Wednesday, November 9, 2011: Maximum Shelf: American Dervish

Hachette: American Dervish by Ayad Akhtar

Hachette: American Dervish by Ayad Akhtar

Hachette: American Dervish by Ayad Akhtar

Hachette: American Dervish by Ayad Akhtar

Editors' Note

Maximum Shelf: American Dervish

In this edition of Maximum Shelf--the monthly Shelf Awareness feature that focuses on a new title that we love--we present Ayad Akhbar's American Dervish, which is a January 9, 2012, publication. The review and interviews are by Marilyn Dahl and John McFarland. Little, Brown has helped support the issue.


Hachette: American Dervish by Ayad Akhtar

Books & Authors

Review: American Dervish

American Dervish by Ayad Akhtar (Little, Brown, $24.99 hardcover, 9780316183314, January 9, 2012)

American Dervish opens with an epigram from the Hadith Qudsi (sacred sayings of Muhammad): "And Allah said: I am with the ones whose hearts are torn." A fitting quote for this moving, insightful story about religion and family, immigration and assimilation, wherein hearts are numbed, warmed and broken. Faith and love are found, lost and re-formed as the narrator, Hayat Shah, travels a jagged road through the early years of adolescence with all its confusions and dramatic certainties.

In the prologue, Hayat remembers a watershed moment: at a college basketball game with two friends, he orders two bratwurst and a beef dog from a vendor. What they get are three brats. At that instant, Hayat decides he has no reason not to eat one.

"I lifted the sausage to my mouth, closed my eyes, and took a bite. My heart raced as I chewed, my mouth filling with a sweet and smoky, lightly pungent taste that seemed utterly remarkable--perhaps all the more so for having been so long forbidden. I felt at once brave and ridiculous. And as I swallowed, an eerie stillness came over me.

"I looked up at the ceiling.

"It was still there. Not an inch closer to falling in.

"After the game, I walked along the campus quad alone, the walkway's lamps glowing in the mist, white blossoms on a balmy November night. The wet air swirled and blew. I felt alive as I moved. Free along my limbs. Even giddy.

"Back at the dorm, I stood before the bathroom mirror. My shoulders looked different. Not huddled, but open. Unburdened. My eyes drew my gaze, and there I saw what I was feeling: something quiet, strong, still.

"I felt like I was complete."

The evening after the game, Hayat's mother calls to tell him that Mina had died--his mother's best friend and the person who'd had the greatest influence on his life. He is deeply grieved, and feels a haunting guilt as well.

Hayat's path to grief, guilt and ultimate grace starts in his boyhood home in a Milwaukee suburb. How a bratwurst sums up the journey Hayat has taken from that Pakistani, nominally Muslim home, the sifting through life lessons to find what really matters, the lesson learned about true faith as opposed to formulaic faith--all are limned beautifully and powerfully by Ayad Akhtar as he tells Hayat's, and Mina's, story.

Long before Hayat knew Mina he knew about her: gifted and gorgeous, her life was thwarted back in Pakistan, "her robust will checked by a culture that made no place for a woman." She was married to a weak-willed, wealthy man whose mother made her life a living hell. The day her son, Imran, was born, her husband divorced her, with the proviso that he take custody of the boy when he turned seven.

Hayat's parents are Naveed Shah, a neurologist, and Muneer, who gave up her psychology studies to come to America with him. Their marriage is difficult--Naveed's scorn for most of the Pakistani Muslim community has exacerbated Muneer's isolation, as has his personal life: they are awakened one night by flickering orange lights and fire trucks—Naveed's Mercedes had been set afire by "one of [his] white bitches." But after this latest episode of humiliation, Muneer has the upper hand and decides on the consequence: Mina and her son will come to live with them. When she arrives in Wisconsin, Muneer is ecstatic, and Hayat is entranced.

Hayat is drawn not only to her beauty, but to her religion. Mina tells him stories about Muhammad's life, which he has never heard. On the eve of his 11th birthday, Mina gives Hayat his own Quran. For Mina, faith isn't about the outer forms--headscarves, fasting--but about intent. She's an advocate of personal interpretation, and is intent on getting Hayat to think; Hayat is intent on gazing at Mina. And so, entranced with both Mina and the Quran, awestruck by the thought of infinity, marveling at God's majesty, he decides to become a hafiz, one who has memorized the Quran. But his father is not so sanguine about his son's growing religious intensity.

Life in the Shah house settles into a peaceful, even happy state, although coming from the world they did, happiness was not an expectation, unhappiness was. The message has always been: "Do not expect anything other than loss, pain, sorrow." So when Naveed invites his friend Nathan Wolfson, who is Jewish, to the Shahs' for a barbeque, and Nathan and Mina are smitten with each other, there are problems. Imran is jealous, and Mina worries about what her family back home will say, although Muneer points out that Nathan's being Jewish is a good thing because they understand how to treat a woman; Muslim men are terrified of women, all of them. And Hayat is jealous of Nathan--of anything, really, that would occupy Mina's time; his emotion is mixed with a hateful stew of anti-Semitism and anti-Americanism that he now hears from Muslim men around him. Add a fiery tirade against Jews at his first visit to the mosque, and Hayat does something wrong and irretrievable.

