by Ayad Akhtar
Little Brown, 2012
Early in his debut novel American Dervish, Ayad Akhtar articulates what he sees as the essential difference between his Pakistani-Muslim culture and that of America:
We were formed and informed (to various degrees) by an Eastern mythos profoundly at odds with the American notion of happily-ever-after. For though we longed for happiness, we did not expect it…. Like the odor of masala lingering along our hallways, the expectation of unhappiness hovered in the air we breathed.
Indeed, the characters in Akhtar’s story are not happy, largely because they are stuck between two worlds. Like the Jewish heroes of Roth and Bellow, Akhtar’s protagonist, ten year-old Hayat Shah, attempts to assimilate into the culture of 1980s Milwaukee with his family’s Muslim heritage and values system in tow. Akhtar’s portrait of this process asks all the right questions: What traditions will be held onto? What must be compromised What will be lost?
In an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air, Akhtar delicately expressed his own personal religious views: “When people ask me, ‘Are you Muslim?’ I say, ‘I’m a cultural Muslim.’ … I consider myself to have been formed by a lot of the locutions and aesthetics and principles of the Muslim way of life and those are an important part of my childhood and my identity.” This is a reasonable response, a well-crafted articulation. You can hear the rationalist’s sensitivity to multiculturalism, the secularist’s sense of tolerance, and the modernist’s awareness of the vast system of ideas that ultimately work together to form one’s worldview. For Akhtar’s characters, the problem is decidedly thornier, and the solutions far less tidy.
Closely following the perspective of Hayat, American Dervish mimics the style of a movie. Akhtar, also a screenwriter, clearly thinks in terms of scene and linear narrative. After a brief prologue in which Hayat is in college, the story jumps back in time to tell of a year in the life of the Shah family. Each chapter of the novel progresses steadily through time—seasons change, holidays come and go—as the story works towards it climax. Akhtar is a traditional storyteller: his prose is purposefully plainspoken and direct so that his plot and characters take prominence. At times, though, the prose feels too simple, too diminished, and Hayat’s naiveté tends toward cliché (“All at once, blood was exploding through my veins”). Moreover, Akhtar’s adherence to the sheer mechanics of blocking—“He sat down on the couch”, “He looked about the room”—exacerbates the plainness. But when his finely honed reflective tone emerges, Akhtar does strike a more lyrical note, such as when he describes the Indian movies his parents so enjoyed: “These were the moving images that had given shape and sound to their souls, stories painted from a darker palette, limned with haunting songs and built from images of elegiac beauty.”
Young Hayat is predominantly an observer; the adults surrounding him drive most of the action. Hayat apparently represents the author’s own adolescent psyche: he absorbs everything like a sponge, only later finding his own voice and coming to his own conclusions. Seeing the story through Hayat’s eyes affords the reader the same critical distance between himself and the other characters that Hayat experiences. In other words, because we don’t see Hayat’s father drinking or his aunt going out on dates, we are left to piece the puzzle together given what we do see, to ponder the actions of the adults and to forge our own judgments.
So, ostensibly the coming-of-age story of Hayat, American Dervish is really the story of Mina Ali, Hayat’s aunt and a Pakistani-born immigrant. To frame Mina’s character, Akhtar uses Fitzgerald’s famous line about how a truly first-rate intelligence can function while holding two opposing ideas in the mind at the same time: “She herself was a paradox … enlightened and devout; intrepid and passive.” Indeed, Mina is an alluring puzzle. She’s beautiful and brilliant. An avid reader of literature, she loves Fitzgerald, Conrad, and Henry Miller. At the same time, she’s modest and submissive, a devotee of her religion and of the Quran. Though her interpretations of the Quran are liberal—she advocates what Muslims call “ijtihad, or personal interpretation”—her personality also has a strong conservative streak. Ultimately, Mina is the character we watch most closely—as Nick watches Gatsby, say—and Mina’s story provides the novel’s illuminating and tragic parable.
