At this point it is almost a truism that travel memoirs are more about the author’s internal journey than the physical one. “It is the journey, not the destination,” we are frequently told. Never was this point more clearly made than in The White Mosque by Sofia Samatar. Billed somewhat humbly as merely a “Silk Road memoir”, the author provides a personal account of her trip following the passage of a group of Mennonites who relocated from Czarist Russia to Central Asia in the late 19th century.
The story of these settlers is an engaging one. Led by the colorful prophet and minister Claas Epp Jr, the group of over one hundred families travelled by horse and caravan from their homes in Russia to a destination in what is now Uzbekistan in Central Asia. The move was prompted by Russian authorities’ refusal to exempt Mennonites from military service or similar substitute work. The choice of Central Asia in particular was directed by a premonition of Epps Jr that this would be the site for the imminent return of Jesus Christ.
The journey overland was perilous, and many members of the group died—including tens of young children. By the time they finally settled in Uzbekistan the group had dwindled to a smaller group of about sixty families consisting of only the hardiest and most resolutely certain. This group put down roots, making a home for themselves in a walled garden southeast of the city of Khiva—known by locals as the “White Mosque”—until eventually forcibly relocated by the Soviets, some fifty years after their first arrival.
The journey Samatar undertakes is relatively prosaic by contrast, as a member of a Mennonite-organized tour group traveling in air-conditioned coaches and staying in tourist accommodation. By the time she travels to Central Asia, the route has become a regular tourist itinerary for North American Mennonites looking to retrace the steps of their ancestors. The kind of travel chronicled in The White Mosque is not the usual fare of travel books.
However, she brings to the story a unique perspective both as a mixed-race Mennonite and as an already accomplished author and researcher. Unlike most of the other members of her tour, who are white Mennonites with Germanic roots if not actual direct descendance from those who settled in Central Asia over a century earlier, Samatar has a much more complex relationship with the Mennonite faith and its history. She was born out of the union between a Swiss-German Mennonite mother from North Dakota and a Somali-Muslim convert father. They met while the former was teaching English as a Missionary in Somalia in the 1970s. Herself raised largely in the United States, Samatar would go on to spend considerable time in the continent of her father’s birth, earning degrees in African and Arabic linguistics as well as win a series of prizes for her fantasy and science fiction writing. The facts of her identity and personal history are presented within the book not just as an interesting footnote to the story, but act as threads that bind her story with that of the original Mennonite settlers.
She asks of herself the same question the Mennonites asked of their precarious existence in Central Asia, “is it enough to be a guest? Can you ever make a foreign place your home?” As a mixed-race Mennonite living in middle America she never felt truly at home, and empathizes with the liminal space occupied by the Mennonite settlers. Samatar also draws parallels between the experience of the 19th-century Mennonite settlers and the modern missions of North American Mennonites like herself into the Global South—originally explicitly to share the gospel, now more ambiguously to support peace-building. Though separated by a century, Samatar identifies a shared common worldview between the two groups—a certainty in the righteousness of their path and the superiority of their culture and beliefs.
This attitude of moral and cultural superiority informs both groups’ attitudes towards their host countries. Ironically, despite being considered backwards or old-fashioned in Russia, in late 19th century Central Asia the Mennonites were welcomed by many as modernizers—able to introduce new skills and technologies previously unseen in the region. The Mennonites’ use of a cotton gin and sewing machine made them the envy of many locals, and their hard work and resilience won them the respect of many—although this does not seem to have translated into the winning of hearts and minds over to their Christian cause. This sense of technological superiority seems to have reinforced in the Mennonite settlers further evidence of their own moral and spiritual primacy. Again, Samatar sees parallels in the present, where Mennonite Central Committee dispatches missionaries all over the world to bless the developed world with its economic and technological advances—secure in the belief that their moral and spiritual gifts are just as beneficial. The idea of the benevolent white saviour is a persistent one in Mennonite culture, she argues, despite the fact that the majority of the world’s Mennonites now reside in the global south.
And yet, despite this, Samatar still finds something to admire in the Mennonite settlers’ certainty of purpose. She paints an intriguing image of Claas Epp Jr as a model of conviction and certainty. So strong was his confidence in his own beliefs that when Jesus Christ failed to materialize in Central Asia on the date foretold, he was able to boldly place the blame on the local clock whose slight lean had apparently caused him to miscalculate by two years. His flock accepted this explanation and dutifully began planning for the adjusted date of Christ’s return. They would continue to do so as numerous other predicted apocalyptic deadlines came and went. Of course, Epp Jr’s failures did see some members of the community lose faith and depart, but this only served to strengthen the certainty of those who remained—the most dedicated, the most faithful.
Given her own splintered identity and wavering beliefs, Samatar can’t help but admire them for this. As she paraphrases the thoughts of another writer at one point:
These Mennonite travellers may have been fanatical…they may have been wrong-headed, completely mistaken about the end of the world, but despite their haywire reasoning they had something to admire. A core. A flame that kindled every aspect of their lives.
Samatar states her intention in the book as reconciling her multi-faceted identities through the process of retracing the steps of the Mennonite settlers, and the reader encounters modern Uzbekistan through her eyes. As a result, we are often left detached and confused by her travel experiences. In many ways, the world of the ancient Mennonites is depicted with more clarity and precision than modern Uzbekistan, which is still very much a foreign place for the author. Her modern interactions are mediated through guides and interpreters and are therefore distant and obscured.
However, she recreates the world of the Mennonite settlers with a skill that reflects her background as an accomplished writer of fiction. Vignettes created in her imagination put the reader right in the middle of historical events, bringing an immediacy absent from much of the descriptions of the present.
The book’s final third takes a notable diversion into stories of Mennonite artists and authors and their relationship to Uzbekistan. Samatar engages with the art and literature produced by Mennonite tradition, and tries to locate herself within it. While this content is not essential to progressing the narrative, it does give added context to the author’s own internal motivations for taking on this written project. As she notes at one point, “to document is to take on a project of cherishing.”
It is unclear if Samatar truly succeeds in reconciling her multiple identities through her study of another incongruously located cultural community. However, by the book’s end she does appear to have made peace with her complex identity, to which she whimsically observes:
If to be a Mennonite writer is to be a cultural hybrid, and to be Somali and Swiss is to be an ethnic hybrid, and to be a Mennonite granddaughter of a Muslim sheikh is to be a religious hybrid, then I am not so much a hybrid as a Rubik’s cube.
While The White Mosque represents little in the way of new research on its subject matter, it is this ability to transpose historical events onto Samatar’s own life and find meaningful insights that resonates.