Author Ayad Akhtar chose well when he decided to title his captivating debut novel American Dervish. Linking culture and custom, Akhtar draws on the traditional definition of the Muslim dervish - a Muslim noted for devotional exercises, bodily movements leading to a trance - while basing this modern story on the figurative use of the term - one that whirls or dances very quickly, with abandonment or compulsion. Akhtar's story of compulsive passion is a cross-cultural journey that pivots on love and spins on regrettable snap decisions.
We all face impetuous moments of choice in our lives. Whether it's the quick key-tapped send of an unwise email, the press of an ill-issued text or an impulsive blurt of secrets, our rash actions become non-retractable deeds that swiftly leave us and take on a life of their own.
Hayat Shah is an American boy loosely tied to his Pakistani past. When the lovely Mina comes from Pakistan to stay with his family, Hayat is struck by her beauty, intelligence and devotion to Allah. Hayat is eager to please, and as he takes comfort in the Quran and Mina's devout practices, he sees his own family's errant ways. "Religion, my friends, is a topic for fools," says Hayat's father, but in his growing fervor, Hayat defies his father and begins study to become a hafiz (see sidebar):
Mina said that becoming a hafiz was one of the greatest things a person could do in one's life. It meant not only securing one's own place in Janaat, but a place for one's parents as well: Janaat, our word for 'Paradise': that garden in the sky that was the ultimate end of our labors... That's what Mina had said. Every hafiz earned not only his own place in Paradise, but his parents' as well. No matter how many drinks, no matter how many mistresses, Father would be saved.
Akhtar does a magnificent job threading his story through the dark, long-lashed eyes of Hayat, and it's through this lens that Akhtar captures his reader. Besotted with Mina's love and attention, yet torn by adolescent angst, Hayat's vulnerability propels the story as he works through American Dervish's multi-layered themes of race, religion, and familial bonds.
The characters in American Dervish are fully fleshed out and together offer unique insight into the difficulties of cultural assimilation. Each character's approach revolves around perspectives of faith. While some are bound by the strict, structured tenets of Islam, others have forged new interpretations to bridge the vast gap between American life and that of the steeped Muslim culture.
Hayat reflects the complexities of quick devotion, and author Akthar takes great care not to make his relationships perverse. Akthar acknowledges Hayat's pubescence but maintains purity and integrity to tell this difficult coming-of-age tale. Sorting through the convoluted world that surrounds him, Hayat wades through the mixed messages of Islam and adult behavior as he attempts to understand what it means to be a young Muslim-American man.
My soul was outgrowing the child-sized raiment with which my Islamic childhood had outfitted me... My heart yearned to pray. I put my hands out before me in the Muslim style and tried to conjure the heartfelt fire I knew so well from back when Mina lived with us. But my words rang hollow. Like sounds spoken to the deaf, or worse, to no one at all.
What makes American Dervish so special is its accessibility. Ayad Akhtar himself is an American-born, first-generation Pakistani-American from Milwaukee. As such, there's an authenticity to his work that offers readers an open approach to Islamic terms and allows for an inside look at Muslim life in America prior to 9/11. Akhtar makes poetic work of rigid religious debates and identifies the hypocrisies inherent in structured faith as old country meets new.
American Dervish is certain to fall into this year's must-read fiction category. Not surprisingly, Akhtar is an award-winning screenwriter and American Dervish would certainly appeal on the big screen: bold characters, layered themes, adolescent wonderment, and the timeless message that the secret truths we carry in the center of our souls are often recognized a touch too late.
Listen to NPR's interview with Ayad Akhtar to find out more about his experiences growing up Muslim in the Midwest.
This review was originally published in January 2012, and has been updated for the September 2012 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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