The White Mosque

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The Mennonite community is at once an evangelizing religious group and a “tribe.” As novelist Sofia Samatar (A Stranger in Olondria) explains, the tribe consists of the white descendants of its Swiss, German and Dutch founders, but the religion is growing fastest in Africa. Samatar embodies that duality: Her white American mother met her Black Somali father on a church mission. They raised their family in the United States, where Samatar went to Mennonite schools.

So how does Samatar make sense of her identity? To answer this question, she set out to explore how Mennonites have interacted with other cultures and chose an extreme example: The 1880–84 trek of a small, sturdy group of “Volga” German Mennonites led by minister Claas Epp Jr. Inspired in part by an 18th-century German novel, he thought Jesus would return to Central Asia in 1889. The trekkers landed in what is now Uzbekistan, and while the world didn’t end the way Epp expected it to, the Soviets did eventually force his community out of the country.

The White Mosque is Samatar’s thoughtful, gorgeously written account of a tour she took retracing the trekkers’ challenging path to their new settlement, where they lived for some 50 years. But her pleasantly digressive book encompasses much more: Central Asian culture, the memoirs of teen trekkers, Mennonite martyrs, doomsday beliefs, her father’s disillusionment, her own searching adolescence at a Mennonite boarding school. She even includes a beautiful reverie on how the settlers must have felt on the day that Jesus did not return. (Epp just kept moving the date until he suffered a mental collapse.) 

Samatar’s trip culminates in what remains of “White Mosque” village, where current Muslim residents have established a museum commemorating their odd but fondly remembered former neighbors. Back in 1935 when the Soviets rounded up the Mennonites for exile, their distraught local employees wept.

Understandably, when Samatar embarked on her pilgrimage, she was seeking a kind of self-understanding as a brown girl in a Germanic tradition. Instead, she learned to love the trekkers’ “wrongness.” After all, fragmentation can make a lovely mosaic.

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