But because the story is entirely behind Hayat’s eyes, we do miss certain crucial scenes. For example, when Mina’s arranged marriage to Hamad Suhail goes horribly wrong, largely due to a wicked mother-in-law who liked to drag Mina by her hair into the hallway for “talking out of turn” at the dinner table, we never see this scene. We only get the backstory: in 1976, while recovering from childbirth in the hospital, Mina is told by a lawyer that Hamad is divorcing her and claiming full custody of their son, Imran, as soon as he turns seven. She manages to decamp to America with Imran, where her story entwines with that of young Hayat, who naturally falls in love with her.
Safely in Wisconsin, Mina begins instructing Hayat in a close study of the Quran. Inspired both by Mina’s beauty and by the holy book’s power, Hayat grows devout, declaringhafiz, one who memorizes the entire Quran. Mina takes a job at the local beauty salon, coming home with her face and hair all made up—a sign of her wild, irreverent side:
She went all out and had her hair completely redone, coming home one evening in Sue Ellen’s latest, her sensuous tresses gone, the hair on top of her head spiked with hair gel…. Her fashionable hairstyle made her a modern woman, an American woman, an astonishing prospect to folks like us who never would have thought we could look like that.
She begins dating a Jewish man, Nathan Wolfsohn, a medical colleague of Naveed’s father (they are doctors). Eventually, Hayat, fueled by jealousy and anti-Semitism, does something awful to derail the affair. His guilty conscience and search for redemption consume him to the end.
Meanwhile, Mina’s life tailspins. In the novel’s somewhat rushed storyline, she goes on to marry a Muslim man who beats her. Not only does this new husband forbid Mina to continue her friendship with Hayat’s mother, her best friend, but he also buys a gun and brings it to the dinner table to keep her “fast mouth in check.” Again, we don’t actually see this scene; rather, we see Hayat obsessing about it: “In my mind’s eye, I saw that small rodent of a man repeatedly hitting her with closed fists.” As Hayat tosses and turns in bed, we share in his feelings of anger and responsibility.
In American Dervish, Akhtar has boldly displayed the appalling oppression of women as well as the hated of Jews that can be found in Muslim culture. One character, a respected Muslim businessman, casually offers the following remark in conversation: “The real problem is Israel. We will never have peace in this world as long as they’re living on that land… But for that there’s only one solution… Killing them all… Like Hitler.” Another character, a woman, offers the view that spousal abuse is okay: “Because we need it… because it’s something about our nature. Something that needs to know its limits.” The notion that men should beat their wives is even supported by a quotation from the Quran, from the fourth surah: “Those whose rebellion you fear, reprove them; then leave them alone in bed; then beat them.” The reader, along with Hayat, is challenged to make sense of this array of brutality and bigotry and to find a way to reconcile what he increasingly sees at two opposing worlds: on the one hand, Mina represents love, literature, self-expression, and the quest for individual freedom; on the other, we find hatred, tradition, racism, and violence.
As the story progressed, I developed a strong sympathetic attachment to Mina. I rooted for her. I wanted everything to work out for her. I wanted her to find happiness. But in the end she only frustrated me. It is primarily her submissiveness that is so maddening. I yearned for her freedom, which never comes, at least not in a form I could recognize. Indeed, Akhtar does not settle for a happy Hollywood ending; rather, he’s adopted the model of those “Indian weepies,” the movies Hayat’s parents so loved. That’s fine. But what disturbed me was how Akhtar chose to portray Mina as essentially helpless against the forces of culture around her. She strives for liberation, for freedom within her devotion; she dishearteningly fails to achieve it. Hayat, too, feels a similar frustration with his own powerlessness:
All I could think of was either crank-calling the Chatha house—which I did more than a dozen times—or praying. So I prayed. I prayed that her husband would not beat her. I prayed that she would not suffer. But with time, my prayers would prove as ineffectual as the crank-calling. As the bad news continued to pour in about Mina’s new husband, my doubts about the power of my prayer began to grow.
