When I wrote a post about what it meant to be Asian, as part of the Man Asian Literary Prize, I lamented the fact that immigrant experiences, and stories of the Asian diaspora weren’t included in the field. I totally understand why this happened, but I have always been fascinated by immigrant stories, and that inherent tension between the culture of one’s parents, and the culture of one’s living space. Which is what made American Dervish such a promising read.
Hayat’s parents are Pakistani immigrants, trying to make a new life in America. His father is a doctor, his mother a housewife. When circumstances force his mother’s best friend, Mina, to move to America and live with his family, nothing will ever be the same again. Introducing him to the world of Islamic mysticism, Mina encourages Hayat’s growing interest in the religion of his homeland, and sets him on a path that could destroy the family.
Hayat, as a young boy struggling to find his own identity, trapped between an overbearing mother and a drunk, adulterous father, finds it easy to confide in Mina, who is clearly very attractive, both physically and mentally. As Hayat moves into puberty, a time that wrecks havoc upon the teenage brain, his own feelings towards her become more and more confused. It’s easy to see why he is attracted to her as a mentor and mother figure – his father is barely home, preferring to spend his nights getting drunk with young white girls, while his mother seems unable to see him as her son, instead pouring her marital problems onto him, despite his not wanting to know.
And then walks in a beautiful woman, willing to pay him attention, to see him as a real person, not just a kid. She shows him the mystic side of Islamic tradition, complete with whirling dervishes, and stories of an all powerful being, able to make your life better if you pray hard, and learn the Qu’ran by heart. One cannot help but wonder if she knew the damage she was doing – teaching religion to vulnerable people, offering them a way out of their unhappy lives, will always have consequences, particularly if the one doing the teaching is blindly unaware of the true limits of their influence.
There are some subtle character developments throughout the novel that show Akhtar as a promising storyteller. Perhaps my favourite is the fact that Hayat’s father is not the insane Islamic fundamentalist we are so used to seeing in Islamic stories. Instead, his refusal to be drawn into the bickering infighting of the Pakistani community, as well as his horror at many parts of the Islamic tradition sit uneasily with his alcoholic, womanising ways. As Hayat slowly moves to a path of dangerous fundamentalism, his father is watching, making sure he never goes too far. And then, when he finally does, it’s not an understatement to say that all hell breaks loose.
It’s funny that, while we all applaud the idea of immigration as a way for people to escape the persecution and bigotry of their homelands, this is not really something that ever happens. More than anything, this novel demonstrates just how ingrained some prejudices are and how, even in a country thousands of kilometres away from the actual conflict, the Arab-Israeli fighting has consequences around the world. Old world prejudices in the new world, are handed down from generation to generation, breeding a new kind of prejudice.
No one, it seems, escapes unscathed from the influence of religion in this novel. Hayat ruins the lives of many people courtesy of his desire to become a hafiz. His mother has spent most of her life blaming her husband’s behaviour on the simple fact that he is a Muslim man – she takes a very view dim of the traditional male/female roles outlined in Islamic culture. His father has been cast aside by the Pakistani community because he dares to call himself an atheist, finding little common ground between his own pursuits as a doctor and the more militant Islamism espoused by the leaders of the community. Mina’s life is ruined – no, that’s not the right word – decimated, by the fact she is ostracised to the point whereby she must reject the man she loves, in order to marry a man who – well, you’ll find out. Nathan, Mina’s Jewish boyfriend, too, finds being a Jewish man willing to convert to Islam for the sake of his love not as easy as he may have expected.
Whether this message was Akhtar’s original intention, or simply the way my views on religion have affected my reading of the novel, I’m not sure. But what is clear is that, in the end, Hayat can only find peace as a non-believer. And despite all that goes on, American Dervish doesn’t strike me as an angry novel. There is a sense of resignation, that it is simply impossible for people to move forward while still clinging on to old ways of thinking, old prejudices, old religions.