American Dervish

American Dervish

4.3 39
by Ayad Akhtar
     
 

View All Available Formats & Editions

Hayat Shah is a young American in love for the first time. His normal life of school, baseball, and video games had previously been distinguished only by his Pakistani heritage and by the frequent chill between his parents, who fight over things he is too young to understand. Then Mina arrives, and everything changes.

Mina is Hayat's mother's oldest friend from

See more details below

  • Checkmark B&N Discover Great New Writers  Shop Now

Overview

Hayat Shah is a young American in love for the first time. His normal life of school, baseball, and video games had previously been distinguished only by his Pakistani heritage and by the frequent chill between his parents, who fight over things he is too young to understand. Then Mina arrives, and everything changes.

Mina is Hayat's mother's oldest friend from Pakistan. She is independent, beautiful and intelligent, and arrives on the Shah's doorstep when her disastrous marriage in Pakistan disintegrates. Even Hayat's skeptical father can't deny the liveliness and happiness that accompanies Mina into their home. Her deep spirituality brings the family's Muslim faith to life in a way that resonates with Hayat as nothing has before. Studying the Quran by Mina's side and basking in the glow of her attention, he feels an entirely new purpose mingled with a growing infatuation for his teacher.

When Mina meets and begins dating a man, Hayat is confused by his feelings of betrayal. His growing passions, both spiritual and romantic, force him to question all that he has come to believe is true. Just as Mina finds happiness, Hayat is compelled to act — with devastating consequences for all those he loves most.

American Dervish is a brilliantly written, nuanced, and emotionally forceful look inside the interplay of religion and modern life. Ayad Akhtar was raised in the Midwest himself, and through Hayat Shah he shows readers vividly the powerful forces at work on young men and women growing up Muslim in America. This is an intimate, personal first novel that will stay with readers long after they turn the last page.

Read More

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Poor Hayat Shah: his father drinks and sleeps around; his mother constantly tells him how awful Muslim men are (especially his father, with his “white prostitutes”); he doesn’t seem to have any friends; and he’s in love with his mother’s best friend, the beautiful Mina who’s his mother’s age and something of an aunt to him. Unlike his parents, Mina, who came to Milwaukee from a bad marriage in Pakistan, is devout, which makes sexual stirrings and the Qur’an go hand in hand for the young Hayat (aside from a framing device, the story mostly takes place when he’s between 10 and 12). His rival for Mina’s love isn’t just a grown man, he’s Jewish, so along with the roil of conflicting ideas about gender, sexuality, and Islamic constraint vs. Western looseness, first-time novelist Akhtar also takes on anti-Semitism. Though set well before 9/11, the book is clearly affected by it, with Akhtar determined to traffic in big themes and illustrate the range of Muslim thought and practice. This would be fine if the book didn’t so often feel contrived, stocked with caricatures rather than people. Ultimately, Akhtar’s debut reads like a melodramatic YA novel, not because of the age of its narrator but because of the abundance of lessons to be learned. (Jan.)
Boris Kachka
"Akhtar, the star and director of the 2005 terrorism drama The War Within, offers what promises to be one of the most complex treatments of Muslim immigration and fundamentalism to come from an American-born (albeit first-generation) writer."
Manil Suri
"Whether you believe religion is a precious gift from God or the greatest scourge of mankind, you will find yourself represented in these pages. With brilliant storytelling and exquisitely balanced points of view, Ayad Akhtar creates characters who experience the rapture of religion but also have their lives ripped apart by it."
Wendy Smith
"Ayad Akhtar's wonderful first novel tells a quintessentially American coming-of-age story: The child of immigrants struggles to find a place in his life for the traditions and beliefs of his ancestral homeland in a new world of broader possibilities that are both enticing and threatening. Although the main narrative unfolds in the early 1980s, it speaks to issues that collectively preoccupy us even more today... AMERICAN DERVISH so richly depicts a wide variety of humanly inconsistent and fallible characters that it feels reductive to call it a Muslim American novel, yet it is impossible to call it anything else because it is steeped in the tenets of Islam and a fierce debate over their deepest meaning.... Akhtar's complicated, conflicted characters are not helpless victims; they make irrevocable mistakes and do dreadful things, but Akhtar encourages us to understand and forgive.... The vivid particulars of [Hayat's] spiritual quest and emotional confusion embody universal experiences: growing up, learning to accept the faults of those you love (and your own), achieving an identity nourished by your roots but shaped by your individual needs and aspirations. Akhtar's poignant and wise debut announces the arrival of a generous new voice in American fiction."
Beth Kephart
"AMERICAN DERVISH is set to become The Help of 2012."

