In American Dervish, playwright and author Ayad Akhtar draws from his own Midwestern childhood to tell the coming-of-age story of 10-year-old Hayat Shah, the son of Pakistani immigrants, whose humdrum world of baseball and video games is interrupted by the arrival of a family friend from Pakistan: the glamorous Mina, who's fleeing a disastrous marriage.
The spiritual and lively Mina lights up the glum Shah home, and Hayat falls under her thrall.
"She's a charismatic and brilliant and beautiful woman," Akhtar tells NPR's Steve Inskeep. "She influences Hayat in a number of ways. He experiences his first awakenings of the heart and of the body in her presence, and he's also introduced to Islam, something his parents don't have much interest in. And he really takes to that."
Mina's faith is progressive and open; she believes in reinterpreting the Quran for modern times, something more conservative Muslims would reject. Hayat follows her lead, but when Mina starts dating a Jewish man, Hayat, ridden with jealousy, becomes, for a time, more orthodox.
"He begins to feel that there might be some certainty that he can latch onto by reading the book, the Quran in a literal way," Akhtar says.
Akhtar treats Islam with the same nuance he does his characters, portraying the faith in all its complexity, its "extraordinary beauty and wisdom," and its darker aspects, as in the centerpiece scene of the novel, when a sermon in a mosque devolves into ugly anti-Semitism.
"Just as it would be impossible to read the Old Testament and not to read or remark or have some awareness that the characters in the stories of the Old Testament are profoundly flawed, I think I'm bringing the same perspective to the Quran."
These contradictions are "true to the human psyche," Akhtar says. "The Quran, the Old Testament, the Gospels, these are books that embody the fullness of the human experience. For anyone to suggest that they don't have that darker side that we ourselves have, I think is only part of the picture."
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Next, we have the story of a Midwestern kid who grew up differently than many people around him. In the 1980s, Ayad Akhtar was living in Wisconsin, an American kid born of Pakistani-American parents who were Muslim.
AYAD AKHTAR: People, at least in the Midwest, where I was growing up, didn't really even know what Muslims were. So, I mean my friends knew that I was from somewhere and my parents were from somewhere different, but they weren't really sure what that place was. And, you know, after all, I did like the Green Bay Packers so it didn't really matter. You know they mean?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
INSKEEP: As long as you've got that you're allowed, you're allowed into Wisconsin.
AKHTAR: (unintelligible) I'm from Wisconsin.
INSKEEP: Ayad Akhtar grew up to be a writer. He is the author of the novel called "American Dervish." It explores the difficult subject of Islam in America. It's about a kid named Hayat, growing up in Wisconsin. He is American born, but his ancestral country and religion catch up with him, when his mother's best friend, Mina, arrives from Pakistan.. It's about a kid named Hyat growing up in Wisconsin. He's American-born but his ancestral country and religion catch up with him when his mother's best friend, Mina, arrives from Pakistan.
AKHTAR: She's a charismatic and brilliant and beautiful woman. And so, she influences Hayat in a number of ways. He experiences his first sort of awakenings of the heart and of the body in her presence. And he also is introduced to Islam, which is something that his parents don't have much interested in. And he really takes to that.
INSKEEP: And this is really fascinating to me, that you have this woman, who the boy meets, who is religious but in a very progressive and open way; and talks about reinterpreting the faith for modern times - something that more conservative Muslims would reject.
The boy is under her influence in and yet he becomes, for time anyway, a very conservative young Muslim.
AKHTAR: Well, he does because he begins to feel that there is some certainty that he can latch onto by reading the book, the Quran, in a literal way. And the sort of central emotional through-line of the book has to do with his burgeoning jealousy when Mina falls in love with a Jewish man, and he feels that he's losing his love object.
INSKEEP: This could have been a much simpler story, because you have this boy whose Muslim, who's in the United States, who is inspired by Islam. And at least for a time, becomes a very conservative, purest kind of Muslim. I mean he could've been inspired by a radical, blind cleric to that approach and become some kind of wild-eyed radical.
You chose to make things far more nuanced all the way through.
AKHTAR: Well, I think that that's truer to life. I've seen a lot of things, you know, growing up in this country as a young Muslim. And I haven't seen that particular, you know, embodiment what you are describing, because even the sorts of things that I may have seen which coincide with what you're talking about, your example, even those are more nuanced. I think it's always a more complicated picture.
INSKEEP: Is it fair to say that Islam doesn't come off terribly well in this book?
AKHTAR: You know, it's a question that I've gotten from time to time. But I also get the other side, which is that people say, wow, you know, I read your book and I can't believe how beautiful Islam is. So I think, you know, as with all of the characters in the book, I try to embody them with all of the complexity and the strengths and the flaws that they have. And I think that I'm trying to do the same thing when it comes to representing the practice of the faith.
INSKEEP: Well, let me mention just a couple of things that I think a lot of Americans would find alarming. One of the characters, this older woman, Mina, when she's in Pakistan, is divorced by her husband just after giving birth to a baby, simply by having the husband send a note that says three times: I divorce you, which is all you're supposed to have to do under Islam.
You have that. You have prejudice against Jews, open prejudice against Jews; jokes being told about Jews and so forth all the way through the book.
AKHTAR: Well, I think the jokes are often told by a Jewish character. So, I mean it's - you can dig deeper, Steve. I think there's darker stuff than that in the book.
INSKEEP: Go on.
AKHTAR: There is a - at the centerpiece of the book, there is a sermon in the mosque that begins with a sort of cryptic allusions to verses in the Quran that talk about Jews. And then it becomes an outright anti-Semitic sermon. So, you know, I think that the book has a very - how do I put it. It would be impossible to read, for example, the Old Testament, and not to remark or to have some awareness of the fact that the characters in the stories in the Old Testament are profoundly flawed.
And I think that I'm bringing the same perspective to the Quran, which is to say that there are extraordinary things, these of extraordinary beauty and wisdom in the Quran. And there is also â there's also stuff that is darker. And that's true, again, to the human psyche. These are books which - the Quran, the Old Testament, the Gospels - they're books that embody the fullness of the human experience. And for anyone to suggest that they don't have that darker side, which we ourselves have, I think is, again, only part of the picture.
INSKEEP: Ayad Akhtar is the author of "American Dervish." Thanks very much.
AKHTAR: Thank you, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.