The conflict between and within religions, and the more unfamiliar places of agreement--Abraham and Ibrahim, dust to dust, God's compassion and mercy, hellfire and God's vengeance—are timeless and universal. Ayad Akhbar's explorations into the tension between the universal truths of religion and literal readings of its documents plays out effectively in American Dervish, his debut novel. Already a master of scene and dialogue, and evocative prose, he's created a compelling and visceral story. When Mina teaches Hayat to listen to the still small voice within that can only be heard by finding the silence at the end of a breath, Hayat tries, and discovers what will continue to inspire him to find the still, small voice hidden between and beneath each breath, and, with it, wisdom and insight. --Marilyn Dahl


Hachette: American Dervish by Ayad Akhtar

Ayad Akhtar: Writing the Muslim-American Experience

Your narrator, Hayat Shah, is a young man looking back on a period during his childhood when he learned about his Muslim spiritual heritage. What inspired you to combine study of the Quran with Hayat's family story of immigration, assimilation and their challenges in aligning Pakistani and American culture?

American literature is filled with biblical allusions, from Melville to Faulkner and Hemingway to Toni Morrison. Whatever else the Bible may or may not be, it is certainly the formational text of the Western literary tradition. Similarly, telling the story of a Muslim in America in literary form necessitated a familiarity with the Quran as the basis for the Muslim experience. As a Muslim-American writer, my task was two-fold: both to introduce these Quranic narratives and tropes to the American reader, and also to play off of these stories and locutions in evocative ways.

Further, the novel is an attempt to liberate the more heartfelt metaphorical version of religious experience from the literalist dogma of the orthodoxy. As such, the Quran has two faces: one that transcends its cultural specificity and evokes deeper, universal truths, and another that is bound by its origins, and which serves as a restrictive, atavistic force. I wanted to dramatize the tension between these two points of view. This is the real conflict of the novel.

When Mina comes to live with the Shahs in Milwaukee, she at first calms the household and later forces the Shahs to confront conflicts they have been sweeping under the rug. If Mina had not arrived when she did, could the marriage of the Shahs have survived Muneer's isolation and Naveed's flagrant infidelities?

It's a great question. In the novel, the marriage survives Mina's eventual departure, so I'm banking that it would have survived even if she had not been around. But Tennyson's oft-quoted lines on losing his dear friend Arthur Hallam are equally appropriate for all the Shahs and their relationship to Mina: I hold it true, whate'er befall;/ I feel it, when I sorrow most;/ 'Tis better to have loved and lost/ Than never to have loved at all.

Hayat sees the consequences of his actions to derail Mina's romance with one of his father's friends; the realization that he has caused irrevocable damage haunts him from the time he is 12. Will he ever be able to accept forgiveness?

It is a central theme of so much literature: that human consciousness is born from guilt. Often, we only understand the nature of accountability and our capacity for agency when we come to feel the consequences of our transgressions. Whether or not Hayat will ever be able accept the forgiveness of others--or to forgive himself--the knowledge of what he did is central to his moral development.

Like so many first-generation Americans whose immigrant parents focus on assimilation, Hayat comes to learning of his Pakistani and Muslim heritage late. Out of the myriad of possible lessons Hayat has to learn, how did you choose the ones we see Hayat absorbing from his elders?

The book attempts to dramatize the conflict between a number of opposing views on faith: the rationalist posture; the communal, orthodox position; and the personal, mystical interpretation. All three vie actively in Hayat's developing consciousness. And the narrative emanates from the friction that this conflict engenders.

Prejudice against Jews among some in the Muslim community is a powerful theme in your novel. You introduce the issue in passing and then it grows to be a focus for so much that follows. How can we confront this issue in our daily lives and come to the wisdom that Mina seems to have about it?

For me, one of the good things about being an artist is that I can remain an observer of human behavior--and not have any solutions per se--and yet still be part of the process that could lead to a solution someday. That said, it was important for me to explore Islam's relationship to Judaism, not only because of my own experiences as a young Muslim, but also because the writers who have most influenced me are all Jewish--Bellow, Roth, Woody Allen, these are the folks who helped me to frame a way of seeing. They all came from a community that was defined primarily by its adherence or association with a particular faith, and not by nationality. This characteristic is what Muslims and Jews in America share in common, and my desire to give voice and shape to Muslim-American experience has been deeply influenced by the work of these Jewish-American artists giving voice and shape to the Jewish-American experience.

You are an actor, playwright, screenwriter and teacher. How did you come to write a novel, and how did your previous work contribute to it?