Helen Rogan
"Akhtar dazzles with his debut novel about a Muslim family in pre-9/11 America.... Ambitious but accessible, playwright Akhtar's engaging first novel tells a particularly fresh and touching coming-of-age story that illuminates the everyday lives of Muslims in America and brings new resonance to universal questions of belief and belonging." 3-1/2 stars
Steve Bennett
"[An] astutely observed novel.... Akhtar, a promising young playwright publishing his debut novel, embraces the contradictions - spiritual, sexual, cultural - of growing up Muslim in America in AMERICAN DERVISH. Hayat's story of betrayal comprises the meat of the novel, which will leave a hole in the heart of the biggest sinner. Whether you are Muslim, Jewish or Christian, this coming-of-age tale hits home.... Intelligently written, emotionally charged, AMERICAN DERVISH is a loss-of-innocence tale that will leave readers pondering the state of their own faith.... it's likely that Akhtar's novel will be on many 2012 best-books lists, including that of the Express-News."
Mark Athitaki
"AMERICAN DERVISH is a strong candidate for the title of the Great Muslim American Novel."
Repps Hudson
"[D]isturbing, complex and....fascinating... AMERICAN DERVISH is nuanced and full of surprises, conveying the dilemmas many people - not just Muslims - face when they immigrate to the United States."
Kate Tuttle
In this remarkably self-assured, infectiously readable debut novel, Ayad Akhtar beams readers directly inside Hayat's young mind. His growing love for Mina - as his revered "auntie,'' focus of his budding sexual interest, and teacher of Islam through nightly Koran readings - feels sweet yet fraught. After listening to her read these lyrical holy verses, Hayat floats back to his room "my heart softened and sweet, my senses heightened.'' Of course it's headed toward disaster, but Akhtar lets the ensuring calamities unfold without melodrama. Along the way, Hayat learns that his beloved adults' worst flaws sometimes coincide with what is most lovable and laudable about them, and that faith, mystery, and love have less to do with any religious text than with the human heart.
Melissa Smith
"Akhtar is a well-experienced, wonderful writer who approaches a difficult subject confidently and without any pretense.... AMERICAN DERVISH is one of those rare (and, at times, uncomfortable) books that deserves a literary award."
Hazel Rochman
"The young teen's personal story about growing up in Muslim America is both particular and universal, with intense connections of faith, sorrow, tenderness, anger, betrayal, questioning, and love."
Marilyn Dahl
"AMERICAN DERVISH opens with an epigram from the Hadith Qudsi (sacred sayings of Muhammad): "And Allah said: I am with the ones whose hearts are torn." A fitting quote for this moving, insightful story about religion and family, immigration and assimilation, wherein hearts are numbed, warmed and broken. Faith and love are found, lost and re-formed as the narrator, Hayat Shah, travels a jagged road through the early years of adolescence with all its confusions and dramatic certainties.... Ayad Akhtar's explorations into the tension between the universal truths of religion and literal readings of its documents plays out effectively in AMERICAN DERVISH, his debut novel. Already a master of scene and dialogue, and evocative prose, he's created a compelling and visceral story. When Mina teaches Hayat to listen to the still small voice within that can only be heard by finding the silence at the end of a breath, Hayat tries, and discovers what will continue to inspire him to find the still, small voice hidden between and beneath each breath, and, with it, wisdom and insight."
Hooman Majd
"Akhtar's graceful and moving novel is a story most immigrants can relate to, regardless of background, but resonates particularly with first generation Muslim-Americans who, in this interconnected world, struggle daily with both a clash of cultures and (today) a deep suspicion of, if not prejudice against the faith of their forefathers. But apart from that, it is a wonderful story of coming to terms with who one is, and who society expects one to be--and absolutely everyone can relate to that."
Rob Brunner
"[A] heartfelt first novel.... Akhtar himself is the son of Pakistani immigrants who settled in Wisconsin, and his knowing take on the complexities of that particular experience feels fresh.... The book's central tension between secularism and religiosity obviously has broader significance, and Akhtar explores these issues with admirable nuance.... Akhtar's characters drive a story that's compelling and believable even at its most alien. AMERICAN DERVISH offers a rich look at a nearby world that many Americans don't know nearly enough about."
Adam Langer
"What a pleasure to encounter a first novel as self-assured and effortlessly told as Ayad Akhtar's AMERICAN DERVISH. Mr. Akhtar, a first-generation Pakistani-American, has written an immensely entertaining coming-of-age story set during the early 1980s among the Pakistanis in the author's hometown, Milwaukee.... Mr. Akhtar's astute observations of the clashes between old world and new, between secular and sacred, among immigrants might seem familiar to readers of both contemporary and classic literature.... But what distinguishes Mr. Akhtar's novel is its generosity and its willingness to embrace the contradictions of its memorably idiosyncratic characters and the society they inhabit.... Mr. Akhtar is particularly adept at depicting the tensions between Jews and Muslims in pre-Sept. 11 America.... Yet for all the rage and satire contained within its pages, Mr. Akhtar's novel is far from an antireligious screed in the tradition of Christopher Hitchens. It is instead admirably restrained, deeply appreciative of some aspects of Islam and ultimately far more interested in raising provocative questions than in definitively answering them.... [A] charming debut."
