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From My Bookshelf: AMERICAN DERVISH, by Ayad Akhtar

In a “Dear Reader” note on his website, author Ayad Akhtar writes:

Growing up in the “heartland,” I became acutely aware that my peers didn’t know what to make of Islam. It wasn’t ignorance; they were good, smart people. They’d just never been exposed to it. Since then, exposure to Islam has grown, for all the wrong reasons.

In writing American Dervish I wanted to share my sense of Islam in America. To render for the reader Islam’s beauty, its simplicity, and vivid spirituality. All of which I wanted to express in an American setting, in an American idiom.

But as with so many religions, Islam’s beauty comes with troubling traditions. In writing the book, one of things I discovered was that I could not write about Islam truthfully without also exposing the fuller spectrum of my experience in Muslim-America.

A few days ago, I finished reading American Dervish. It is an important and provocative novel, and I recommend it highly. I’m still thinking about it. In particular–and not surprisingly for a blog post appearing on My Machberet–I’m thinking of how to respond to this question in the “Reader’s Guide” section of Akhtar’s website: “What did you think of the relationship between Islam and Judaism in the novel?”

It’s a question that is intimately linked to some of the more “troubling” aspects of Islam as Akhtar depicts it in this novel. There is a strain of anti-Semitism that is impossible to ignore at the heart of several of the book’s Muslim characters. It’s virulent, and sometimes it’s physically violent, and it’s not pleasant to read.

As one interviewer phrased it: “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 [one of the major characters] seems to have about it?”

Akhtar’s response: “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.”

Well, OK. As a writer, that answer makes sense to me. But Akhtar’s response gets more interesting as he continues:

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.

Indeed, in his New York Times review of American Dervish, Adam Langer noted: “At times Mr. Akhtar seems also to be putting a modern Muslim spin on earlier stories of Jewish assimilation; his yearning and conflicted young hero suggests a PG-13 version of a Philip Roth character or a more repressed version of Eugene Jerome, Neil Simon’s alter ego in ‘Brighton Beach Memoirs.'”

Moreover, it’s quite possible that we’ll continue to see a focus on a Muslim-Jewish dynamic in Akhtar’s future work. Writes Langer: “[T]he novel’s coy epilogue hints too obviously at a second installment about how, as an adult, Hayat falls in love with a Jewish woman. ‘Our wonderful and troubled interfaith romance is a tale for another time,’ Mr. Akhtar writes.” But, as Langer correctly concludes, “[I]t is to the author’s credit that this reader was left hungering to read that sequel.”

As was I.

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6 Responses »

  1. Hi Erica,
    Most people don’t realize this especially in light of current events but from a traditional Jewish point of view Islam trounces Christianity. According to Maimonides, Christianity with its emphasis on the trinity is idolatrous and Jews may not enter a church, even if only to gaze at theMichaelangelos, Giottos and Cimabues . Islam has it’s own problems, especially the notion of , it is nonethelessmonotheistic. Jews may enter in and even worship in mosques (not a mosque services, but doing our own Jewish thing). Over the course of history, Jews in Arab lands have suffered far less than their brothers in Christian Europe. Moderate Muslims and Jews have gotten along . Fundamentalism has long been a problem. Remember that Islamic fundamentalists forced Maimonides out of Spain more than 900 years ago.
    Hope this clears things up. Best

  2. One reason I didn’t like the book is that it seemed to me that neither Hayat nor his readers learned anything from his experience. In my review I said the following:

    “The whole of the book seems to be a confession by Hayat about how he hurt his beloved Aunt Mina with his use of the Quran to wreak havoc on her romance with Nathan. But by the end of the book, I did not get any sense that he understood why what he did was wrong beyond hurting his aunt. That is, he doesn’t seem to have gained insight into the complexity of the Quran and the pitfalls of reading portions of it out of context; nor does he seem to have any awareness of the 7th Century sociopolitical atmosphere that led to conflicts between Muhammad and other traders [particularly Jewish traders] and thus informed the Quran. Moreover, he shows no insight into how contemporary politics also affect interpretation of the teachings of Muhammad by the imams in the mosques. Finally, in spite of numerous instances of Hayat being confronted by hypocrisy by adherents of Islam, he never reflects upon what this might mean. In summary, Hayat shows no insight over anything; there is only regret that his scheming turned out worse than he hoped it would.

    To me, it seemed like the author was giving Hayat redemption for confessing. That felt shallow to me, and not enough justification for reading through the whole story; I would have been more satisfied from redemption through some self-awareness.”

    *************

    And now, from the interview you quote, it looks like he is prepared to blame it all on the Jews! None of those authors “frame[d] a way of seeing” that denied humanism and self-awareness. And I don’t agree that the majority of Muslims define themselves by faith and not by nationality.

    • Well, I appreciate your take, but I’m not sure I agree with it completely. I think, for example, that the protagonist does acquire some insight/self-awareness. And I’m not sure about the “blame” you’ve discerned. But I am glad that you stopped by to share your thoughts.

      • Sorry, “blame” is too harsh. I would just would have liked to see more acknowledgement of unfair judgment about Jews. But of course there is plenty of unfair judgment the other way, my rash comment a case in point.

  3. Erika,
    Thank you for opening the dialogue on this author’s book and his treatment of the Muslim relationship to Jews.
    It’s so important to keep the dialogue open, and from what you write, that’s exactly what this author is trying to do in a suitably provocative way.
    Linda

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