Jealous Boy

by Rebecca Shapiro
American Dervish
By Ayad Akhtar
Little, Brown, 368 pages, $24.99
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But Mina is oblivious to Hayat’s interest, finding favor instead with Naveed’s brilliant young research partner, Nathan Wolfsohn (“Jewish, urbane, and pleasantly gregarious”). He and Mina meet at a family barbecue and are instantly smitten, leading to a heavily chaperoned courtship. Both Naveed and Muneer encourage the relationship, especially when Nathan makes an enormous sacrifice: despite having lost much of his family to the Holocaust, he offers to convert to Islam. As the relationship escalates, though, so do the hateful attacks against it from Muslim extremists. The Shahs cannot shelter Mina and Nathan from the community. “My father warned me about this,” Nathan despairs. “He’s said his whole life that no matter who we try to be, no matter who we become, we’re always Jews.” Nor can they silence their own son, who has been listening a little more closely than anyone thought.

Akhtar studied film, not fiction writing, at Columbia, and his plotting is more impressive than his prose, which borders on the overwrought. But in many ways his experience in film ideally prepared him for writing this book: while still in graduate school, Akhtar developed the idea for The War Within, a film in which he eventually starred, about a Pakistani student’s radicalization and journey toward terrorism. Things don’t escalate that far for Hayat, though the idea that they could, that they might have in another time, is haunting. Twenty years before September 11, tensions were already ripe between some Muslims and the West, and Akhtar spells them out boldly and clearly. Several novels have already been set in the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks; Akhtar’s choice to look back instead at some of the forces that shaped that day is fresh and illuminating.

What most distinguishes Akhtar’s novel from its peers, though, are the complicated people that he creates to wrestle with these tensions. Akhtar’s characters are laudably three-dimensional: hypocritical, sanctimonious, confused, and also deeply sympathetic. Mina and Muneer are hardly the picture of submission, and yet we come to understand the ways in which it is important to them to be Muslim women. Naveed is a wretched husband but a devoted father and friend, and his righteous indignation at his own religion’s potential for bigotry is heart-swelling. And Hayat, at the center of it all, is not a terrorist; he is a jealous boy, a young, foolish Briony Tallis who, in his desperate quest to do right, shows how very easy it is to do wrong.

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