Hayat Shah is a young boy when his mother’s best friend Mina arrives in Milwaukee with her four-year-old son Imran. Mina is fleeing her failed marriage and repressive family life in Pakistan, and it’s an event that changes Hayat’s life, and his faith, forever. Mina is beautiful, spiritual, full of life—and broken by her past, “ground to dust” by her faith, and ashamed of the divorce that left her son without a father. Still, she is every bit of the larger-than-life person Hayat’s mother described in stories of their shared girlhood. And when Hayat meets her, he is transfixed and earnestly attaches himself to Mina.
Likewise, Mina takes a special interest in Hayat, who has been raised between parents bound by hostility, resentment and a refusal to divorce because of their Muslim faith. Hayat’s father Naveed is a brilliant neurologist, seasoned in the ways of the world and, as is quickly made apparent, other women. Hayat’s mother Muneer abandoned a degree in psychology to marry her husband, and seems to have no lack of Freudian wisdom to share with her son about how to not end up like his father. When Mina begins sharing her liberal interpretations of the Quran and her favorite Islamic parables with Hayat, he is enraptured. One of these stories is that of the dervish—a beggar whom, upon asking for food from passersby and receiving a handful of orange peels, realizes he is no better or worse than the very dirt of the earth, that he and Allah and everything are One, that one must be willing to be nothing to belong to Allah.
Even though Mina eventually sheds the layers of traditional Muslim dress for pants, dresses and make-up, obtains a job as a hairdresser and even falls in love with one of Hayat’s father’s colleagues—a man named Nathan who is intelligent, kind and a Jew—Mina’s faith is unyielding and stubborn, and she refuses herself the happiness she desires. Like no other character in the book, Mina is saved by her faith, but it’s also what destroys her.
While the characters are all vaguely reminiscent of other characters from other stories, and Akhtar does little to perk up the plot, which heads for an inevitable, predictable climax, where this story is successful is in its context. Milwaukee-born to Pakistani parents in 1970, Akhtar shows us 1980s Midwestern America, pre-9/11, pre-Afghanistan, pre-Iraq. It’s a world full of social and religious intricacies through which immigrants and Muslim-Americans must maneuver. And while Akhtar, a Muslim himself, takes great joy in celebrating the poetry and rich history of Islam, he is at the same time especially adept at exploring the issues that often exist within religion—the shedding of old laws to gain wider cultural acceptance, the hypocrisy of believing in a holy text and living a “modern” life, and those moments of doubt, when religion just seems ugly, blatantly prejudiced and downright absurd.
“I wanted to investigate how a beautiful love of faith could turn into something darker,” Akhtar says of “American Dervish.” At 350-plus pages, it’s an ambitious investigation, but it’s certainly not perfect. And at that length, and with all its layers, this is a novel that shouldn’t be tied together in an epilogue of only a few pages, but that’s what Akhtar tried to do. Regardless, “American Dervish” is a thought-provoking and impressive debut. (Naomi Huffman)
Ayad Akhtar discusses “American Dervish” at the Victory Gardens Biograph Theater on March 13 at 7pm. $15. See our review of the world premiere of his play, “Disgraced,” at Newcity Stage.
By Ayad Akhtar
Little, Brown and Company, 352 Pages, $25