village in Uzbekistan that so captured her imagination, existed in that unlikely place for 50 years. While at the outset that seems rather brief, it’s much longer than many of the Mennonite ghost villages here in Manitoba’s East Reserve.
I hadn’t read far before I made a note about Samatar’s writing: “Like the Anthony Bourdain of Mennonite fantasy speculative investigative fiction/non-fiction.”
Every few chapters, I feel, there is at least one mention of blood. While it is associated with violence, I feel it more visceral for her… a necessary, intense, frank consequence of existence.
As we follow Samatar, following the band of travelers, deeper into this unfamiliar distant land, it all begins to feel a little Tolkien-esque. She describes “an atmosphere of wonder and terror”, and says the pilgrims had a “sense of weird, excessive experience”.
“One night, when they lit the lamps to hold communion, the air filled instantly with hundreds of bats.”
Samatar tells us that diarist Elizabeth Unruh wrote of her teenage adventures including an encounter with “a salamander the size of a cow”, and giant birds that, when one took a swipe at her companion’s back, “it got all blue”. Also tales of caves filled “with all kinds of colored stones…”
I love how Samatar is attracted to and fascinated by the stranger, more unusual elements of the story. She says the charismatic Epp wrote stuff like, “horrible lightening illuminates the abyss which shall swallow up everything.”
“The bread. The sting. The quicksand.” The death of all children under 4 years old.
Mennonites on camels, crossing the desert by the light of the moon and the Great Comet of 1882.
A forest filled with tigers, leopards, and jackals that “cried like little children”.
And then stories begin settling and expanding. The trekkers, “The Bride Community”, unknowingly settle on the site of a Russian massacre of Turkmens. A decade had passed since the horror. The Turkmens see the Mennonites as returning Russians and attack. There is a horrible story of thieves breaking into the home of a young couple, Heinrich and Elizabeth Abrams. They had joked about buying Elizabeth from Heinrich that day. At night, they break in and murder Heinrich. Elizabeth flees, hiding at her neighbours’, warning, “Be quiet! They are coming.” She was pregnant.
“She must have known, from the sounds” writes Samatar, “that her child’s father was dead.”
The community moved on, finally invited to settle safely in the khan’s walled garden where they built their church (which locals called “the white mosque”) and prepared for Epp’s predicted day of Christ’s return, March 8, 1889… and obviously, it never happened.
Samatar writes of “this wild desire for something that can’t be true”.
She then considers the perspective of the others on her tour, descendants of those who had followed Epp on the Trek, into “a mortifying episode, tinged with heresy” — there may be a sense of shame of their family history. (These considerations remind me of another strangely haunting true story, For Elise.)
I love how she searches for anything unexpected or “outside the norm”. I love seeing through Sofia Samatar’s eyes.
Suddenly I’m reading about a famous actress who obscured her family background. I join Samatar in her fascination. I make Andrew watch one of her films so that I can see what Samatar had seen.
Also in this memoir: an opportunity to “confront a culture and religion barricaded in whiteness” (Mennonite-ism). This is important and this alone is a reason for me to re-read this book.
“Mennonites are an evangelizing tribe,” writes Samatar, “that travels the world to spread the universal love of God, and at the same time maintains the occult power of its family names, its language, its traditions.” She is determined to “write something for those young people who came from the world where most Mennonites live” (not white, not European).
“I hope we don’t miss the chance to see how much is shared by Mennonites across the most frightening border, the border of skin,” she says.
This is what I was waiting for, hoping for — she gets very, very real with us. Samatar calls evangelism in Somalia “an error of history”, as “you cannot separate Muslim from being Somali.” She includes interviews with converts, which I’d say are fairly damning (though it seems many do not intend to be). She concludes, “Mennonites have done a great deal of good in Somalia, but only to themselves. Mennonites have done a great deal of good in Somalia, but only by accident.” Wrenching. True.
Near the end, Samatar seeks — and finds! — the lasting impact the Bride Community had on Uzbekistan… and the world.
A movie star. A photographer. Cinema.
As Samatar says, “There’s nothing more powerful than a story, especially if one encounters it on an open, impressionable state.”
You should encounter this one.