Sara Nelson
"Loss of innocence-sexual, of course, but also cultural and religious-is the subject of Ayad Akhtar's poignant AMERICAN DERVISH, set in a Muslim-American community in the early 1980s.... With characters full of contradictions and complexity, this debut novel is refreshing for its lack of the political and religious hand-wringing so common in the post-9/11 world. But it's also resonantly familiar in its depiction of youthful obsession and the desire to belong."
Kate Christensen
"AMERICAN DERVISH is an intelligent, courageously honest book about religion that never bogs down in dogma, proscriptions, or easy answers. The characters are memorable and alive, most of all the narrator's fierce, tough-minded mother and gorgeous, tragically principled "auntie," who in different ways help the young narrator on his difficult path of doubt, faith, and, hopefully, happiness. The story is as stirring and thought-provoking as it is compulsively page-turning."
Rayyan Al-Shawaf
"The Muslim American novel has arrived, and it is titled AMERICAN DERVISH. There have been other novels by and about Muslim Americans, but Ayad Akhtar's tale distinguishes itself from its predecessors....by probing controversial aspects of Islam alongside its sympathetic portrayal of one Muslim American boy's maturation. Akhtar has not only created a heartfelt and arresting story of a precocious but impressionable boy trying to navigate faith, folly, and family; he has provided an intellectually rigorous and unflinchingly conscientious examination of the fraught and much-manipulated subject of Muslim scripture."
Kathryn Lang
"Ayad Akhtar's engaging first novel is about weighty matters: religion and politics and the troubled nexus in between. It's also a consideration of what it means to be ethnically "other" in America, a coming of age tale, and a story of guilt and redemption. It's a compulsively readable novel, one I consumed in big gulps, eager to see where this gifted storyteller would take his appealing cast of characters...Akhtar, an award-winning playwright, brings into sharp relief the conflicts between East and West, and at the same time dramatizes universal elements of our flawed humanity. In the novel's epilogue, Hayat hints that his own "wonderful and troubled interfaith romance" will be the source of "a tale for another time." I'll be among the first to order a copy."
Agnes Torres Al-Shibibi
"Haunting.... The time is right to explore the multifaceted Akhtar's work."
Mike Fischer
"A screenwriter and playwright, Akhtar thinks visually, intuitively grasping the power of a well-arranged set piece.... The resulting conflicts make for some compelling scenes in which abstract ideas - alternative versions of Islam, the role of women and the meaning of tolerance - play out through the characters who embody them."
Maggie Galehouse
"By turns, beautiful, seductive, [and] dangerous.... Akhtar's characters are certainly built to carry the weight of melodrama. Hayat, Mina, Naveed, Muneer and Nathan are nuanced beings, as surprising, irritating and endearing as people in the real world. There's no pure good or pure evil in Akhtar's novel, just a whole lot of in between. And no matter how theatrical the story becomes, readers will stay until the end of the show."
Susan Salter Reynolds
"AMERICAN DERVISH describes the varied distractions of ecstasy, spiritual and physical."
Andy Lewis
"DERVISH is a well-observed story about the fault lines that run through religions, families and communities."
Lorraine Ali
"[B]eautifully written..."
William Green
"A riveting and disturbing tale.... The power of this unsettling novel lies in Akhtar's refusal to simplify such contradictions."
Amelia Cook
"A pathos-filled coming-of-age narrative..."
Laura Hutson
"Timely and thought-provoking..."
Esther Perel
"Reading AMERICAN DERVISH is like wandering through an old city where each winding street leads to another you never guessed existed. Just when you think you've reached the end of town, you discover yet more twists and turns. Ayad Akhtar constructs an emotional maze layered with questions of faith, love, identity, individual choice and collective loyalty. All written in the simple words of a ten-year-old Pakistani-American boy."
Gregg Hurwitz
"A triumph of a book. A courageous, deftly told story of finding and losing love, faith, and the false comforts of moral righteousness. Above all else, AMERICAN DERVISH is a laid-bare novel of the dark contradictions of the human heart."
From the Publisher
"By turns, beautiful, seductive, [and] dangerous.... Akhtar's characters are certainly built to carry the weight of melodrama. Hayat, Mina, Naveed, Muneer and Nathan are nuanced beings, as surprising, irritating and endearing as people in the real world. There's no pure good or pure evil in Akhtar's novel, just a whole lot of in between. And no matter how theatrical the story becomes, readers will stay until the end of the show."—Maggie Galehouse, The Houston Chronicle"

