Jealous Boy

by Rebecca Shapiro
American Dervish
By Ayad Akhtar
Little, Brown, 368 pages, $24.99
  • Comments (0)
  • Email
  • ShareThis
  • Print
  • Text Size A A A

In Ian McEwan’s novel Atonement, a thirteen-year-old girl in prewar England makes a terrible mistake. Led astray by a head full of melodramatic stories, Briony Tallis callously breaks up a romantic relationship, creating a rift that opens into a chasm, leaving two lives ruined and her own eclipsed by guilt.

American DervishHad Atonement been set in suburban Milwaukee, circa 1981, and had Briony been a Pakistani-American boy, she’d have been a dead ringer for Hayat Shah, the narrator of American Dervish, the much-anticipated debut novel from Ayad Akhtar ’03SOA. Like Briony, Hayat is responsible for the demise of an important relationship and the tragic chain of events that follows it. But while Briony is inspired by fiction, the voice in Hayat’s head — his moral compass — is Muslim fundamentalism.

Hayat doesn’t start out as a zealot. The only child of educated, secular parents, he sees Islam as a minor inconvenience, something that excludes him from the church ice-cream social and the school cafeteria line on hot-dog days. His father, Naveed, a philandering doctor who hides liquor bottles in his car, is firmly opposed to religion, while his mother, Muneer, is more improvisational. She adheres strictly to some traditions but also exercises her own spiritual whim, pulling Hayat out of school on Yom Kippur, for example, having been touched by the holiday’s spirit of repentance and forgiveness. If Muneer, who trained as a Freudian psychologist but was forced to give up her career for marriage, has a parenting goal, it is not that Hayat grow up to be a pious man but, rather, simply a good one, particularly where women are concerned: “When a Muslim woman is too smart, she pays the price for it ... in abuse,” she warns, dramatically. “That’s why I’m bringing you up differently, so that you learn how to respect a woman.”

Then, suddenly, there is a woman: Muneer’s best friend, Mina, who flees a dismal marriage in Pakistan and comes with her four-year-old son to live with the Shahs. Eleven-year-old Hayat is wary, but Mina turns out to be the stuff of preadolescent fantasy — breathtakingly beautiful, with just enough charm and confidence to give him hope (“She smiled and I was struck,” he says when they pick her up at the airport, paving the way for an onslaught of coming-of-age clichés).

Soon, Mina is inviting Hayat to her room for nightly stories from the Koran, against his father’s will. Mina is relatively secular, too, with no headscarf and an eye toward a career as a beauty technician, but she has a devotion to the Koran that is intellectual, almost artistic. For her, Allah is a benevolent, peaceful source. “Allah will always forgive you, no matter what you do,” she reminds Hayat.

With Mina’s encouragement, Hayat begins not just to study the Koran but to memorize it, the first step toward becoming a scholar, or hafiz. Sexual and spiritual development merge in awkward, confusing, and thrilling ways, and Hayat becomes charged with feelings: “That night my nerve ends teemed and pulsed,” he says, after Mina gives him his own Koran. “I still recall the vividness of my cotton pajamas against my arms and legs, the fabric pressing here and there, distinct points of contact alive with pleasure ... I fell asleep and dreamt all night of Mina’s hands turning the yellow-white pages of my new Quran.”

  • Email
  • ShareThis
  • Print
  • Recommend (77)
Log in with your UNI to post a comment

The best stories wherever you go on the Columbia Magazine App

Maybe next time