Oddly enough, I've always aspired to writing fiction. It was the first love. I wrote short stories in college and in my early 20s, then a novel. I never showed my fiction much, and when I did show that first novel around to my friends, everyone advised me to keep it to myself! They weren't wrong. I had a lot to learn about storytelling, and writing for the movies taught me so much about engaging audiences and keeping their attention. When I finally picked up writing fiction again and started writing American Dervish, I was a different artist, more attuned to the reader's experience, more confident in my ability to tell a story.

I think the novel shows the influence of my work as a screenwriter. I always wanted the book to have that feeling of a continuous flow that a good movie does. So much of American Dervish is told in scenes, through dialogue, through gesture. And this, too, is the result of my screenwriting background.

In telling this tale of the Shahs, who wrestle with questions of tradition, faith, love and loyalty, might someone see you as a secular version of a hafiz, a storyteller who brings to life members of a Muslim community alighted in an unexpected location?

The possibility that someone could even think such a thought would be the highest compliment I could ever receive! I strive with all my work to give rich and vibrant access to the Muslim-American experience, and by extension, to the question of what it means to be an American today. --John McFarland


Enjoy This Excerpt from American Dervish

The months that followed were witness to a series of spiritual experiences that would remain singular in my life, all revolving around the Quran and my evening study hour with Mina. I would leave her room feeling lively, easily moved, my heart softened and sweet, my senses heightened. Often, I was too awake to sleep, and so I took to my desk—white muslin still bound to my head—to continue memorizing verses. After long nights like these, the mornings were not difficult, as Mother warned when she would find me at my desk past ten o'clock. If anything, these mornings were even sweeter: the trees stippled with turning leaves and bathed in a glorious light that seemed like much more than just the sun's illumination; the white clouds sculpted against blue skies, stacked like majestic monuments to the Almighty's unfathomable glory. And it wasn't only beauty that moved me in these heightened states. Even the grease-encrusted axle of the yellow school bus slowing to its morning stop at the end of my driveway could captivate me, its twisting joint—and the large, squeaking wheel that turned around it—seeming to point the inscrutable way to some rich, strange, and holy power.

At school—I was starting sixth grade—I would find myself, inexplicably, in states of eerie calm and awakeness. For hours, something as simple as the play of sunlight against the classroom's green chalkboard could occupy me completely. Not to mention the food in the cafeteria. I recall sipping from my carton of milk one lunch hour, shocked. The full, creamy, comforting flavor seemed like a miracle. And while part of me wondered how it was I had never truly tasted milk before, another part of me had already concluded that these experiences had their source in my new contact with our holy Quran.


Book Brahmin: Ayad Akhtar

Ayad Akhtar is an actor, playwright, filmmaker and teacher, now living in New York. Raised in Wisconsin by Pakistani parents, he did his undergraduate work at Brown University. After graduating from Brown, he worked with the renowned theater innovator Jerzy Grotowski in Italy for a year. Returning to the United States, he taught acting classes with Andre Gregory (My Dinner with Andre). In 2005, he made the film The War Within, about the radicalization of an ordinary man into a terrorist. American Dervish is his first novel.

On your nightstand now:

Boomerang, Michael Lewis. Sermons, Meister Eckhardt.

Favorite book when you were a child:

My Name Is Asher Lev, Chaim Potok. I couldn't shake the feeling as I read it at 12 that it was the story of my life. And yet it was about a young Hasid painting prodigy. I was Muslim, and I couldn't even draw!

Your top five authors:

Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Ernest Hemingway, Eric Rohmer, Woody Allen. I've included filmmakers on the list because the avidity and attachment that I felt on first seeing Annie Hall and Claire's Knee was exactly the same thing I felt on first discovering Herzog and The Human Stain and The Sun Also Rises.

Book you've faked reading:

Eat, Pray, Love. In hopes of earning points with the fairer sex....

Book you're an evangelist for:

De Kooning: An American Master by Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan. A magisterial and gripping account of life in New York during the heyday of the WPA and Abstract Expressionism, as well as an inspiring tale of an artist's struggle to find his place and voice.

Book you've bought for the cover:

Something to Tell You, Hanif Kureishi. I would have bought it anyway eventually, but that yellow-and-white cover induced a pressing need to own it now.

Book that changed your life:

The Death of Ivan Ilyich, Tolstoy. Made me see what literature could do: Express the inexpressible, and answer the biggest questions not with a sentence, but with an experience.

Favorite line from a book:

We say God and the imagination are one...
How high that highest candle lights the dark.

Out of this same light, out of the central mind,
We make a dwelling in the evening air,
In which being there together is enough.
--Wallace Stevens

Book you most want to read again for the first time:

Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain. I want to have the reading endurance I once did! And which was handsomely rewarded by an all-encompassing, week-long immersion in a world that changed my way of seeing.

author photos by Nina Subin


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