Ayad Akhtar’s wonderful first novel tells a quintessentially American coming-of-age story: The child of immigrants struggles to find a place in his life for the traditions and beliefs of his ancestral homeland in a new world of broader possibilities that are both enticing and threatening. Although the main narrative unfolds in the early 1980s, it speaks to issues that collectively preoccupy us even more today. The Shah family is Muslim, and the position of women in the Islamic community is a central, agonizing concern. “American Dervish” so richly depicts a wide variety of humanly inconsistent and fallible characters that it feels reductive to call it a Muslim American novel, yet it is impossible to call it anything else because it is steeped in the tenets of Islam and a fierce debate over their deepest meaning.
Hayat Shah is 10 in 1981 when Mina Ali comes to live with his family in Milwaukee.Hayat’s mother has long been telling him about her beautiful best friend back in Pakistan, whose intelligence and spirit are disdained by her patriarchal father and the husband he chose for her. “When a Muslim woman is too smart, she pays the price for it,” Mother declares, “in abuse.” She’s given to complaining about the sins of Muslim men, particularly Hayat’s father, who drinks alcohol on the sly and has had many affairs, the details of which she has been sharing with Hayat since he was 5. Father, a determinedly secular neurologist, has no use for the devout local Muslims he calls “hypocrites,” and his distaste for socializing with fellow Pakistani immigrants increases his angry wife’s sense of isolation.