Review: American Dervish by Ayad Akhtar

  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Little, Brown and Company (January 9, 2012)
  • ISBN-10: 0316183318
  • Source: Publisher (BEA)

In 1990, Hayat Shah is in college.  A phone call from his mother announcing the death of his “aunt” Mina draws him back to his youth, how things changed when Mina entered the Shah’s home.

They lived in Milwaukee. Hyat’s father was a neurologist with no interest in keeping touch with Milwaukee’s Muslim community. His mother continues to put up with his father’s infidelity. The family is troubled, to say the least. His mother’s best friend Mina arrives from Pakistan.  She’s been divorced by her husband for having a “fast mouth.”  She fears her son will be taken from her so she escapes to the United States.

Mina is a devout Muslim.  It isn’t long before she convinces Hayat to study the Quran and encourages him to become a hafiz, an individual who knows the holy book by heart. This act influences Hayat to reflect on his life, his family, his upbringing.  It causes tension with his father, a relationship that is already pretty volatile to begin with.

It is when Mina begins dating Hayat’s father’s best friend, Nathan, that the tension truly begins. Not just a tension between family members but a sexual tension of sorts between Hayat and Mina.  This isn’t done in a perverse or abusive manner, it is simply a young man’s feelings toward an attractive woman living in his home. Nathan is not Muslim, but Jewish. As the relationship progresses, he agrees to convert to the Muslim religion if this means a life with Mina. This new relationship Mina shares with Nathan creates a level of jealousy in Hayat. Combined with the readings of the Quran that he occasionally misinterprets, Hayat partakes in an act of betrayal that will forever alter him, but more importantly, will alter the life of his aunt Mina.

American Dervish is unique in that it gives the reader a first hand glance inside the life of a Muslim family.  Hayat is desperately seeeking his own identity. His father doesn’t partake in the religion that other members of his family hold so dear.  He turns to the Quran for answers but ends up with more questions.  When the choices Mina makes based on her religion, his religion, have detrimental effects, Hayat is torn, confused. The results are an awakening of sorts for Hayat, changing the way he looks at his religion, his life, forever.

What impresses me most about American Dervish is the writing itself. Akhtar is able to perform the truly remarkable, to tackle difficult issues without being overly heavy or depressing.  Hayat’s character is one that you can’t help but feel for; he’s struggling to find identity in a family full of misrepresentations of the religion he hopes to devote himself to. A young Muslim man living in a Midwestern town, desperate for his Muslim beliefs to co-exist with the Western culture he is immersed in.

Additionally, Akhtar is able to juxtapose anger and beauty, love and hatred so eloquently.  Living in a post 9/11 world, it is refreshing to read a novel not degrading the Muslim religion, but one that celebrates it for both its beauty and its faults.

American Dervish is a book that will forever have a place in my mind. It is this book that educated me on the Muslim world, introduced me to a young man battling to find his identity.  It is a book that will be discussed in coffee shops and book clubs around the country. A book that will live in the hearts of its readers long after the last pages our turned. Dare I say it? American Dervish is, without a doubt, already one of my favorite books of 2012. Highly recommended.

11 thoughts on “Review: American Dervish by Ayad Akhtar

  1. I almost bought this one and then put it down thinking it might be too sad. I may need to give it a second chance.

  2. Well, the reviews have been all over the board on this one, but I totally plan on reading it. Got the copy at SIBA and have been excited about it ever since.

  3. The title has caught my attention. Sounds like a book I would like. Great review. I’ll be on the lookout for this one.

  4. I totally agree that it’s refreshing to see a book not vilifying Muslims but rather giving readers an authentic look into their religion and culture. I think a lot of folks forget that *all* religions teach tolerance and peace, but it’s people who twist those messages to their own purposes.

    Definitely adding this one to my TBR list. I love books that introduce me to a culture I don’t know too much about.

    Smiles!
    Lori

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