Friday, February 24, 2012

American Dervish: a book review

WoodTurtle is a Canadian Muslim feminist currently using her extended maternity leave to explore developments of Islamic feminism in the Western and Muslim world.  As a woman who wears the hijab (owns several abayas and a niqab monogrammed with her initials in pink, sparkly sequins), she writes frequently on genderized Islamophobia. She also works toward dispelling myths and stereotypes about women in Islam for both Muslims and non.
"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."

It’s been a long time since I’ve been able to identify with a work of fiction. To have my thoughts and cultural experiences splayed out so nicely by a complete stranger. To have my ideas about religious interpretation and understanding shared beyond the blogosphere – and actualised in the imaginative words and deeds of colourful, intense characters.

Often while reading American Dervish, when I wasn’t snickering at the humour, rolling my eyes with the characters or gaping and cringing at the more sensitive and emotionally intense scenes, I was usually nodding my head and saying, “yes, exactly.” More than once I’d look around for a book club because I so wanted to share and deconstruct the issues Ayad Akhtar has raised in this wonderful novel.

American Dervish is a non-traditional “coming of age” story – where each character takes his or her own journey to discover themselves and what it means to be American and Muslim. Taking place in Milwaukee during the 1980s, Pakistani-American Hayat Shah narrates a heartbreaking story of love, the Divine, and negotiating faith and culture.

Hayat’s narration is beautifully constructed. While the action takes place when he was only 10 years old, he’s given wisdom beyond his years as a flashback. So it’s actually an older, wiser, and jaded Hayat reconstructing the actions and experiences that brought him to present day. He presents the reader with a collection of deeply flawed characters. Even the key heroine, who I believed would save hearts and souls, is actually misguided by her own darkness as much as she illuminates the lives of others around her.

It’s a book of paradoxes and a dialogue into the dangers of unguided, unrestrained religiosity – from absolute rejection, to cultural and literalist dogma, to a mystical experience of the Divine.

Akhtar explores the Muslim immigrant experience in America with his extremely real characters. Hayat’s father, Naveed has grown skeptical of religion and “orthodoxy” within his community, and so he turns to non-Muslim lovers and alcohol for respite. And as much as she is secretly enamoured by American culture, Muneer is resentful and hateful of her husband’s infidelities and places blame on his “white prostitutes.” But as a mother, she desperately tries to raise Hayat to reject misogyny and to be nothing like his father, with the constant refrain, “give a Muslim man a drink and look what happens.”
These tensions and the constant fighting within their culturally Muslim household are put at ease with the arrival of Muneer’s childhood friend, Mina.

Mina is gorgeous, intelligent, faithful and filled with a dervish’s desire to become closer to God. Under Mina’s guidance Hayat starts learning how to pray, begins to memorise the Qur’an and falls in love with the Prophet through her passion and nightly bed time stories.

Soon however, he begins to fall in love with Mina as well – and when she becomes romantically involved with Nathan, his father’s Jewish business partner, Hayat betrays them all.

I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed this novel.

I had initial misgivings when I picked up the prologue to find Hayat seemingly disillusioned with Islam – feeling the release of an immense religious burden upon eating a pork hot dog and admitting to a professor that he was a Mu’tazilite (Muslims from the 8th century who used philosophy and rationalism, instead of faith to ground their theology). It sounded like the story was going to end up being "boy versus the evil Islam" – but I continued reading with an open mind and with no expectations – and was pleasantly surprised.

This is not a book that bashes Islam. Verses of the Qur’an are woven throughout in a reflective, non-preachy manner, and are often used to better illustrate the emotions erupting from Hayat as he attempts to navigate his religious awakening, sexual awakening, and other adolescent torments.
This is a book that turns a critical eye on the American Muslim community and on key issues that are often swept under the rug or are simply and politely ignored by a majority of people when they’re brought up at the minbar. Issues like anti-Semitism, domestic violence, racism, infidelity, sexuality, hatred, sectarianism and tolerance of other beliefs are challenged – forcing characters and readers to recon with them.

The characters are incredibly real. From the narrow-minded and literalist imam to the disillusioned, atheist – it would be difficult not to identify with at least one character along the spectrum, or to find people who remind you of them.

I do wish however, that there was a deeper discussion when the Qur’an was used to highlight domestic violence and anti-Semitism. Instead, champion characters were deflated, helpless to argue against their community – which could lead readers to truly believe that the Qur’an orders wife beating and the overt hatred of Jews. Though, perhaps the character’s cool acceptance and silent blood boiling reactions further point to their own broken personas – as well as some pathetic realities in some Muslim communities.

Have you read it or are planning to read it? What did you think? Did it disturb you or validate your beliefs? Do you think it sheds some light on the complexities of the Muslim-American experience? What did you make of Mina’s holistic religiosity and destructive tendencies? How often do you speak up or have seen others speak up when horrible things about women, “kaafirs,” anti-Semitism, or anything else disturbing is taught from the pulpit?

Anyone interested in joining this casual discussion please chime in!