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.”
Does this mean American Dervish intends to condemn an entire faith? Not at all — but Akhtar is perfectly happy to expose its contradictions, and how easily it can be abused. Hayat is the perfect observer in that role, with Akhtar’s bright, fast-paced writing persuasively conveying a boy’s wide-eyed shock at adult behavior. When Naveed sets his son’s precious Koran ablaze — the father has finally had enough of the faith-based squabbling under his roof — Hayat’s emotions surge as if he’s witnessing a murder: “He flashed me a treacherous smile as he held the flame to the pages and waited. It wasn’t until the paper caught fire that I realized I was surprised. I had expected the pages not to burn.”
But if the hero of the story is Hayat, its emotional heartbeat is Mina, suffused with sensuality and intelligence but often culturally bound to suppress both. Later, after she falls into a new relationship as miserable as the one she just escaped, Mina will justify the wreckage by quoting a famous line from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Crack-Up: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”
Is that a moral sentiment, or the avoidance of one? Akhtar doesn’t address the matter too closely, except to voice skepticism of fundamentalism of whatever brand. “Intention,” Mina tells Hayat. “That’s all Allah cares about.” On this point, American Dervish is wholly successful: Abruptly awakened to the complexities of faith, Hayat is forced to confront both the grace of a religion and the gazillion ways in which it can spark animosities among insiders and outsiders alike. Thanks to that accomplishment, American Dervish is a strong candidate for the title of the Great Muslim American Novel.
Mark Athitakis is a writer based in Washington, D.C. He blogs about books at American Fiction Notes (markathitakis.com).