By Beth Kephart
Special to Tribune Newspapers
1:51 PM CST, January 20, 2012
Readers of "American Dervish," the debut novel by Ayad Akhtar, might best approach the book understanding three things.
To begin with, Akhtar is a first-generation Pakistani-American who has long aspired, according to an author's note, to write a book "that gave the American audience a felt sense of what it was like to grow up Muslim in America."
Second, the primary meaning of dervish is not "one who whirls or dances with abandonment," as I had mistakenly assumed over the years. The primary meaning, according to Merriam-Webster, is "a member of a Muslim religious order noted for devotional exercises." Hayat Shah, Akhtar's teen narrator who spends much of the book attempting to memorize the Quran, may just be on the verge of becoming such a dervish. He's on the verge, at the very least, of discovering how many raucous conflicts brew within devotion, and how nested faith and extremism can sometimes be.
Finally, readers who venture into this story about a Pakistani-American boy whose life is forever changed by the arrival of his mother's gorgeous, wounded and devout best friend, Mina, should know that its author was trained in theater and directing at Brown University and Columbia University, is a playwright and once even starred in a film — "The War Within" — as a Pakistani on a suicide mission. Cinema is in Akhtar's past, in other words. High drama. Big themes.
With rights already sold in 21 countries and a huge promotional campaign in place, "American Dervish" is set to become"The Help"of 2012. Like Kathryn Stockett, the Milwaukee, Wis.-born Akhtar jimmies open a door to secrets long kept — about the ecstasy and the sometimes cataclysm of fervor, about the abuses that come at the hands of misconstrued doctrines, about the acidic aftermath of prejudice of any kind. Love may not overcome all. Those masquerading as wise men are not always what they seem. And there is no justice when self-interest bullies in.
The book opens like a scene from "The Arabian Nights." Hayat Shah is our Scheherazade. It's 1990, Hayat is in college, and he's caught the eye (at last) of a beautiful Jewish girl. She has sung him a song. He wants to tell her a story about his youthful obsessions and their tragic consequences. The curtains part. The story begins. We have entered into "Paradise Lost," which is to say Hayat's early teen years.
Tensions brew in Hayat's Midwestern Muslim family. His father — a successful man with an eye for American women and a taste for drink — has long since abandoned his fundamentalist faith. Hayat's mother is lonely, embittered, partial to telling this only child things better off left unsaid. The unhappiness storms like weather through the household until Mina, that treasured best friend, arrives from Pakistan with her young son. She has left a terrible marriage behind her. The Quran feeds her soul.
It's not long before Hayat begins his own capacious study of the Quran. It's not long, either, before his (increasingly unseemly) affection for Mina becomes tangled up, disastrously, with her own growing affection for a Jewish man. But can a Jewish man and a divorced, devout Muslim woman live peaceably? Can answers be found in the Quran? And what kind of power can an envious teen boy exert over the fate of a mother's best friend — indeed, of an entire household?
The wheels have been set into motion. The characters have been broadly defined — endowed with the traits that allow Akhtar to move his themes forward: Mina, the storyteller who sees beauty, benevolence and mercy in the life of Allah; Hayat's father, who will have none of it; Hayat's mother, who makes room, in her Muslim faith, for small deviations from the righteous path; Nathan, soon engaged to Mina, who is willing to sacrifice his Jewish traditions for the woman he loves. The secondary characters, many of them false, tend toward spectacular gestures of evil.
Subtlety is neither Akhtar's aim nor method here. Familiar turns of phrase — "My heart surged with sudden joy"; "You learn something new every day, now, don't you?" — punctuate the prose. Passages tend to feel rushed and a tad heavy-handed — as when, for example, Nathan, who begins this dialogue chain, brings a gift to Hayat.
"Is it hot in here, or is it just me?"
"I guess it's hot," I said.
"Yeah, it is. Isn't it?" He looked about the room, distracted. All at once, he turned to me, exclaiming: "Oh! I just remembered … I got you something!"
Still, Akhtar has done precisely what he set out to do: give readers a "felt sense" for the confusion, roiling pain and occasional deep beauty of an American-Muslim childhood.
The American Theater Company in Chicago is staging the world premiere of Ayad Akhtar's play "Disgraced" Friday through Feb. 26; see Chris Jones' review, coming in A+E. The theater is at 1909 W. Byron St., 773-409-4125, atcweb.org
By Ayad Akhtar
Little, Brown, 368 pages, $24.99
Printers Row Live!
Author, actor and playwright Ayad Akhtar will discuss "American Dervish" with Tribune theater critic Chris Jones March 13 at the Victory Gardens Biograph Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago. $15, TribNation.com/events.
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