The first time I came across the story of the Mennonites of Ak Metchet, I hardly noticed it. I was sixteen then, a student at Lancaster Mennonite School in Pennsylvania, taking the required course in Mennonite history. This history began with an immense amount of flogging, tongue screws, and burning at the stake. The Mennonites, we learned, were persecuted to pieces by both Catholics and Protestants because they rejected infant baptism, which is why they are known as Anabaptists, or re-baptizers, since people like Menno Simons, for whom the denomination is named, went around baptizing adults in the ponds of the Dutch provinces. Mennonites also rejected violence—Menno was appalled by the behavior of some of the other Anabaptists of his day, like the notorious Jan van Leyden, who took over the city of Münster, practiced polygamy, abolished property, and ran around stark naked. Menno was a far less exciting figure, but he had a certain sly charm, like the hero of a folktale. According to legend, he was once stopped on the road by some Anabaptist-hunters who demanded to know “if Menno Simons was in the coach.” Menno happened to be driving the coach. He leaned down and asked the people inside, “Is Menno in there?” “No!” was the answer. Thus he got out of his predicament without lying. He wrote a book with the marvelous title Why I Do Not Cease Teaching and Writing, died peacefully, and was buried in his garden.
When the class began, it was easy to pay attention: there were so many grisly stories of martyrdom, of Mennonites living in hiding like underground revolutionaries. But then it was spring, the classroom got hotter, the atmosphere soporific, Mennonite history so boring, just people leaving their homes time after time. Usually, they got into trouble for refusing to join the army of whatever country they happened to be in. Then they’d be forced to move again: to Prussia, Russia, the Americas. We had to memorize all the treks for the final exam. Outside, the parking lot simmered. Flies bumped the windows. Our textbook was a terrible chalky pink, the color of bathroom tile. In the catalogue of miseries and migrations, the Mennonite journey to Central Asia was almost buried, mentioned only briefly, and with disapproval. The group that made that journey had been led, I read, by a false prophet, a man named Claas Epp Jr., who had dared to predict the date of Christ’s return. His prophecies failed, of course. The book described the trek as a sad misstep, “a monument of warning.”
I yawned my way through it, fanning myself with a piece of notebook paper. And yet, years later, the story of this trek would leap out to me. I was in Nairobi, on my way to take up a teaching position in South Sudan, when my father-in-law gave me a book: The Great Trek of the Russian Mennonites to Central Asia, 1880–1884. I remember reading it there, in the small room with the plywood wardrobe, under fluorescent light. Before you got into bed there was the ritual mosquito hunt. They were so fast your hand couldn’t possibly hit them. We smacked them with our pillows. Walls and pillowcases dotted with blood, and the book in my hands, a tale of wonder and terror, pilgrimage and exile, apocalyptic fervor and failure, a story removed from me in time and space yet calling out with its domed cityscapes, camels, German hymns, and snow. By that time, I was accustomed to living a fragmentary life. I was a Mennonite, a Somali American, a recent student of African literature, and a writer of as-yet-unpublished fantasy novels, and I had learned that these things, while they might stand beside one another, could never be combined. There was really no way to put them together, except as mosaic: that is, as a shattering. I learned this whenever I was questioned about my origins, or, as people said with careful emphasis, my “ethnic background”—an experience I had, and still have, almost daily. Meeting a new person requires an explanation of who I am, and how I came to exist, so prolonged and elaborate it feels like a fantasy novel. How my mother, a Mennonite of Swiss ancestry from North Dakota, traveled to Somalia as a missionary English teacher. How she met my father, who taught the Somali language to the missionaries, who had grown up herding livestock in the desert. He was raised on meat and milk. His primary school met under a tree. He had memorized the Qur’an. She wore, on her hair, which was coiled into a bun, the traditional Mennonite covering, a soft curve of white netting. The more I tell it, the more implausible it sounds. I wonder about the effects of telling repeatedly, over a lifetime, a story this odd, of having to make an identity out of such a story, and of seeing, again and again, on the faces of listeners, expressions of wonderment: slack mouths, wide eyes, the brief shocked laughter. I think it might make someone feel like a mistake, a cosmic gaffe. It might make a person feel like a sort of traveling theater, exotic and ephemeral, pitching camp in the scrub where the forest meets the road, belonging to no town. It might make you feel like a carnival mask, too gaudy for everyday use. It might make you love such things. You might become a devotee of the bizarre. The tale that provokes a gasp of disbelief might feel like yours. You might become happiest, most at home, with the implausible.
I began to read the story of the Mennonite trek from Russia to Central Asia, and then I began to tell it. I told it everywhere, in airplanes, in cafés, at job interviews, at academic conferences, in churches. Everywhere, it received the same expression of astonishment, the same amazed shake of the head, laced with curiosity or skepticism, that had always greeted my own story. This gave me an obscure and childlike pleasure. I would describe how the Mennonites settled in what was then the Khanate of Khiva, how they were cast up at the edge of the desert on the winds of prophecy, how their village persisted there for fifty years.
Every three days they would go into town to sell their butter, the fruit from the trees they had planted. In the bustling market of Khiva, wearing their dark suits and hats. I see them with their wagons, the local arbas with large spokes. Around them the maze of languages: Uzbek, Turkmen, Kazakh, Russian.
Beyond the initial shock of the story of reckless prophecy, this story that makes my listeners shake their heads, recoil, or laugh, there’s the reverberation of Mennonites in Uzbekistan. Many of my listeners are Mennonites who have never heard this story, or who think they have never heard it, just as I thought, having forgotten my high school textbook, that I’d never heard it when I picked up The Great Trek of the Russian Mennonites to Central Asia. Other listeners are people who have never, or very infrequently, heard of Mennonites. They want to know, first, what a Mennonite is, and I give them my quick summary: Europe, Radical Reformation, adult baptism, pacifism, farmers, missionaries, kinship with the Amish. These bits of information, mixed with a few images gleaned from popular culture, such as Kelly McGillis in her bonnet in the movie Witness, and overlaid with the sound of the word Mennonite itself, which, like Israelite or Luddite, carries a dogmatic, tribal, and cultish aura, is enough to impress on my audience how extremely weird it is that a group of such people should wind up in Uzbekistan. For Uzbekistan, usually even foggier to my listeners than Mennonites, signifies the East, the Silk Road, and Genghis Khan. Uzbekistan is “the golden road to Samarkand.” It’s there, somewhere, among the other “-stans,” in the cartographic rubble left behind by the Soviet Union.
We are, of course, in the realm of stereotypes. But what’s significant here is the conjunction of clichés. 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.
SOFIA SAMATAR is the author of the novels A Stranger in Olondria and The Winged Histories, the short story collection Tender, and Monster Portraits, a collaboration with her brother, the artist Del Samatar.
If you enjoyed reading this excerpt, be sure to order a copy of The White Mosque, out Oct. 25 from Catapult.