I’ve always preferred non-fiction. Ayad Akhtar’s entrancing novel American Dervish has caused me to shift a bit toward fiction. The protagonist, like the author, grows up in America’s Midwest and the passion and certitude in the pages makes the reader consider, that perhaps, the novel is a bit of an auto-biography.
The charms of the book are many. Akhtar is a maestro with language; his style flows despite the usage of several words that one doesn’t come across generally. One feels this superb sculpting of a story without a hint of verbosity, just a draw to pick up the book again quickly.
The incredulity and innocence of a ten-year old is another winner. The simplicity with which Hayat Shah reports arguments and events in his family underscores the very convoluted nature of adults. The small Midwestern Pakistani-American family’s life changes rather dramatically with the arrival of Mina, Hayat’s mother’s best friend. Hayat’s mother for some reason has a masculine name, Muneer, and interestingly his father’s is a unisex one, Naveed. It might have been less jarring to have transposed the names, but no matter.
Ayad Akhtar depicts the culture well, but “behta” is phonetically incorrect; the word for child is beta or baita in Urdu. Initially I found “bhaj” confusing and then realized that he was using the short form for baji, or sister. It should have been abbreviated baaj and not bhaj for the latter spelling sounds like a short-form for a vegetable.
Hayat’s infatuation with Mina and how a ten-year old deals with its turbulence is poignantly portrayed. Ayad Akhtar is deft at this and the reader acquiesces as it were to what would be classified as an unnatural relationship. And what is more, in the detail of this relationship, all others that we have had, however odd and unconventional, find a strange vindication.
The story does not build up, the book is a veritable pendulum of emotions; taking the reader from one crisis to another storm. And perhaps this is why it just doesn’t drag.
Besides the language Ayad Akhtar is very grounded in his knowledge of the Quran and in page after page, events in Hayat’s life are correlated with Quranic verses smoothly. And the reader senses Hayat’s tender wonderment vicariously. The verses appear, sometimes in such profusion and detail, though, that it almost has a proselytizing feel.
The spectrum of opinion with regard to Jews is delivered very aptly. Muneer typifies Muslims that love and respect the Jews, especially Jewish men and then there is the venom that Imam Souhef and Dr. Ghaleb Chatha spew. This is so palpable in the American-Muslim community; rarely are people indifferent; they follow the all or none law-effusively awed by the Jews or tightly wrapped with antipathy. The ill-logic is even starker when seen through the eyes of a child.
Patriarchy, male chauvinism and domestic violence are alive and practiced with impunity by Chatha and Mina’s first and second husbands. And Dr. Chatha’s wife pulls in a literal interpretation of a Quranic verse to become not just a willing victim but desirous of a beating for in her mind she “needs it”.
Mina’s God-centered life-view and her capsules of Sufism provide for the deep joy in the narrative. “To be a Sufi means to depend on nothing, to want nothing and to be nothing. A Sufi is a day that needs no sun, a night that needs no moon, no stars. A Sufi is like the dust on the ground that no one knows is even there.” And amazingly: “This is what life is behta. It grinds us to dust. The Sufi is just someone that does not fight it. He knows that being ground to nothing is not bad. It’s the way to God”.
American Dervish is one of those books in which the end is essentially disclosed at the start of the book. The narrative is magnetic and yet before you’re quite ready, it’s done. Every chance I got, I found myself reading the book, loving the roller-coaster feel, and suddenly one feels like a giant wall accordions you, and it’s over. The languid feel of the book should have been carried right to the end. I didn’t like the wall. And yet I know that my mind is spinning from the story and not the sudden end.
Ayad Akhtar is an actor, playwright and novelist and American Dervish was his debut fiction. He is working on his second novel while he continues to direct plays in New York City. Till his second novel appears, I just might go for a second helping of American Dervish. So much for not liking fiction.
Mahjabeen Islam is an addictionist, family physician and columnist. She is also president of the Islamic Center of Greater Toledo. firstname.lastname@example.org