Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Fiction | A Youthful Journey of Religious and Self Discovery

Ayad Akhtar's American Dervish is the first book in a while that just left me floored. This one grabbed me and didn't let go, and it hasn't left my head for days. Formulating the words to articulately and (somewhat) succinctly share it with you was just about as difficult as it's been to wrap my head around all that its pages hold. So hold on tight, because here we go...

Hayat Shah is our young narrator, in college and crushing hard on a classmate from his Islamic History class. We quickly learn from this class that Hayat is not a religious Muslim, but he also knows the Quran well enough to skip the assigned readings. Here we discover that Hayat is not religious by choice; he was once, but he's given that all up. And the rest of the story tells us why.

When Hayat was a pre-teen in the late 1970s, his mother's best friend Mina comes from Pakistan to live with his family in their midwestern American home. Mina was escaping the tyranny of an ex-husband who, by Pakistan's laws, had full right to take custody of their son without Mina's consent. Hayat's own parents aren't particularly religious—his mother constantly decries the treatment of women by Muslim men, and his father considers the vast majority of Muslims in America major hypocrites. It's Mina who introduces Hayat to the words of the Quran and what it means to be Muslim—an enlightenment that becomes an obsession in Hayat's middle school years. As his religious identity develops alongside his own self image, Hayat is forced to reconcile what's right and wrong according to several very different sets of rules.

In a note from the author, included in the book's reading guide, Akhtar says his intention is to write about being a Muslim American, not just a Muslim in America—a perspective he finds necessary and important in today's world. To do so, he has created these incredibly flawed characters that represent the complexities of just what that means. Hayat has a father who drinks and has affairs; a mother who praises Jews and condemns Muslim men; neighbors who spout hate and violence towards non-Muslims; and an aunt that seems to be the biggest contradiction of all—who seems on the verge of happiness following a modern, American-ized lifestyle but is held back by religious conviction.

Through Hayat, Akhtar demonstrates how culture and religion can be both "alienating and comforting." As would happen in any religion, Hayat experiences the complexities that arise from individual interpretation. And as his own religious identity is developing, it's confusing and difficult to reconcile the flaws he sees in people with his growing sense of faith.

Having read through reviews and comments on Goodreads, I am surprised to see how divided this book's reader audience has proven to be. Some simply found it a readalike to The Kite Runner, to which, except for its Muslim subject matter, it shares few commonalities. Some found the characters too symbolic, too much of caricatures embodying certain ideals. And several found it to do little more than perpetuate stereotypes about Islam.

Here's where I disagree: American Dervish isn't just a generalized statement about modern Islam; Hayat is what adds dimension. His story is too personal, too individual to simply make this a story about religious issues, be they stereotypes or not. This story is about one person's own coming-of-age experience and his changing perspective. It's about how there can be a disconnect between opinion and behavior; how belief systems can be expressed in the slightest of ways; how, as you grow up, most things you see and learn are going to completely contradict each other, and it's up to you to process it and to develop your own belief systems.

Because of this, I didn't find Hayat's story to be a specifically Muslim one. I do think Akhtar was trying to send a very clear message about the complexities of Islam as it is perceived in today's world. However, Hayat's experiences, at their foundation, are universal. You could be Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, or Hindu, and the same sense of religious discovery—asking questions and finding your own answers—would be valid. And everyone has to navigate their way through the doubt and confusion of adolescence.

So whether American Dervish adds something new to the modern Muslim American voice is not for me to say. It did, though, inspire me to think and feel and question and seek...which is as much as I can ask for from a book and more than I often get.

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