(Little, Brown and Company, 2012)
The Muslim American novel has arrived, and it is titled American Dervish. There have been other novels by and about Muslim Americans, but Ayad Akhtar’s tale distinguishes itself from its predecessors—and, one can safely predict, from its successors—by probing controversial aspects of Islam alongside its sympathetic portrayal of one Muslim American boy’s maturation. Akhtar has not only created a heartfelt and arresting story of a precocious but impressionable boy trying to navigate faith, folly, and family; he has provided an intellectually rigorous and unflinchingly conscientious examination of the fraught and much-manipulated subject of Muslim scripture.
Akhtar is a screenwriter; American Dervish is his debut novel. It is reminiscent in some ways of the work of Hanif Kureishi, the British author whose novel The Black Album and short story “My Son the Fanatic” (later adapted into a film) chronicle the religious radicalization of the most unlikely of Muslim candidates. But where Kureishi explores the influence of discrimination and community solidarity in nurturing religious extremism, Akhtar, while certainly bringing to life the challenges of growing up Muslim in 1980s Milwaukee, thrusts his protagonist into direct engagement with the Quran. Of course, Hayat Shah, the adult narrator of American Dervish, does not grow up in a vacuum. Like everyone else, he is socially and personally inclined to cherry-pick the Quran. But the mere act of situating the Quran at the center of Hayat’s radicalization is near-revolutionary. Akhtar, like his protagonist an American of Pakistani origin, has confronted the elephant in the room.
Hayat Shah is 10 years old when Mina enters his life. She was his mother’s best friend back in Pakistan, from which Hayat’s parents emigrated years ago. Mina stayed behind and was married off. But her marriage foundered and she divorced her abusive husband. Now the mother of a child, Imran, she is informed that according to Islamic law, she will retain custody of her son until he reaches the age of seven, at which time her ex-husband will receive full custody rights. When Imran is four, Mina decides to take up the offer by Hayat’s parents to go to Milwaukee and live with them.
Hayat immediately takes to Mina, who is intelligent—and scintillatingly beautiful. Mina likes Hayat, too, and very much hopes that he will befriend Imran. She also decides to introduce Hayat to Islam, with which he is wholly unfamiliar. (His father, a doctor, is implacably hostile to religion in general, while his mother, who is culturally Muslim, remains decidedly Laodicean toward matters of religious observance.) Mina regales Hayat with stories of renowned Sufis, many of whom were indigent wanderers (hence the book’s title), and with her tender encouragement, he takes on the task of becoming a hafiz—one who has memorized the Quran.
Hayat does not fail to notice Mina’s stubborn melancholia. In one of the book’s most poetic sequences, he ponders his mother and Mina’s affinity for Indian films: “lavish tales of unconsummated love, or love consummated at the price of death.” Given Mina’s sunny view of life, he finds it strange that she should consider Hollywood happy endings unrealistic, but realizes that, almost in spite of herself, she may harbor a pessimistic streak. Indeed, “confident as she claimed to be in Allah’s ultimate goodwill toward humanity, I think she fully expected things to turn against her in the end.” Little does Hayat know at the time that he will play a pivotal role in making things turn against Mina, so that her life comes to mirror one of those Indian films.
Mina becomes romantically involved with Nathan Wolfsohn, a Jewish man. This might not have been a problem. To begin with, her conservative parents are in far-off Pakistan. Secondly, Hayat’s parents esteem the guy, who is a colleague and close friend of Hayat’s father. And Nathan is even willing to convert to Islam for Mina’s sake. But Hayat, on the cusp of puberty and roiled by all manner of emotional and physical change, is infatuated with Mina. He grows determined to derail her relationship with Nathan.
Just as ominously, he begins to gravitate toward those passages in the Quran that demonize Jews, and eagerly absorbs the anti-Semitic views of several members of the Muslim community. He cultivates a hatred of Nathan and takes to turning Imran against him. Eventually, he makes a fateful decision that forever alters the course of Mina and Nathan’s relationship.
Literature that explores the challenges of being a member of a marginalized ethnic or religious minority in the U.S. often revolves around a protagonist grappling with discrimination. A focus on this main character’s ethnic culture or religion as a rich and complicated subject in and of itself—quite apart from its members’ struggle for affirmation in the face of an insensitive if not hostile society—is uncommon. At a time when it is tempting to restrict oneself to portraying real and rampant anti-Muslim bigotry, Akhtar has bravely chosen to write a novel that delves into Islam’s murkiest corners.
In exploring one Muslim American’s conflicted relationship with Islam, the immediate Muslim community, and his family, Akhtar might have endorsed the simplistic putative dichotomy of tradition (Islam) and modernity (America), and filled out his story by enumerating instances of “culture clash” between Pakistani and American mores. Instead, he keeps his eye trained on Hayat’s far more fascinating personal journey, which, while not immune to the influence of larger cultural constructs, remains driven chiefly by his infatuation with Mina and his intense yet changing approach to the Quran. American Dervish is a cerebral and penetrating examination of a contemporary paradox: a sensitive and contemplative person’s increased spiritual attachment to his religion coupled with a growing estrangement from its doctrinal rigidity.