In a sentence, American Dervish is about a young boy’s indoctrination into Islam – the religion he was born into, but from the practice of which his parents have lapsed (by choice) – and his eventual withdrawal from his fervent childhood devotion. By extension, the novel also exposes the oftentimes extreme divide between fundamentalist religion – its mindless rules and regulations – and true spirituality.
Dervish begins essentially backwards with protagonist Hayat Shah already a college student – feeling “at once brave and ridiculous” eating bratwurst, choosing not to leave a class from which the rest of his fellow Muslim students have fled in anger (and fear) from that day’s “‘in-cen-diary!” discussion, glibly announcing that he’s a Mutazalite (“[a] school of Muslims that don’t believe in the Quran as the eternal word of God … [who] died off a thousand years ago”), and initiating a relationship with a young Jewish woman. By the end of this prologue, Mina – Hayat’s mother’s closest friend from childhood who became his religious enabler – has died … and Hayat’s new love interest gently reaches out and says, “‘Tell me.’”
Mina “had, perhaps, the greatest influence on my life,” Hayat acknowledges. Escaping a stifling, disastrous marriage in her native Pakistan, the independent, lively, gorgeous Mina arrives with her toddler son in the American Midwest and moves into the Shah family home. Hayat is enthralled, and his less-than-happily-married parents newly joyous. Mina warmly, lovingly begins Hayat’s spiritual education which, in his sexually-maturing adolescent mind, eventually morphs into an obsessive attachment to Mina. When Mina becomes romantically involved with Hayat’s father’s medical partner and best friend, Hayat’s single act of youthful jealousy sets in motion an overwhelming tragedy with lifelong consequences …
Dervish will surely persuade you that Ayad Akhtar is one of those very rare writers whose debut titles hit shelves fully formed. Perhaps his earlier dramatic experiences (Brown diploma in theater, serious actor training as both student and teacher, several stage productions) and filmic accomplishments (Columbia grad degree, more screenplays, numerous award nominations) gave him the foundation to do what he does so undeniably well on the page. Clear your calendar for an uninterrupted few hours: Akhtar absolutely knows how to tell this story – achingly, convincingly, memorably.
Tidbit: With such a practiced background, no surprise that Akhtar is also a most excellent narrator: he’s his own reader in the audible version. That Akhtar thanks Firdous Bamji (whose voice alone will make me stick a book in my ears) in his acknowledgments adds another layer of well-deserved approval. Akhtar made my last 50K race pass quickly … too bad he doesn’t have another title to join me for a 50-miler in two weeks!