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Muslim story commendable despite flat characters

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 27/1/2012 (2149 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

With the success of CBC's Little Mosque on the Prairie and the onset of TLC's All American Muslim, it seems that the "everyday" life of the North American Muslim has captured the public's attention.

Pakistani-American Ayad Akhtar's debut novel, American Dervish, feeds into this fascination and is seemingly informed by the author's own life -- the story of an American-born, first generation Pakistani-Muslim boy growing up in the U.S. Midwest. Yet, while Akhtar is successful in creating an authentic world for his characters, one cannot help feeling that this is a topic that has already been done.

The story is told through the eyes of 10-year-old Hayat Shah. Hayat lives an uncomplicated life despite his parent's gloomy marriage: his father indulges in extra-marital affairs and is prone to alcohol, while his mother is increasingly bitter and prone to quoting Freud.

Hayat's life shifts suddenly when his mother's best friend -- the beautiful and intelligent Mina and her son -- come to live with Hayat's family, after escaping an unhappy marriage in Pakistan. Unlike Hayat's parents, however, Mina is a practising Muslim and encourages the young and infatuated Hayat to reconnect with his faith through reading the Qur'an.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 27/1/2012 (2149 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

With the success of CBC's Little Mosque on the Prairie and the onset of TLC's All American Muslim, it seems that the "everyday" life of the North American Muslim has captured the public's attention.

Pakistani-American Ayad Akhtar's debut novel, American Dervish, feeds into this fascination and is seemingly informed by the author's own life — the story of an American-born, first generation Pakistani-Muslim boy growing up in the U.S. Midwest. Yet, while Akhtar is successful in creating an authentic world for his characters, one cannot help feeling that this is a topic that has already been done.

The story is told through the eyes of 10-year-old Hayat Shah. Hayat lives an uncomplicated life despite his parent's gloomy marriage: his father indulges in extra-marital affairs and is prone to alcohol, while his mother is increasingly bitter and prone to quoting Freud.

Hayat's life shifts suddenly when his mother's best friend — the beautiful and intelligent Mina and her son — come to live with Hayat's family, after escaping an unhappy marriage in Pakistan. Unlike Hayat's parents, however, Mina is a practising Muslim and encourages the young and infatuated Hayat to reconnect with his faith through reading the Qur'an.

But Hayat's world shifts seismically once again when he finds out that his beloved Mina Aunty has fallen in love with his father's co-worker, Nathan, who is Jewish. This creates an internal conflict and emotional turbulence for Hayat as to how Mina can seemingly compromise her faith values with her actions.

To teach Mina "a lesson," Hayat does a very bad thing, with which God undoubtedly would not be best pleased.

As a recurring theme in his novel, Akhtar skilfully employs the analogy of the "dervish" — what Mina defines as "someone who gives up everything for Allah" — as a symbol for how various characters use religion as a way to give meaning to their pain.

Ayad Akhtar: commendable debut.

NINA SUBIN

Ayad Akhtar: commendable debut.

Valid comparisons may be made between this novel and Mohsin Hamid's The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Yet American Dervish is also reminiscent of Ian McEwan's Atonement; a young child does a foolish act out of emotional impulse thus wreaking havoc upon the adults around him.

Though this novel is touted as one about "the issues around identity and belonging," the central theme throughout is really Hayat's spiritual and emotional journey as he attempts to reconcile his faith with his reality.

However, with so much already written about Muslims in the West — fiction and non-fiction — the challenge for any writer on this subject matter then becomes what unique insight they are able to bring to the table.

Readers may leave the novel feeling as they have not learned anything particularly new about the "Muslim experience" in North America. In fact, Akhtar seems prone to feeding into some of the most common stereotypes: Muslim husbands are wife beaters, Muslim wives are submissive and that the majority of Muslims are inclined towards anti-Semitism.

To be fair, Akhtar does try to make clear that what Muslims do is not necessarily what Islam teaches — to the extent that certain passages feel like a thinly veiled high-school world religions class. Akhtar uses Mina's character as a tool to offer his non-Muslim readership a little 101 on Islam, the Qur'an and Prophet Muhammad. But in this current climate of ignorance and fear, is that such a bad thing?

Akhtar's strength as a writer comes in his ability to create compelling scenes with engaging language and dialogue — not surprising given that he is a playwright. And so despite the sometimes two-dimensional characters, it is hard to put the book down until the end.

American Dervish is a commendable debut into the world of literary fiction. The question is, what will Akhtar write about when "Muslims in America" are no longer in vogue?

 

U.K.-born Nadia Kidwai lives in Winnipeg and is strongly considering becoming a British Dervish.

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