Ayad Akhtar’s “American Dervish”

If there is a quality about Ayad Akhtar’s debut novel American Dervish, it is the author’s willingness to deal with the messiness of his subject—the Muslim Experience in America: warts and all. What stymies this effort, however, is Akhtar’s seeming desire to contain such messiness in a tidy package, a story which ending—heartbreaking content aside—seems engineered to comfort the reader.

American Dervish relays the adolescence of Hayat Shah, an American of Pakistani descent living in Milwaukee. Hayat’s parents have raised him in a fairly Westernized, secular environment, adhering only to the less spiritual, cultural norms of their homeland. But when Hayat’s mother’s friend Mina comes to America—after a messy divorce from an arranged marriage—Hayat is introduced to the beauty and wonder of the Koran.

Mina’s arrival sets off a traditional conflict: east and west, secular and fundamentalist, etc. Hayat soon decides he wants to be a hafiz—someone who memorizes the entire Koran. But in the process, he discovers the texts many gaps and contradictions—and its less-than-savory treatment of women and Jews. And while Mina herself views the Koran through a more liberal, interpretive lens, Hayat is drawn to the idea that the entire Koran—every sentence, every word—is the true word of God; there can be no doubt. 

He wants to apply it to every aspect of his waking life—a dedication that, of course, clouds his relationships with women and Jews. Hayat’s mother, for example, is unpopular with other Pakistani immigrants around Milwaukee for her sharp tongue and (perceived) out-of-order temperament (i.e. she does not treat her husband’s word as God’s).

And Hayat’s father is not exactly a gentleman toward Hayat’s mother, frequently and brazenly cheating on her with, as Mrs. Shah calls them, “white bitches.” But while the Koran might justify some less-than-prudent actions toward women, Hayat’s father is extremely anti-Islam. (One scene that is sure to raise eyebrows: Mr. Shah burns a Koran.)

The conflict between the Koran and Jews is at the center of the book. Hayat’s father’s business partner, Nathan, is Jewish and after meeting Mina, falls in love. He courts her, and they soon after agree to marry on the condition that he converts to Islam. A trip to the local mosque, however, goes terribly, as Nathan cannot stand the imam’s virulently anti-Semitic khutba– an event that raises a number of questions: how literally do we take the Koran? How important is the context of the Koran? How relevant is the book in our time?

Hayat struggles with these questions, and in his early adolescence, errs on the side of fundamentalism, believing Nathan to be part of a hated group of people, happy to see his engagement with Mina undone.

The breaking of the engagement starts a tidal wave of tragedy for Mina; going further would, of course, introduce many spoilers. Through his witnessing of what Mina endures, Hayat appears to soften up and show contrition for his youthful and immature fundamentalism.

This is obviously some highly charged stuff: the burning of a Koran, an anti-Semitic khutba, legitimate questions about the degree to which the Koran must be adhered, etc. And I must concede that Akhtar is quite brave to write (albeit fictionally) about such toxic material. Of course, weighing a book’s quality involves other considerations.

Akhtar, a playwright, shows signs of a background in theater: characters’ dialogue as a device to move the plot, many exclamation points/all-caps used to convey anger in conversation.

But what’s most bothersome about American Dervish is the ending—and I’m not talking about where Akhtar takes the plot. In a feckless and quite dissatisfying epilogue, Akhtar includes a chance meeting (of sorts) between Nathan and Hayat. In what must have been a five to seven minute conversation, we are caught up on everything that’s happened to Mina, Hayat’s parents, Nathan, Hayat—every character of consequence in the book; how convenient! It’s a rather sloppy, strangely amateurish way to end what is an otherwise very mature novel.

Fiction writing is not Akhtar’s first calling—and this is his debut—so I won’t be too hard on him for my own subjective take on his ending. To his immense credit, he’s written a novel with extreme moral significance. He’s got a talent for plot-driven fiction and a knack for clean, descriptive prose. His career will go places, no doubt; let’s just hope he learns that sometimes the best ending is one that’s with its folds and wrinkles.

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