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Wednesday, May 30, 2012

American Dervish by Ayad Akhtar, 2012, * * *

Hayat Shah is an impressionable adolescent and the only child of a well-to-do secular family. He finds his comfortable existence upended by the arrival of his mother's childhood friend who has fled a life of abuse and repression in Pakistan. Mina, a strikingly beautiful woman and a fan of Henry Miller and F. Scott Fitzgerald, captivates Hayat by schooling him in her liberal interpretations of the Qu'ran.  She inspires his spiritual awakening at a time that coincides uneasily with his sexual awakening.  Hayat's marginally religious mother is too preoccupied trying to catch her philandering husband's attention to notice her son's growing alienation while his defiantly secular father is too busy cheating, drinking and wallowing in his own cynicism to pay his introverted son much attention beyond the occasional lecture about religion.  Mr. Akhtar's observations of the  clashes between old world and new, between secular and sacred might seem familiar to readers of both contemporary and classic literature.  Strong thematic affinities and plot parallels exist between this work and more than a handful of other - "The Namesake" by Jhumpa Lahiri; "Love Marriage" by V. V. Ganeshananthan and Pauls Toutonghi's "Red Weather," a 2006 comedy about Latvians in Milwaukee.  The yearning and conflicted emotions of Hayat suggest a PG-13 version of a Philip Roth character or more repressed version of Eugene Jerome, Neil Simon's alter ego in "Brighton Beach Memoirs."   When you are away from the character of Mina, however, it is nearly impossible to find one other redeemable character in the Indian-Pakistan community of Muslims. From the Islamic Center to the wedding hall, their fellow worshipers are like characters from a Herman Cain speech - fanatical, under-evolved, sheep-like, and willfully in-assimilated. It's such a shift from the complex characters inside the Shah home that the story line suffers after it sinks into the one-dimensional world outside their door.  Although he illuminates the age-old struggle of separating spirituality from dogma, faith from cultural baggage and intent from political agenda, this is only successful half the time.  If only he had enough faith in his readers to present Hayat and Mina's complex relationship with their religion - and the world around them - as something other than exceptional.  

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