Meanwhile, as my sympathies lurched towards the other characters, I was left unsatisfied. Hayat’s immaturity and lack of agency render him a less than fully realized hero. In the novel’s epilogue, he is in college, pursuing a relationship with a Jewish girl. But these hints at his happy adjustment—and at the novel’s sequel—are left undeveloped. Meanwhile, Hayat’s father Naveed is aggressively positioned over and against his community’s traditional values. He serves as the novel’s anti-Muslim mouthpiece: “Their mindlessness. Their stupidity. Now do you see why I hate them so much?” His rage and brashness, not to mention that he is an alcoholic adulterer, undermine our faith in him. In order to steer his boy away from Islam, he even burns Hayat’s Quran right in front of him. This kind of behavior upends our expectations and challenges our sympathies. Indeed, Akhtar has courageously written a novel full not of sunny, likable Muslim-American characters but of genuine, complicated people trying to forge a new life in strange land. For Mina and Naveed’s generation, Akhtar sees only discord and suffering in their attempted assimilation. In other words, much will be compromised; even more will be lost. All hope then falls to young Hayat, who is only beginning to make his way in the world.
In the end, perhaps the central theme of American Dervish is the treatment of women in the Muslim world. This is a sensitive subject. Look at the facts. In Saudi Arabia, women are not allowed to drive cars. Last December, a group of scholars at Majlis al-Ifta’ al-A’ala, Saudi Arabia’s highest religious council, published a report arguing that if women were allowed to drive a surge in prostitution, pornography, homosexuality, and divorce would ensue. The study projected that if women were permitted to drive, in ten years, there would be “no more virgins” in the entire Islamic kingdom. Meanwhile, in Egypt, thousands of women who were instrumental in the protests that removed Hosni Mubarak from office last spring took to the streets to protest police brutality towards women. In the aftermath of the Arab Spring, many are voicing concerns that the new Islamic governments will continue to suppress the basic rights of woman.
It comes down to culture and to how culture forms one’s expectations. In the end—and this is the tough part—Mina is the novel’s eponymous dervish, so devout she believes the holiest path in life is the path of pain, or at least “whatever comes our way.” Hayat is left musing on Mina’s teachings at the novel’s end:
The stories that stayed with me the most were the ones about the dervishes: the first, in which a dervish sitting by the side of the road has orange peels tossed on him by a couple of passersby and, in that moment of ill-use, awakens to the fiction of the personal self that imagines it is any different from the peels or the passerby, or God Himself; and the tale that suggested that being ground into dust was the way to our Lord.
This is Mina’s faith: that because “everything is an expression of Allah’s will,” one should expect nothing but pain, sorrow, and loss. And to eventually be ground into dust. It’s a philosophically complex, spiritually rich view. Mina expresses the wisdom of the Sufis when she says, “What comes our way, whatever it is, that is the vehicle.” The way to God, or to spiritual evolution. This kind of radical acceptance of the now is indeed an aspect of wisdom. But such wisdom is also easy to misunderstand and easy to abuse; there is a fine line between a radical acceptance of your life’s outcome and masochism. Such a view of purity and openness can lead you to enlightenment but also to a devastating lack of individuality. It is for this very reason that women’s support groups are often started, to help one discern between the two. In American Dervish, Ahktar has shown how religion can be used to rationalize spousal abuse, how a surah from the Quran can be used to justify sexism, racism, and violence. Meanwhile, throughout the story, we watch, with Hayat, from a distance and helplessly, as the ever-faithful Mina embraces to the bitter end her path and all the pain it brings.
Akhtar’s story succeeds in portraying the struggles, pre-9/11, of Muslims making a life in America. Moreover, in Mina, he has given us a character who embodies the contradictions and paradoxes of a thoroughly modern religious viewpoint. In the end, Mina and her story make you think: about acceptance of one’s fate. About pain and suffering. And about how others think, particularly the two million Muslims making their lives in America today. That’s what a good novel should do.
Paul Griffin writes fiction, book reviews and literary criticism. His work has appeared or will soon appear in Tin House, Virginia Quarterly Review, The Brooklyn Rail, The Common Review, and the NY Press, among other places. He lives in Brooklyn, NY with his wife and daughter.