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.
So Mina, now divorced, and her son, Imran, enter a tension-riddled household. Akhtar, a playwright and screenwriter, skillfully develops the increased drama their presence sparks. Hayat is bothered by his father’s fondness for Imran, an odd little boy obsessed with his own absent father and desperate for male attention. Father is none too thrilled when Mina introduces Hayat to the beauties of the Koran, quoted at length in English. In some of the most moving passages in “American Dervish,” Mina explicates her profound but undogmatic faith, urging Hayat to listen for “the small voice inside you” and reassuring him that “Allah will always forgive you, no matter what you do. . . . He will make sure that whatever happens to you is always for the good.” Akhtar paints a compelling picture of the serenity found in religion by a troubled preteen and a woman who has had more than her share of sorrow.
But “Dervish” also unsparingly depicts fundamentalist bigotry, which has scarred Mina and will have a fatal impact on her future. When she falls in love with Nathan, a Jewish colleague and close friend of Father’s, she can’t conceive of marrying him unless he converts. Nathan’s efforts to do so prompt an anti-Semitic tirade by the local imam, which drives Nathan to despairingly conclude, “No matter who we try to be . . . we’re always Jews.” Even more disturbingly, Hayat, whose feelings for Mina have sexual undercurrents he barely understands, plucks extracts from her beloved Koran to justify his jealousy of Nathan as righteous rejection of the selfish Jews.
The final 100 pages are tainted with melodrama, but Akhtar by and large makes the story work. His complicated, conflicted characters are not helpless victims; they make irrevocable mistakes and do dreadful things, but Akhtar encourages us to understand and forgive. The sanctimonious, burqa-clad wife who condemns women who don’t live by her rules pops Valium for her panic attacks; she’s not as certain as she pretends. The complex bond between Hayat’s parents is as important to the novel as Mina and Nathan’s love, and no less tragic. Hayat’s turbulent, alcoholic father is in some ways the paradigmatic figure, and the scene in which he bares his soul to his son is a heartbreaking revelation of defiance, pain and regret.
At the center of it all stands Hayat, who chronicles his odyssey from the believable perspective of hard-won maturity. The vivid particulars of his spiritual quest and emotional confusion embody universal experiences: growing up, learning to accept the faults of those you love (and your own), achieving an identity nourished by your roots but shaped by your individual needs and aspirations. Akhtar’s poignant and wise debut announces the arrival of a generous new voice in American fiction.
Smith, a contributing editor at the American Scholar, reviews books frequently for The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times.