“I’m going to tell you about a dervish. That’s someone who gives up everything for Allah.” (101)
First order of business. I gotta get this off my chest: the title American Dervish is aces. I can’t wait for the soundtrack, which I imagine to have sitar-heavy riffs abounding over some seriously funky drumming. PuffyDiddyDaddy will steal the title for his Madonna-esque conversion album, which will sample tracks from the original, I’m sure. This is all happening in my head as I think about how fucking awesome this book is, and as I reflect on how perfect the cover art is for the first hardcover edition. Maybe I’ll take up collecting the book in every language available…I digress….
When I was six, I found a Bible on my parents’ bookshelf. I was always doing this: looking for new books in the huge collection in the living room. I had already pilfered a history of Ireland and numerous textbooks. This particular Bible was physically impressive, with leathery cover, tissue-thin pages, and chapter tabs inscribed with interesting names—I was drawn to it for the sheer physicality of it.
I was raised without religion: the Bible was just another book to me at this point in my life. I remember reading Genesis over and over and over again and wondering why it matter that so-and-so begat so-and-so. I also remember thinking that it was strange people lived a couple hundred years of life and that the Psalms were gorgeous and made me long for something I could not yet name.
One day, my Mom found this Bible in my room and took it away from me. She didn’t want her daughter “joining a cult, speaking in tongues, or snake-handling,” and phrase I’ve long since come to appreciate for its gravity and humor. Yes: I did rebel by going to a Power Team performance and impressing my friends by pretending to speak in tongues. It freaked me out. What’s the deal with ripping up phone books for Jesus? I thought churches were supposed to be old and have stained-glass windows (not a 50-amp PA system and stage lights!) This was when I decided that I, too, did not want to handle snakes or join a cult.
By the time my Mom took the Bible from my hands, though, I was enamored of the idea of God and curious as to why this book was so important to so many people. I wanted to know more. I had also begun serious consideration about life in a convent, which at that point in time I understood as a life committed to goodness—one in which I was allowed to read most of the day away. Of course, that was an incorrect notion, but I didn’t know it at the time. I was a kid: I also wanted to be a pet detective (and this was yeeeears before Ace Ventura, okay?!).
As I read Ayad Akhtar’s American Dervish, I felt like Hayat and I had similar formative experiences. Although I didn’t have a Mina-Auntie to induct me into mystic religious practice, and although I did not grow up in a first-generation Pakistani-American household, I had similar experiences of childhood guilt and ecstasy associated with covert religious practice. Akhtar’s description of worship calls to mind the irregular visits I carved into my own childhood. The most vivid are the Christian Scientist services my Grandmother took me to in Ohio where old women doted on me, the hushed, sylvan outdoor chapel at summer camp, and—my favorite memory—the Black Gospel church where music stirred my soul and I felt God in every cell of my body.
American Dervish gets everything right: the complexity of interpersonal relationships, and human relationships with faith and culture, the fundamental need for forgiveness, and the painful experiences of growing up. The book acts as a clarion call for those who would be swayed by extreme ideas and group-think, reminding audiences that all it takes is one relationship with another human being to change a person’s mind about something forbidden. Akhtar’s novel is full of examples of the grey-area that is life on this planet, and full of reminders that life is more complex than binary relationships allow. We live in such grey areas—Akhtar demonstrates that it is also possible to thrive in them.
Akhtar’s characters are round and dynamic. His writing is utterly real, and reads like he’s speaking the narrative in your ear with every turn of the page. He captures the feeling of absolute ecstasy for faith, and the utter despair that accompanies a crisis of Navefaith. Instead of feeling like I’m looking in on a family, I feel that I’m alongside Hayat during these formative years, sitting with his family during their highest, lowest, and all points in between. After discussing the novel with my Introduction to English Studies class, I must applaud Akhtar’s incredible talent: it is a testament to his skill as a writer that most of my students (myself included!) claim the philandering, alcoholic father (Naveed) as our favorite character.
I overheard a person from the Islamic community in Milwaukee saying that the community was pissed at the way Akhtar portrayed Muslims in American Dervish. I understand that this is a delicate subject, one about which my opinion matters little to people in the local Islamic community. But—for what it’s worth—I would like to say that at no point did I feel like Muslims are portrayed negatively in this novel. Instead, I felt very much like this kind of experience would ring true for anyone who has ever belonged to a religious group and has struggled with their faith, especially between the desire to be spiritual and the rigors of religious practices. I know fundamentalist Christians who are as exclusive as the more extreme Muslim characters in American Dervish, and I know people like the Shahs who struggle with the contradictions inherent in religious communities. The fact that Akhtar demonstrates with striking verisimilitude in American Dervish is that groups of people are not monolithic. I appreciate this honesty very much. There is no one single face of Islam, and no one single expression of any faith. And the take-away for all readers, regardless of faith, is that forgiveness is fundamental. We are all children struggling our way into the adult world, and we are all reaching out, asking to be forgiven. What’s more universal and more gorgeous than that?
To circle back to the quote at the onset of this post, I believe that Akhtar is an American Dervish. I think he gave up this story for Allah—that he risked his reputation to tell a story this honest and difficult. I believe this novel is absolutely important in this country at this moment, especially in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Here is a person sharing a semi-autobiographical, first-hand account of life in a Muslim household, and he’s sharing it beyond the walls of his immediate community. There is much misunderstanding in this country about Islam, especially in the Midwest, and particularly among white readers.
What the novel teaches to such a readership is vital in this moment, in this country. Not all Muslims are extremists. Not all brown people are terrorists. Not all Muslims are preoccupied with Christianity. Some Muslims love the Quran and some want to burn the Quran for the group-think they believe it represents. There is no one way to be a Muslim: there are as many ways as there are people on the planet. These are important lessons that readers of American Dervish will learn, if they didn’t know them before coming to the book. This is so important, especially since many of the readers who bought the book from my bookstore are middle-aged, middle-class white people who have probably never talked to a Muslim, Persian, or Pakistani. What the book reinforces is that all families struggle, and that many of these struggles transcend religious and cultural boundaries. No—not all families in the United States are struggling with arranged marriages, but in each family there is conflict, and such conflict is as cyclical as the peace over the years. No family is perfect. No person is perfect.
Ayad Akhtar’s American Dervish is vital at this contemporary moment for all audiences. I thank him for taking the risk to write it and publish it, and I am sad that I missed the opportunity to be one of the many charmed by his visit to Boswell Book Company earlier this year. I look forward to his next work, be it film, book, or play. In the meantime, I’ll be barking his novel from the streets of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.