Sunday, March 11, 2012

American Dervish

American Dervish
Ayad Akhtar

What follows is definitive proof that my Kindle was money well spent.

I listen to Fresh Air on NPR while I run. I find that it's more interesting than music and a great way to stay informed about cultural, political and social issues while sequestered in one of the most out of the way places on the planet.

A few weeks back, Terry Gross (my favorite radio host) interviewed Ayad Akhtar about his new novel American Dervish. I was intrigued by the premise of the book but, like most things I hear on Fresh Air, I filed it away in my brain. A week later, I read a rave review of the novel in The Atlantic. Two mentions of the book in a week coupled with my weakness for novels with strong religious themes sent me racing to to purchase the book for my Kindle.

Before my Kindle I would have had to wait until A) Someone brought the book to town and saw fit to lend it to me B) I went to Taipei and, with any luck, happened to see it in one of the two English bookstores in the city or C) Asked someone from back home to buy it for me and send it overseas. Option A is a crapshoot, option B happens about three times a year and option C is rarely, if ever, invoked for fear of inconveniencing anyone back in Canuckistan.

For the first time in a decade I have the power to read books that are current (aka published in the same calendar year as I read them) and comment on actual trends as they happen as opposed to years later. For me, the Kindle isn't so much a neat toy in which to download novels and save money and paper, it has rendered me relevant for the first time since 2002. For that I am grateful.

Now, onto American Dervish.

American Dervish is a poignant novel about growing up Muslim in the American midwest (Milwaukee, to be specific). The narrative follows the early adolescent years of Hayat Shah, the impressionable (and repressed) son of a successful, areligious Pakistani-American doctor and his wife. While life in the Shah household is far from perfect, it is turned upside down with the appearance of Mina (a friend of the family escaping an abusive relationship in Pakistan) and her some Imran. Mina presents Hayat with his first Quran and proceeds to instruct him on the nature of Islam, and encouraging him to become a hafiz, one who knows the Quran by heart. What follows is a spiritual awakening (of sorts) within Hayat that skirts dangerously close abject racism and extremism.

I have read other books that have had Muslim protagonists (though, I admit, not that many) and, for the most part, Islam is treated with a degree of respect and awe. I've not come across a lot of novels that have really tackled some of the more nefarious aspects of the faith. While there are literally thousands of novels that question (and even berate) Christianity, I have found that most novels about Islam tend to handle the subject with kid gloves (non-fiction is a different story, of course). Mercifully, American Dervish is not guilty of such evasiveness.

Maybe I haven't read enough novels about Islam but I have read The Satanic Verses. Salman Rushdie has been living in hiding for decades due to what he wrote about Islam in his 1988 novel and I didn't think it was anywhere near as inflammatory (for Muslims, I presume... not me) as American Dervish. I cannot pretend to know much (anything) about the modern Muslim-American experience but Akhtar does not paint the brightest picture. In fact, this book can be quite bleak in its portrayal of Muslims in America (and Muslims in general). Akhtar spends a lot of time discussing the clashes between old world and new world interpretations of Islam which is the root much of the conflict in the book.

At points in this book the author seems to seethe with anger and frustration at the Muslim community in America and raises some pretty provocative questions about racism toward Jews, women's rights, Sharia Law and contradictory Quranic scripture. In the novel, Hayat's father in particular spits vitriolic venom at the established Muslim-American community and their apparent herd-like mentality. But the novel stops short of descending into a acrimonious anti-religion diatribe. Behind the anger and disappointment there is a genuine feeling of warmth and affection for Islam and a real desire to raise questions about the modern nature of a very old religion. It's a testament Akhtar that he can walk the line between disloyalty and fidelity to the faith that has remained under the social and political microscope for over a decade.

I'm not going to lie, although this book is highly entertaining, it is difficult to read in places. There are some real uncomfortable moments when the reader is expected to check their judgmental self at the door and admit to themselves that they cannot understand the cultural mindset (unless, of course, you are a Muslim and have read this book. Then perhaps you could enlighten me as to whether this is an accurate depiction of the Muslim community in America. Obviously I have no idea). Furthermore, I found that more than once I felt as if Akhtar is treading water in the narrative, unsure of where to go next. There is an uneven feeling in the story that bogs it down in places.

But none of this should dissuade you from reading this novel. I think this novel and its over-arching themes were a long time in coming. In a world that has spent a lot of time and energy pigeon-holing and vilifying Islam, it's high time a novelist took it upon himself to spend some time navel-gazing the tradition and its position in the modern world. In 2012, it is refreshing to see a novelist that is prepared to embrace the often contradictory nature of Islam and examine the persistent tensions that arise within the community struggling to reconcile old world tradition in the New World.

As for me, I'm feeling refreshed as well. If for no other reason than I might be ahead of the reading curve for the first time in a decade.


Ryan said...

You know... On further reflection, perhaps I should have referred to Muslim-Americans as Pakistani-Americans.

Sharon Henning said...

This was an excellent review. I know what the book is about and am tempted to read it. I think that the ever growing Islamic population in America and Europe should motivate people to at least inform themselves on the religion.

I also think that we should attempt to get to know the people-not because if we get to know them we'll find out they're "really, really nice just misunderstood," but because relationships are what build bridges and influence.

Ryan said...

It's absolutely worth checking out.

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