Ayad Akhtar's engaging first novel is about weighty matters: religion and politics and the troubled nexus in between. It's also a consideration of what it means to be ethnically "other" in America, a coming of age tale, and a story of guilt and redemption. It's a compulsively readable novel, one I consumed in big gulps, eager to see where this gifted storyteller would take his appealing cast of characters...Akhtar, an award-winning playwright, brings into sharp relief the conflicts between East and West, and at the same time dramatizes universal elements of our flawed humanity. In the novel's epilogue, Hayat hints that his own "wonderful and troubled interfaith romance" will be the source of "a tale for another time." I'll be among the first to order a copy."—Kathryn Lang, Dallas Morning News"

Haunting.... The time is right to explore the multifaceted Akhtar's work."—Agnes Torres Al-Shibibi, Seattle Times

Library Journal
In his fiction debut, actor/director Akhtar draws in readers with characters he has created with an understanding informed by empathy. Not unlike the protagonist he plays in the film The War Within, Hayat Shah is a young man exploring his religious identity within the context of his family and community. Whereas his father is a man of science openly antagonistic to religion, his devout mother is often critical of Muslim men by way of her husband's infidelities. Mediating the two viewpoints is Hayat's aunt Mina, recently arrived from Pakistan, who teaches Hayat the Koran and encourages his religious studies. Hayat cares about having an authentic identity as a Muslim, as dictated by his understanding of the Koran, which sets him on a collision course with his father and his peers. VERDICT Through Hayat's struggles to find a stable religious identity against the cultural backdrop of a pluralistic society pre-9/11, first-generation Pakistani American Akhtar shows that multiple factors, including social marginality, complicate the Muslim American experience. Readers who enjoyed Leila Aboulela's The Translator will enjoy this work. [See Prepub Alert, 7/10/11.]—Joshua Finnell, Denison Univ. Lib., Granville, OH
Kirkus Reviews
Actor/playwright/filmmaker Akhtar makes a compelling debut with a family drama centered on questions of religious and ethnic identity. In 1980s Milwaukee, 10-year-old Hayat Shah lives in a troubled Pakistani-American household. Father, a determinedly secular neurologist, has no use for the ostentatiously devout local Muslim community; his best friend is a Jewish colleague, Nathan, and he cheats on his wife with white women, a fact Hayat's angry mother is all too willing to share with her son. The arrival of Mina, Mother's best friend from home who has been divorced by her husband for having "a fast mouth," brings added tension. Mina, a committed but non-dogmatic Muslim, introduces Hayat to the beauties of the Quran and encourages him to become a hafiz, someone who knows the holy book by heart. But Hayat's feelings for his "auntie" have sexual undercurrents that disturb them both, and his jealousy when Mina and Nathan fall in love leads him to a terrible act of betrayal that continues to haunt him as a college student in 1990. Akhtar, himself a first-generation Pakistani-American from Milwaukee, perfectly balances a moving exploration of the understanding and serenity Islam imparts to an unhappy preteen with an unsparing portrait of fundamentalist bigotry and cruelty, especially toward intelligent women like Mina. His well-written, strongly plotted narrative is essentially a conventional tale of family conflict and adolescent angst, strikingly individualized by its Muslim fabric. Hayat's father is in many ways the most complex and intriguing character, but Mina and Nathan achieve a tragic nobility that goes beyond their plot function as instruments of the boy's moral awakening. Though the story occasionally dips into overdetermined melodrama, its warm tone and traditional but heartfelt coming-of-age lesson will appeal to a broad readership. Engaging and accessible, thoughtful without being daunting: This may be the novel that brings Muslim-American fiction into the commercial mainstream.
New York Magazine
"Akhtar, the star and director of the 2005 terrorism drama The War Within, offers what promises to be one of the most complex treatments of Muslim immigration and fundamentalism to come from an American-born (albeit first-generation) writer."

