By Ayad Akhtar

The city of Abbottabad, in the former North-West Frontier Province of Pakistan, was named after James Abbott, a 19th-century British Army officer and player in the “Great Game,” the power struggle in Central Asia between the British and Russian Empires. Today it’s perhaps best known as the garrison town that sheltered Osama bin Laden before he was discovered and summarily executed by American Special Forces in 2011. When the narrator of Ayad Akhtar’s moving and confrontational novel “Homeland Elegies” goes there with his father in 2008 to visit relatives, he gets a lecture from his uncle about the tactical genius of 9/11, and his vision of a Muslim community based on principles espoused by the Prophet Muhammad and his companions, one that “does not bifurcate its military and political aspirations.”

The narrator, like Akhtar, is an American-born dramatist, whose own politics have been formed by a childhood in suburban Milwaukee and a liberal arts education. While he disagrees with his uncle, sitting in the man’s Raj-era bungalow with William Morris wallpaper, the narrator finds it easiest to listen without giving an opinion. His father, a staunch American patriot and future Trump voter, is enraged. “Trust me,” he snaps on the taxi ride home, “you don’t have a clue how terrible your life would have been if I’d stayed here.”

ImageAyad Akhtar
Credit…Vincent Tullo for The New York Times

The political complexities of Abbottabad are inseparable from the tensions within the narrator’s family, and this fraught visit is just one of a cascade of scenes and stories that vibrate with the stressful contradictions of an American Muslim life. Like Akhtar’s dramas (“Disgraced,” “The Invisible Hand”), “Homeland Elegies” deals in ambiguities that were beyond the pale of public discourse in the years after 9/11. The many unacknowledged failures of American policy and the coarsening of popular attitudes form the matrix in which Akhtar’s stories grow. He has an unerring sense for the sore spots, the bitter truths that have emerged from this history.

At one point, the narrator identifies as part of the “Muslim world,” noting that “despite our ill usage at the hands of the American empire, the defiling of America-as-symbol enacted on that fateful Tuesday in September would only bring home anew to all the profundity of that symbol’s power.” Then, in the same paragraph, he switches, to “speak as an American” of how “the world looked to us … to uphold a holy image, or as holy as it gets in this age of enlightenment.” The paradox is that only people who see the United States as “the earthly garden, the abundant idyll” would have such a jealous compulsion to destroy it. On either side of the ideological one-way mirror, the spectacle of American exceptionalism mesmerizes.

“Homeland Elegies” is presented as a novel, Akhtar’s second, but often reads like a series of personal essays, each one illustrating yet another intriguing facet of the narrator’s prismatic identity. Like all autofiction, it induces the slightly prurient frisson of “truthiness,” the genre’s signature affect. The narrator, like Akhtar, has won a Pulitzer Prize for drama. What other parts are “true”? The syphilis? The sudden windfall from shady investments? We are given a portrait of a writer in the round, a sophisticated observer who is also a newly minted member of the cultural elite, a little dazzled by the bright lights but eager to heap his plate at the sexual and financial buffet. For a while, he hobnobs with celebrities and billionaires, imagining that he is “penning a coruscating catalog of the new aristocracy.” Eventually he realizes that he is nothing more than a “neoliberal courtier.”

The narrator finds himself thinking of Walt Whitman, and in particular the poet’s claims to be able to express through his “simple separate person” some kind of collective American experience. “My tongue, too, is homegrown,” Akhtar writes, “every atom of this blood formed of this soil, this air. But these multitudes will not be my own.” “Homeland Elegies” is about being denied membership to the Whitmanian crowd, a wound inflicted by 9/11 that has been painful for many American Muslims, particularly those who feel “at home,” or assumed they were, or aspired to be. The elegies of Akhtar’s title are sung for a dream of national belonging that has only receded since 2001.


The reader’s experience of the book is one of fragmentation. Akhtar tells stories that fracture and ramify and negate. Sometimes they’re comic, like the visit to an absurd Sufi ceremony led by an Austrian heiress. Sometimes they’re wrenchingly tragic. The narrator’s 9/11 tale is one of abjection: He wets himself in terror after being harassed by an Islamophobic man as he waits to give blood at St. Vincent’s Hospital in the West Village. To protect himself from further attacks, he steals a crucifix pendant from a Salvation Army store and wears it for several months, a camouflage that carries more than a tint of cultural shame. His Pakistani-American girlfriend is shocked when he confesses, years later. She could never wear a cross. “We bought flags,” she says.

The book’s most memorable creation (or re-creation) is the narrator’s father, a larger-than-life figure whose most cherished memory is of the time he spent as Donald Trump’s doctor. He is a “great fan of America” who keeps a copy of “The Art of the Deal” in the living room, “an imam’s son whose only sacred names … were those of the big California cabernets he adored.” The family fortunes rise and fall as he wastes the money he makes as a cardiologist on Trumpian real estate scheming. Finally, after a series of personal and professional disasters, his bluster fades, and his son concludes that “he thinks he’s American, but what that really means is that he still wants to be American. He still doesn’t really feel like one.”

Akhtar arranges people and situations with a dramatist’s care to expose the fault lines where community or communication cracks. Sometimes, the pieces seem almost too carefully arranged. A Pennsylvania state trooper stops the narrator and engages him in a probing conversation about Lawrence Wright’s “The Looming Tower.” A cosmopolitan aunt, a university teacher of critical theory who makes her young nephew read Fanon and Edward Said, draws the line at “The Satanic Verses.”

The unease reaches a high pitch with the narrator’s trip to Los Angeles to take meetings after he wins the Pulitzer. A Black Republican film agent explains what he considers to be the fundamentally Jewish character of Hollywood, “founded by families from New York’s garment district,” who value “novelty, ephemerality, single use, mass production.” The agent tells the narrator that if he wants to get hired, he needs, as a Muslim, to “find ways to let them know up front that you’re not coming for them. … Israel, the rest of it.” The narrator splutters that “my favorite writers are all Jewish.” The absurdity of this, essentially a version of “Some of my best friends are Black,” is like that of a punchline in a brilliant but queasy racial farce, one written to make the audience look away, and wonder when they’ll be able to leave the theater.