The White Mosque

A Memoir

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Pub Date 25 Oct 2022 | Archive Date 08 Nov 2022

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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?
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...

Advance Praise

A Literary Hub Most Anticipated Book of the Year

“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


“Sofia Samatar's encyclopedic imagination, her voracious intensity towards literature, her luminous poetic voice, her attunement to the uncanniness and ghosts of history finds her in company with Olga Tokarczuk, W. G. Sebald, Jorge Luis Borges, and Maria Stepanova. The White Mosque may be her magnum opus: a mosaic that both shatters and illuminates.”

—Kate Zambreno, author of Drifts and To Write as If Already Dead


“Follow an award-winning fantasy author on her personal quest as she trails an ethnic heritage tour that maps onto a nineteenth-century apocalyptic trek and the old Silk Road. The work of a true acrobat of thought, this memoir/travelogue/history/treatise on religious and racial difference/romance seeks nothing less than paths to peace on our parched planet. Visionary, expansive, and wise, Samatar’s exploration stands unparalleled in Mennonite literature and unique among all the new, fine books about identity. Read it and see why the forgotten details of history matter, and how writing can redeem real lives.”

—Julia Spicher Kasdorf, author of Shale Play: Poems and Photographs from the Fracking Fields


"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


"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


“Sofia Samatar is a writer's writer. There is sweetness and color and shade. There is the collision and confrontation with various histories past, moments present. There is the shattering of shimmer and the mosaic of a lived life—lives past and gone that created a way for her breath and becoming. Sofia Samatar in The White Mosque wants to shift the breath of another, wants for words on the page and the sensations they conjure to move something of the inhalation and exhalation of one's breathing in noticeable even if excitable, even if calming, ways. And my breath was shifted. Not to simply confront it, Samatar's memoir and memorial compels readers to think about how we handle the past, what we do with it in our hands and with our eyes; but also how it works on us, produces an effect on us, changes us and what we know of our capacities, ideas, thoughts, imaginations. All this sensed in the movement that Mennonites traversed towards the end of their world, movements that produce religious convergences and confluences. Is your life a pilgrimage, a journey, a wandering? Reading The White Mosque sets the stage for this kind of thinking, this line of questioning, urgent and necessary and present to take the breath away.”

–Ashon Crawley, author of Blackpentecostal Breath: The Aesthetics of Possibility and The Lonely Letters

"Mennonite. Uzbekistan. A story of pilgrimage, 'a palimpsestic quest'. The White Mosque is an oasis for the world-weary soul, a glorious and sensuous glimpse into histories edited out of mainstream conversations. 

Ak Metchet, the White Mosque, is a Mennonite church. It no longer exists. Yet this is a story of a pilgrimage to roadways, 'to ghosts, to the accidental, to the glow,' told by Somali-American wanderer with Mennonite roots, in the most mellifluous of lyrics. It is an invitation into landscapes that were the backdrop of a sort of futurism that did not quite pan out. Hurry, reader, settle into a seat with this book and prepare to be delighted."

—Yvonne Owuor, author of Dust and The Dragonfly Sea


"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


"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

A Literary Hub Most Anticipated Book of the Year

“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...

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ISBN 9781646220977
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