Read More

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780316183314
Publisher:
Little, Brown and Company
Publication date:
01/09/2012
Pages:
357
Product dimensions:
6.10(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.40(d)

Meet the Author

Ayad Akhtar is an American-born, first generation Pakistani-American from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He holds degrees in Theater from Brown University and in Directing from the Graduate Film Program at Columbia University, where he won multiple awards for his work. He is the author of numerous screenplays and was star and co-writer of The War Within, which premiered at the 2005 Toronto Film Festival and was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for Best Screenplay and an International Press Academy Satellite Award for Best Picture - Drama. American Dervish is his first novel.

Read an Excerpt

Prologue: 1990

The court glowed, its wooden surface a golden, honey-brown beneath the overhead lights. Along the edges, players were hunched with their coaches, and beyond, we were gathered, the clamoring rows upon rows of us, eager for the timeout to end.

I remember it all with a clarion vividness that marks the moment as the watershed it would be:

Below, I spied the vendor approaching: a burly man, thick around the waist, with a crimson-brown pony-tail dropping from beneath the back of his black and orange cap, our school colors: "Brats and wieners!" he cried. "Brats and wieners!"

I nodded, raising my hand. He nodded back, stopping three rows down to serve another customer first. I turned to my friends and asked them if they wanted anything.

Beer and bratwurst, each of them said.

"I don't think he's got beer, guys," I replied.

Out on the court, the players were returning to their positions for the last minute of the half. The crowd was getting to its feet.

Below, the vendor made change, then lifted the metal box to his waist and mounted the steps to settle at the edge of our row:

"You have beer?" one of my friends asked.

"Just brats and wieners."

"So two bratwurst and a beef dog," I said.

With a clipped nod, he tossed open the cover of his box and reached inside. I waved away my friends' bills, pulling out my wallet. The vendor handed me three, shiny packets, soft and warm to the touch.

"Beef wiener's on top. That's nine altogether."

I handed off the brats, and paid.

Cheers erupted as our side raced down the court, driving to the basket. I unwrapped my packet only to find I wasn't holding a beef frank, but a marbled, brown-and-white pork bratwurst.

"Guys? Anyone have the beef dog?" I shouted over the crowd's noise at my friends.

Both shook their heads. They were holding bratwurst as well.

I turned back to the aisle to call out to the vendor when I stopped. What reason did I have anymore not to eat it?

None at all, I thought.

We drove to the basket again, where we were fouled. When the whistle shrieked, the roar was deafening.

I lifted the sausage to my mouth, closed my eyes, and took a bite. My heart raced as I chewed, my mouth filling with a sweet and smoky, lightly-pungent taste that seemed utterly remarkable—(perhaps all the more so for having been so long forbidden). I felt at once brave and ridiculous. And as I swallowed, an eerie stillness came over me.

I looked up at the ceiling.

It was still there. Not an inch closer to falling in.

