Ayad Akhtar‘s first novel ‘American Dervish’ is so masterfully written and carries such a powerful message about fault lines between religion and contemporary issues, that it is truly hard to believe it is his writing debut. I have heard about Ayad before as an American-born, first-generation Pakistani-American actor, playwright and film-maker. I did not know that he is also a novelist of some standing until I discovered ‘American Dervish.’
I was attracted to the book because I recognized the author’s name, but also because word ‘dervish‘ immediately evoked memory of another book I read long time ago as a part of school curriculum. The novel ‘Death and the Dervish’ by Mehmed (Mesa) Selimovic (1910-1982), one of the most prominent authors of (then) Yugoslavia. The novel was widely received as a masterpiece and translated into many languages. The plot of the novel takes place in 18th century Sarajevo under Ottoman rule and speaks of the futility of one man’s resistance against a repressive system. Sometimes ‘Death and the Dervish’ has been compared with Kafka‘s ‘The Trial’.
So, in part thanks to Selimovic’s novel, I read ‘American Dervish’, a deeply affecting work. The main protagonist is Hayat Shah, a boy of Pakistani heritage, who grows up in Midwest America and lives an ordinary life; going to school, playing baseball, or trying to, and worrying about his parent’s disagreements over things he is too young to understand.
Then Mina appears, and Hayat’s life changes for ever.
Mina is his mother’s childhood friend who arrives with her young son to live with Hayat’s family after fleeing life of abuse and repression, including a disastrous marriage, in Pakistan. Mina is also strikingly beautiful, fiercely intelligent and deeply spiritual. Her liberal interpretations of the Koran inspire the young boy’s spiritual awakenings. Only to clash with stirrings of his own sexuality first and hypocrisy of community later on. When Hayat becomes aware of Mina’s love for an honest, but rather naive Jewish doctor, who works with his father, he made a decision with terrible and wide reaching consequences.
The novel’s true value lies with the author’s ability to address sensitive issues of clashes between secular and sacred, between traditions of the old world and demands of a new one … familiar to immigrants and their families world over.
In a word; enjoyable, inspirational and insightful work.