Growing Up Muslim And Midwestern In 'Dervish'

Play associated audio

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."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit


From A Weirdo Nerd To A Guy Who Plays One On TV

NPR's Ari Shapiro talks with the actor Rainn Wilson about his new memoir, The Bassoon King: My Life in Art, Faith, and Idiocy.

How Long Can Florida's Citrus Industry Survive?

The USDA recently stunned growers when it projected the smallest orange harvest for Florida in more than 50 years. The culprit: A tiny insect that's killing off the state's trees — and industry.

Snapshots 2016: Trump's Message Resonates With A Master Cabinet Maker

From time to time during this election season we'll be introducing you to ordinary people that our reporters meet out on the campaign trail. Today: a snapshot from a Donald Trump rally in New Hampshire.

Someday A Helicopter Drone May Fly Over Mars And Help A Rover

NASA is building a 2-pound helicopter drone that would help guide the vehicle on the Red Planet's surface. That way, the rover wouldn't need to wander as much to find its way around.

Leave a Comment

Help keep the conversation civil. Please refer to our Terms of Use and Code of Conduct before posting your comments.