“So you don’t know what it’s like to lose your faith,” the protagonist of “American Dervish” begins to his girlfriend, narrating the story of his childhood transformation. “It’s freeing. So freeing. It’s the most freeing thing that’s ever happened to me.” In “American Dervish,” Ayad Akhtar’s capable, imaginative prose brings to life the story of Hayat Shah, a young Pakistani-American boy growing up in the suburbs of Milwaukee. His spiritual crisis forms the crux of this coming-of-age tale.
Raised in a troubled home by a militantly atheist father and a quietly spiritual mother, Hayat’s upbringing is largely devoid of religion until Mina, his mother’s best friend, moves in with the family. With her young son in tow, she arrives in America hoping to escape an abusive relationship. Her beauty and piety captivate Hayat from the moment he sees her, and under her tutelage, Hayat explores Islam for the first time in his life. With the emotional health of his family continually on the brink of disaster, however, Hayat descends further into an extreme, all-consuming passion to memorize and take to heart every teaching of the Quran. Consumed with jealously for Mina’s new boyfriend, distraught over his father’s growing alcoholism, and unable to deal with his mother’s fragile emotions, Hayat obsessively pours himself into his studies with a fervor that quickly takes over his life.
Writing from the point of view of a child is always difficult, and portraying the story of one progressively more infused with religious zeal is undoubtedly challenging. Akhtar’s attention to the smallest details in Hayat’s world grounds the story in realism, even as the characters grow increasingly fanatical and broken. His descriptions of near-divine moments, like dreaming about Muhammad, fill the pages of “American Dervish” with spiritual experiences rarely seen in modern fiction. “Even my bones seemed to be breathing,” Hayat recalls about the day he discovered his faith. “My body felt whole, one, unified, filled with air, expanding with light.”
While these intensely provocative and realistic descriptions enliven the book beyond a typical story of adolescent angst, Akhtar’s characters lack the same depth. No one in Hayat’s life seems to grow or change—not his angry father, his shrewish and passive mother, not self-destructive Mina. And while Hayat’s struggle with his own faith is well chronicled, his actual emotions—typically the more believable aspect of an 11-year-old’s maturation—often remain veiled behind an increasingly all-consuming religious mindset. This may have been an authorial decision made in order to highlight how deeply entrenched Hayat’s new moralistic views are, yet with other similarly underdeveloped characters, it becomes a weakness in Akhtar’s writing.
Where the novel fails with character development, however, it triumphs in religious exploration. Though at first glance Hayat’s fanaticism and exposure to Islamic fundamentalism reads as a one-sided condemnation of extremist Muslim faith, Akhtar artfully and intelligently juxtaposes other radical views with Hayat’s experience. Through this multi-dimensional picture, he explores the devastating consequences of holding any one tenet too dear. Hayat’s scientist father, for example, is as ardently atheist as his son is religious. Raised in an abusive household, Hayat’s father has eschewed religion to the point of openly mocking all believers and, eventually, he forbids his son from studying the Quran. Though the novel includes several disturbing anti-Semitic interactions, Akhtar also writes an equally frightening scene where Hayat’s father rips his son’s Quran to shreds and burns it in their backyard. “He growled as he tossed the cover down and set about ripping the pages free,” Hayat remembers. “He had a wild look in his eye as he stepped madly on the pieces of our holy book.” Hayat’s father, Akhtar shows, is just as violently and unhealthily entrenched in his views as those he decries.
Ultimately, the novel’s triumph comes not from its oft-overblown plot, but from its deep attention to, and preoccupation with, the power of religion. Originally taking up the study of the Quran to better understand the world around him, Hayat’s eventual quest to save both his soul and those of his parents is deeply and disturbingly portrayed. “Life was like watching a show you loved. You didn’t want it to end. But it would end, sooner or later; that’s just the way it was,” Hayat muses. “The sooner you started getting yourself ready for what was coming after, the better.” This definitive take on mortality and the afterlife—especially coming from the mind of such a young narrator—is disquieting and often overwhelming. As the novel opens with an adult Hayat preparing to explain the loss of his faith, the entire story seems a prelude to the final point revealing how someone who believed so intensely in his religion could so wholly abandon it. It is this question that drives forward the meandering action of “American Dervish,” and what emerges is an honest, heartrending piece of literature.
—Staff writer Leanna B. Ehrlich can be reached at email@example.com.