After the game, I walked along the campus quad alone, the walkway's lamps glowing in the mist, white blossoms on a balmy November night. The wet air swirled and blew. I felt alive as I moved. Free along my limbs. Even giddy.

Back at the dorm, I stood before the bathroom mirror. My shoulders looked different. Not huddled, but open. Unburdened. My eyes drew my gaze, and there I saw what I was feeling: something quiet, strong, still.

I felt like I was complete.

*

I slept soundly that night, held in restful sleep like a baby in a mother's loving arms. When I finally heard my alarm, it was a quarter of nine. The room was awash in sunlight. It was Thursday, which meant I had Professor Edelstein's Survey of Islamic History in fifteen minutes. As I slipped into my jeans, I was startled by the bright prickle of new denim against my skin. The previous night's wonders were apparently still unfolding.

Outside, it was another unseasonably warm and windy day. After hurrying over to the student Union for a cup of tea, I rushed to Schirmer Hall, Quran tucked under my arm, spilling hot water as I ran. I didn't like being late for Edelstein's class. I needed to be certain I would find a place near the back—close to the window he kept cracked—where I would have the space quietly to reel and contemplate as the diminutive, magnetic Edelstein continued to take his weekly sledgehammer to what still remained of my childhood faith. And there was something else that kept me in the back of the room:

It was where Rachel sat.

Professor Edelstein looked fresh and formal in a variation on his usual pastel medley: an impeccably-pressed, mauve oxford, topped and tightened at the neck by a rose-pink bow-tie, and suspenders matching the auburn shade of newly polished penny-loafers.

He greeted me with a warm smile as I entered. "Hey, Hayat."

"Hi, Professor."

I wove my way through the desks to the corner where I usually sat, and where lovely Rachel was munching on a cookie.

"Hey."

"Hey there."

"How was the game?"

"Good."

She nodded, the corners of her lips curling coyly upward as she held my gaze. It was looks like this—her bright, blue eyes sparkling—that had made me hazard the invitation to the game the night prior. I'd been wanting to ask her out on a date all semester. But when I'd finally gotten up the courage, she'd told me she had to study.

"You want some?" she asked. "It's oatmeal-raisin."

"Sure."

She broke off a piece and handed it to me: "You do the reading for today?" she asked.

"Didn't need to."

"Why not?"

"I already know the chapters he wanted us to read...by heart."

"You do?" Rachel's eyes widened with surprise.

"I grew up memorizing that stuff," I explained. "It's a whole production some Muslim kids go through. You memorize the Quran... - They call it being a hafiz."

"Really?" She was impressed.

I shrugged: "Not that I remember much of it anymore. But happen to remember the chapters he assigned for today..."

At the front of the class, Edelstein started to speak: "I trust you've all done your reading," he began. "It's not ground we're going to cover today, but it's obviously important material. I'd like you guys to keep moving. The Quran can be slow going, and the more of it we get through this semester, the better." He paused and arranged the papers gathered before him. Rachel offered me the rest of her oatmeal cookie with a whisper: "Wanna finish?"

"Absolutely," I said, taking it.

"Today, I'd like to share some of the recent work a couple of my colleagues in Germany are doing. I wasn't able to offer you any readings on their work, because it's very much happening right now. It's at the very forefront of Islamic scholarship..." Edelstein paused again, now making eye-contact with the Muslim-born students in the class—there were three of us—and added cautiously: "...and what I have to share may come as a shock to some of you."

So began his lecture on the Sanaa manuscripts.

In 1972, while restoring an ancient mosque in Sanaa, Yemen, a group of workers busy overhauling the original roof found a stash of parchments and damaged books buried in the rafters. It was a grave of sorts, the kind that Muslims—forbidden from burning the Quran—use to respectfully discard damaged or worn-out copies of the holy book. The workers packed the manuscripts into potato sacks, and they were locked away until one of Edelstein's close friends—a colleague—was approached some seven years later to take a look at the documents. What he discovered was unprecedented: The parchment pages dated back to Islam's first two centuries, they were fragments of the oldest Qurans in existence. What was shocking, Edelstein told us, was that there were aberrations and deviations from the standard Quran that Muslims had been using for more than a thousand years. In short, Edelstein claimed, his German colleague was about to show the world that the bedrock Muslim belief in the Quran as the direct, unchanged, eternal word of God was a fiction; Muslims weren't going to be spared the fate Christians and Jews had over the past three centuries of scholarship: the Quran, like the Bible, would prove to be the historical document common-sense dictated it had to be.

