February 05, 2012

Ayad Akhtar's American Dervish - a Sufi Tale Promoting Ijtihad?

Having watched and posted on Ayad Akhtar's movie "The War Within" a few years ago, here was no doubt that I would read Akhtar's debut novel "American Dervish" some time soon.  Besides, American Dervish had received several favorable mentions in the news media,  so when I found the novel sitting on the coffee table at my sister's place, I asked her if I could borrow it. My sister who had "finished reading it in a few sittings" had a lot to say about the novel; that was a significantly strong reaction coming from her. However, I managed to dissuade her from discussing the novel, but not before I heard her say that "the book was an 'Islam/Muslim Culture 101'" for her, and so it was for me too! American Dervish explores the religious identities of several characters, from different age groups and belonging to different strata of American society, before Hayat, the novel's narrator who too has been through the tumultuous process of exploring his identity, emerges the 'dervish'.   

Akhtar's American Dervish is a coming of age story of Hayat Shah, a ten year old boy  born into a rich Pakistani immigrant family living in Milwaukee during the 1980s.  Hayat's story would have been a lot different had Mina not happened to the family.  Mina, a friend of Hayat's mother, comes to the US in order to escape her ex husband who is threatening to get custody of her five year old son Imran.  Mina is a well educated, articulate and forward thinking Pakistani woman who also happens to be good looking and thus becomes  ten year old Hayat's boyhood crush.  Her entry into Hayat's family sets several sub plots in motion, all of which help unfold a catchy story; one depicting the struggle of several characters trying to live out their Muslim identities. Being  the storyteller, Hayat comes out of the struggle significantly wiser on what it meant to be a Muslim living in Milwaukee in the 1980s.

American Dervish is definitely not a Reluctant Fundamentalist; primarily because Ayad Akhtar's aim was to tell a story in a way that would optimize readership. Mohsin Hamid, the author of The Reluctant Fundamentalist, though telling a story,  has a clear prerequisite for his readers; they need erudition of the kind that will ease them into the planned and perfected writing of Hamid's and appreciate the captivating story Hamid has to tell.

Regardless, if it's a gripping story you want to read, Ayad Akhtar's American Dervish is a perfect fit.

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