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.