Up in the front row, one of the students—Ahmad, a Muslim—interrupted Edelstein's lecture, raising his hand angrily.

Edelstein paused. "Yes, Ahmad?"

"Why has your friend not published his findings yet?" Ahmad barked.

Edelstein held Ahmad's gaze for a moment before replying. And when he did, his tone was conciliatory: "My colleague is concerned about continued access to the texts if they were to make these findings known to the Yemeni authorities. They're preparing a series of articles, but are ensuring that they've had enough time to go through all 14,000 pages carefully, just in case they never get to see the documents again."

Now Ahmad's voice bellowed, red and bitter: "And why exactly would they be barred from seeing them again?"

There was silence. The classroom was thick with tension.

"There's no need to get upset, Ahmad. We can talk about this like scholars..."

"Scholars! What scholars make claims without documented findings? Huh?!?"

"I understand this is some controversial stuff... - but there's no need - "

Ahmad cut him off: "It's not controversial, Pro-fess-or," he said, spitting the middle syllable back at Edelstein with disgust. "It's incendiary." Ahmad bolted up from his desk, books in hand: "In-sult-ing and in-cen-diary!" he shouted. After a look to Sahar—the usually-reticent, Malaysian girl sitting to his left, her head lowered as she doodled tensely on her pad—and then another look, back at me, Ahmad stormed out of the room.

"Anyone else want to leave?" Edelstein asked, clearly affected. After a short pause, Sahar quietly gathered her things, got up, and walked out.

"That leaves you, Hayat."

"Nothing to worry about, Professor. I'm a true-and-tried Mutazalite."

Edelstein's face brightened with a smile: "Bless your heart."


*

After class, I stood and stretched, surprised again at how alive I felt. Nimble and awake, even along my limbs.

"Where you headed?" Rachel asked.

"To the Union."

"Wanna walk? I'm going to library."

"Sure," I said.

Outside, as we strolled beneath the shedding linden trees that lined the path to library, Rachel remarked how surprised she was at Ahmad and Sahar walking out.

"Don't be," I said. "Saying less than that could get you killed in some circles." She looked surprised. "Look at Rushdie," I said. The fatwa was still only a year old, an event still fresh in everyone's mind.

Rachel shook her head: "I don't understand these things... So what did you mean by what you said to Edelstein?"

"About being a Mutazalite?"

"Yeah."

"A school of Muslims that don't believe in the Quran as the eternal word of God. But I was joking. I'm not a Mutazalite. They died off a thousand years ago."

She nodded. We walked a few paces in silence, and then she asked: "How did you feel about the lecture?"

"What's to feel? The truth is the truth. Better to know it than not to."

"Absolutely..." she said, studying me: "...but it doesn't mean you can't have feelings about it, right?" Her question was softly put. There was tenderness in it.

"Honestly? It makes me feel free."

She nodded. And we walked awhile in silence.

"Do you mind if I ask you a personal question?" I finally asked.

"That depends."

"On?"

"What you want to know."

"Did you really have to study last night, or were you just saying that?"

Rachel laughed, her lips parting to reveal her small square teeth. She really was lovely. "I have an organic chemistry exam tomorrow, I told you that. That's why I'm going to the library now." She stopped and put her hand on my arm: "But I promise I'll go with you to the next game... - Okay?"

My heart surged with sudden joy. "Okay," I said with a cough.

When we got to the library's steps, I had the urge to tell her what had happened to me last night. "Can I ask you another personal question?"

"Shoot."

"Do you believe in God?"

For a moment, Rachel looked startled. And then she shrugged. "No. At least not the guy-in-the-sky type thing."

"Since when?"

"Since ever, I guess. My mom was an atheist, so I don't think I ever took it that seriously. I mean my dad made us go to temple sometimes - Rosh Hashanah and stuff... - but even then, my mom would spend the whole way there and back complaining."

"So you don't know what it's like to lose your faith."

"Not really."

