Faith and freedom

Set in the 1980s, Ayad Akhtar’s coming-of-age debut novel ‘American Dervish’ is a bleak tale about the Muslim immigrant experience in the US

American Dervish, by Ayad Akhtar, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, RRP£12.99, 368 pages

American Dervish is a coming-of-age debut novel set in 1980s America. Its narrator, Hayat, is a young boy whose parents, immigrants from Pakistan, hate each other. Hayat’s father, a successful doctor, has lost his faith; his mother’s belief has been eroded by the misery of her marriage.

This dreary situation changes when Mina, a glamorous divorcee from Pakistan, arrives as a guest of his parents. Mina gives Hayat a copy of the Koran and every night they snuggle up innocently in bed together to read the holy book. But Hayat confuses the attraction he feels for her with a religious awakening.

Briefly, faith blossoms. Mina falls in love with his father’s Jewish colleague, and Hayat – whose community elders have taught him to despise non-believers – secretly betrays Mina, ending her relationship with the nice Jewish doctor and forcing her into a violent second marriage.

In American Dervish, Muslims hate Jews, Christians hate Jews, Jews suffer silently, and atheists despise them all. Muslim wives endure abuse, unfaithful irreligious husbands turn to drink, and white women are seen by Pakistani immigrants as whores. One longs for the wit and irreverence of other writers on the Muslim immigrant experience.

Stylistically, American Dervish is narrated by Hayat in short scenes that probably owe much to the author’s filmmaking background. Words are italicised for emphasis and everybody speaks in shrill ultimatums.

There is, however, serious intent behind this melodrama. A letter from the author to “Dear Reader” explains how: “Growing up … I was always aware that my classmates and friends … had no idea what to make of Islam … They’d never been exposed to it. I wanted to write a book that gave the American audience a felt sense of what it was like to grow up a Muslim in America.”

But there is something odd about a novel that declares it will open “a window on to the vibrant and complex reality of Islam in this country” – and then tries to make believers look like hypocrites or benighted fools.

The novel is bookended by two descriptions of Hayat as an adult: first the liberation from his background as he eats a pork sausage; then his belated self-discovery “as an American” in the arms of a Jewish girlfriend. American Dervish claims to give a sympathetic view of Muslim America but the author, like his narrator, betrays a palpable relief at having fled from that place.

Alice Albinia is author of ‘Leela’s Book’ (Harvill Secker)

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