AMERICAN DERVISH, by Ayad Akhtar. Little, Brown and Co., 357 pp., $24.99.
'American Dervish," the first novel by Ayad Akhtar, takes place in the crucible of childhood. When it begins, Hayat Shah is 10 years old, growing up in Milwaukee with his Pakistani parents. They are unhappily married. His father, a successful doctor, drinks and cheats with "white women." His mother's rage is never far from the surface.
But when Hayat's mother's best friend, Mina, comes from Pakistan with her 4-year-old son to live with them, the house becomes, for a few years, a joyous place. "Aunt" Mina is gentle and lovely, with a gift for creating peacefulness and beauty. But she is also a victim of Islam -- there is no other way to put it. She has been prevented from pursuing a life of learning, forced to marry a cruel man and beaten. "Her intelligence has been the curse of her life," Hayat's mother tells him. "When a Muslim woman is too smart, she pays the price for it. And she pays the price not in money, behta, but in abuse."
Mina teaches Hayat how to read the Quran. She teaches him how to pray. But her sensuous presence in the house teaches him about sex as well. His love and longing for her complicate his already tumultuous adolescence.
When Mina falls in love with a Jewish doctor named Nathan Wolfsohn, questions about faith come to a rolling boil in the Shah household. Nathan studies the Quran and wants to convert, but on a visit to the Islamic center to meet the imam, he is exposed to a violent litany of hatred for Jews. At school, Hayat is also exposed to anti-Semitism when his Jewish friend, Jason, is beaten up by a group of students.
When to speak out and when to remain silent? The answer to this important question comes naturally to Hayat -- he must stand up to injustice. Other questions are not so easily answered. What can we expect from this life? What do we deserve? Hayat's Muslim relatives, including Mina, believe we cannot expect anything other than "loss, pain, sorrow." But growing up in America, Hayat cannot help but learn a different lesson: We are precious and full of potential. Self-hatred leads to hatred of others. A love of suffering can be just as vainglorious as any other desire.
Hayat, angry and troubled by the turmoil around him, does something cruel, something he regrets for the rest of his life. His childish rage (reminiscent of Lillian Hellman's great play, "The Children's Hour") has a part in destroying the life of the person he loves and reveres most in the world: his aunt Mina.
Nonetheless, all signs for Hayat lead to enlightenment, but along the way, "American Dervish" describes the varied distractions of ecstasy, spiritual and physical. One delicious, peaceful evening, Mina tells Hayat a story about a dervish who has spent his life searching for the truth. It is not until he has nothing else to lose that he is able to absorb the most important lesson of all: humility. "What was in his way before?," she says. "He thought he was different. But now he saw he was not different. He and Allah, and everything Allah created, it was all One."