I nodded. "It's freeing. So freeing. It's the most freeing thing that's ever happened to me... - You asked me how I feel about the lecture? Hearing Edelstein talk about the Quran as just a book, a book like any other, makes me feel like going out to celebrate."

"Sounds like fun," she said, smiling again. "If you wait 'til tomorrow, we can celebrate together..."

"Sounds like a plan."

Rachel lingered on the step above me just long enough for the thought to occur. And when it did, I didn't question it. I leaned in and touched my lips to hers.

Her mouth pressed against mine. I felt her hand against the back of my head, the tip of her tongue gently grazing the tip of my own.

All at once, she pulled away. She turned and hopped up the steps, then stopped at the door and shot me a quick look. "Wish me luck on my exam," she said.

"Good luck," I said.

When she was gone, I lingered, in a daze, barely able to believe my good fortune.

*

That night, after a day of classes and an evening of ping-pong at the Union, I was sitting in bed, trying to study, but thinking only of Rachel...when the phone rang. It was Mother.

"Behta, she's gone."

I was quiet. I knew, of course, who she was talking about. A month earlier she and I had gone to Kansas City to visit Mina—not only my Mother's life-long best-friend, but the person who'd had, perhaps, the greatest influence on my life—as she lay in a hospital bed, her insides ravaged with cancer.

"Did you hear me, Hayat?" Mother said.

"It's probably better, isn't it, Mom? I mean she's not in pain anymore."

"But she's gone, Hayat," Mother moaned. "She's gone..."

I listened quietly as she cried. And then I consoled her.

Mother didn't ask me that night how I felt about Mina's passing, which was just as well. I probably wouldn't have told her what I was really feeling. Even the confession I had made to Mina while she lay on what would turn out to be her death bed, even that hadn't been enough to assuage the guilt I'd been carrying since I was twelve. If I was reluctant to share how aggrieved I was with my mother, it was because my grief was not only for Mina, but for myself as well.

Now that she was gone, how could I ever repair the harm I'd done?

*

The following evening, Rachel and I sat side by side at the pizzeria counter, our dinner before a movie. I didn't tell her about Mina, but somehow, she sensed something was wrong. She asked me if I was alright. I told her I was. She insisted. "You sure, Hayat?" she asked. She was looking at me with a tenderness I couldn't fathom. "Thought you wanted to celebrate," she said with a smile.

"Well... after I left you yesterday, I got some bad news."

"What?"

"My aunt died. She was like... a second mother to me."

"Oh God. I'm so sorry."

All at once, my throat was searing. I was on the verge of tears.

"Sorry," I said, looking away.

Feeling her hand on my arm, I heard her voice: "You don't have to talk about it..."

I looked back and nodded.

*

The movie was a comedy. It distracted me. Toward the end, Rachel pushed herself up against my side, and we held hands for awhile. Afterwards, she invited me back to her room, where she lit candles and sang me a song she'd written as she played the guitar. It was something longing and plaintive about lost love; she looked down at her hands as she played and sang. Only three days ago, I couldn't have imagined myself being so lucky. And yet I couldn't push away thoughts of Mina.

When Rachel finished her song, she looked up at me.

"That was great," I said.

"Still thinking about your Aunt, aren't you?"

"Is it that obvious?"

She shrugged and smiled. "It's okay," she said, setting her guitar aside. "My grandma was really important to me like that. I went through a lot went she died."

"But the thing is, it's not just that she died...it's that I had something to do with it." I didn't even realize I'd said it until I was almost finished with the sentence.

Rachel looked at me, puzzled, folds appearing along her forehead, between her eyes.

"What happened?" she asked.

"You don't know me very well... - I mean, of course you don't. It's just... - I don't think you realize how I grew up."

"I'm not following you, Hayat."

"You're Jewish, right?"

"Yeah? So?"

"You may not like me very much if I tell you what happened..."

She shifted in her place, her back straightening. She looked away.

You barely know her. I thought. What are you trying to prove?

"Maybe I should leave," I said.

She didn't reply.

I didn't move. The fact was, I didn't want to leave. I wanted to stay. I wanted to tell her.

We sat in silence for a long moment, and then Rachel reached out to touch my hand.

"Tell me," she said.

Read More

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network

     

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >