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Book Review: American Dervish

Author Ayad Akhtar's coming-of-age journey as an American Muslim

Cover of Ayad Akhtar's book

What does it mean to be a Muslim in the United States? The title of Ayad Akhtar’s first novel, American Dervish, implies he will take on that big question. (Otherwise he could have called it Milwaukee Dervish, for that’s where it’s set.) If the book never quite realizes those ambitions, it still smartly dabs its modest portrait of adolescence with some big-picture insights about religion.

The action takes place in the early 1980s, a safe distance from 9/11 and modern-day radical Islam. Like the times, the narrator is fairly innocent: Hayat Shah is just 11 years old when the bulk of the story occurs, giving the early pages a nostalgic rather than naturalistic cast. The first source of tension involves an extramarital affair being conducted by Hayat’s father, Naveed, to which many modern readers may devote a big yawn: What novel of contemporary American domesticity, after all, doesn’t involve a cheating dad?

Look beyond its tween-age narrator and familiar coming-of-age frame, however, and you’ll find American Dervish filled with all sorts of surprises and complications, from the cultural and the intellectual to the religious and the sexual. Wrinkle number one is Mina, a friend of Hayat’s mother, Muneer, who flees Pakistan and moves in with the Shahs after her abusive ex-husband threatens to take sole custody of their young son, Imran.

Thankfully, no stereotypical scenes of Mina gawping at supermarkets ensue. Indeed, Mina is already so westernized that one of her favorite books is Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer. If anyone’s gawping, it’s Hayat: Mina is gorgeous, and prone to spinning seductive stories from and about the Koran. Bewitched, Hayat resolves to become a hafiz — a student who memorizes the holy text. Whether his motives are spiritual or hormonal is moot; either way, American Dervish intriguingly becomes a sort of assimilation novel in reverse.

Akhtar gives Hayat’s blossoming religious fervor a decidedly romantic lilt: He admires “white clouds sculpted against blue skies, stacked like majestic monuments to the Almighty’s unfathomable glory.” Naturally, his transport doesn’t last. Mina pursues a relationship with Nathan, a Jewish colleague of Hayat’s physician father, but Nathan’s decision to convert runs headlong into the bigotry of a local mosque. It’s a stock conflict, except that Akhtar does a nice job of infusing the adolescent narration with some bite: As Hayat toys with anti-Semitism, trying it on the way other teens might experiment with hairstyles, the implication is that certain corners of Islam have some growing up to do as well. Hayat’s stab at explaining his newfound creed to Imran reveals the depth of his juvenile incomprehension: “Allah hated [Jews] more than all the other people He created. More than animals. More than pigs, even.”

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