American Dervish

As I was reading this book, I kept thinking about similar books of its kind, particularly THE CHOSEN, by Chaim Potok.  Another coming-of-age story about a young man living in a culture that would be unfamiliar to many of us of the “Leave it to Beaver” generation, and even the ones that come after, but the comparison ends there.  THE CHOSEN (and its successors) was a rich, dense, intelligent and extremely moving book that illustrated exquisitely the profundity of pain and joy in growing up in a very specific culture….and AMERICAN DERVISH…wasn’t.  A pretty good first book.  And an important book for mainstream post-911 Americans.  But not good enough to truly do service to its topic.

I happen to be that rarity, an American Sufi.  I am well aware that the very concept is ridiculous to most of the more traditional, Eastern Sufis and/or Muslims, but I claim my heritage nonetheless, after some forty years of study with an authentic Sufi teacher.  I read through a number of the reviews on Amazon, and it is interesting to me that very few of the readers zero in on this very important aspect of the writer’s illustration of Islam, Sufism:  generally thought to be an outgrowth of Islam, typically understood as something like Islamic mysticism.  In my experience, it is much more than that, but my purpose here is not to argue these issues, it is to point out that the author tried very hard to wade through his conditioning as a Muslim–or not–at the hands of his family and community, his heritage and his life as an American boy….and in some way, found in his aunt’s understanding of Sufism, a deep answer to his pain, an answer he still didn’t entirely understand, even at the end of his story; or at least, the character didn’t.  Given the few referrals to the Sufis in the book, it is certainly easy to miss this nuance, but for me, it is the only thing that eventually causes the book to make as much sense as it does.  Unfortunately, the author’s seeming lack of understanding–or his failure to subtly lead the reader to his possibly real understanding–fails.  Most of the book is so gritty and so tragic and so painful and fraught with such melodrama that the culmination of the story left me, at least, thinking that the author himself didn’t “get it.”

But who are these people the author writes about?  With the possible exception of Mina, and perhaps the boy’s mother and father, the other characters seem rather one-dimensional.  I found myself adding to them with my own imagination, trying to flesh-out the incomplete illustrations of them.  The most frustrating one was Nathan, and it occurs to me that perhaps the reader doesn’t really come to understand someone like Nathan–a Jewish American, the child of Holocaust survivors–simply because such people were truly foreign to his world.  He could only see what was in front of him, it would seem.

Ultimately, though, the frustrating thing about this book was the unanswered questions, the biggest of which was supposedly answered by Mina before her death, explained by some “Sufi-speak” that might make sense to someone like me, and that in this context was supposed to explain her understanding of why she remained in a simply dreadful, violent relationship that nearly killed her and probably damaged her children irreparably because of her refusal to take action, a refusal that made no sense for a woman of her intelligence, a woman who had already been through so much trauma, a woman who was as strong as she was said to be.  It seemed to me that the author was attempting a sort of Zen-like “figure it out for yourself” culmination, the answer to a life’s koan. . . but in my opinion, it was a cop-out at best, and at worst shows the author’s misunderstanding of the philosophy his story hinges on.

In his epilogue, the author announces that out of the whole experience, “I finally discovered myself not only as a man, but as an American.”  The final scene, which takes place after this pronouncement, offers no explanation of either, as it takes place at the Cafe Algiers in Harvard Square, about as un-American a setting as there could possibly be within these borders.  Yet another unanswered question.  One isn’t allowed to see much evidence of either his growth as a man OR an American.

Perhaps what I am struggling to say, here, is that this writer doesn’t yet understand his own subject. I do appreciate his willingness to let me see what it is like to grow up in a very different culture from my own, although having come from the “Bible Belt” of the American South, I find fewer differences than I do similarities.  And having studied Sufism for so many years, experientially and academically both, it is tempting to say that I have a better understanding of both than he does.  But after all, I’m possibly twice his age, and if I were to attempt to describe Christianity and/or Pentacostalism to you, I would probably be just about as inept, because what he’s describing, here, and what I would be describing, is not a religion, but the painful and horrific impressions that are forced on children in the name of that religion through the so-called “scriptures” that evolve to reinforce those misinterpretations.

All in all,  I hope Akhtar keeps writing:  perhaps he will grow into his perceptions, so that he can articulate them fully.

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