American Dervish by Ayad Akhtar

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Title: American Dervish
Author: Ayad Akhtar
Genre: Contemporary fiction, multicultural fiction
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company, 2012
Source: Received from the publisher for review
Read for: Review, South Asian Challenge 2012

Hayat's family has always been unstable -- his neurologist father spends a lot of time with other women, and his mother is very vocal about it. However, when Mina, his mother's best friend, comes to live with them, Hayat discovers a new world, both in the teachings of Islam and the vibrance of Mina's presence. However, as Hayat becomes immersed his belief and Mina becomes immersed in a relationship, prejudices and ignorance threaten everything they are fighting for.

American Dervish was compelling, heartbreaking, and very different from anything I've ever read. I've always found Islam to be an interesting religion, especially as it has been met with so much prejudice over the last several years. While I enjoy learning about it, I often find it difficult to find objective information (which is the case with most religions, I guess you could say). Generally what I've read has been either extremely vindictive or else embraces the religion as gospel truth. American Dervish was told from the unique perspective of someone whose experience of Islam had shining moments of transcendence and light and also dark, violent repercussions. Through Hayat's story, I felt both the beauty and peace he felt as he strived to commune with God and the confusion he experienced as men who were revered within the Islam community vilified those who did not follow their stringent expectations.

In addition to Hayat's multifaceted perceptions of his religion, his unique relationship with Mina Ali, his mother's best friend, is portrayed. Mina sweeps Hayat under her wing when she comes to live with his family, introducing him to the Quran and the hafiz, Muslims who memorize the Quran, thereby gaining salvation for themselves and their parents. Hayat's relationship with Mina goes beyond his religious education -- he seems to love her half as a mother and half as a love interest as he is dazzled by her beauty and desperate for his approval. Mina's side of the relationship is also not typical. One would assume that she would view Hayat in a strictly mother-son, adult-child type of relationship; however, it is clear from the way she acts when she is angry with him that she sees him in a more equal, adult to adult capacity. She communicates with him like they are on the same level, and she also retaliates against him like they're at the same level when he threatens her happiness. Their relationship was bizarre and fascinating.

This book also explores the tense relationship between the Jewish and Muslim religions. While the conflicts in Palestine/Israel are nothing new to me, it was interesting to see spelled out the way the Quran identifies Jews. The judgments and tensions on both sides were cuttingly explored, giving a dark example of the way groups that are different from each other vilify each other. While Christianity wasn't dealt with much in the book, I also gained new knowledge into Muslim beliefs about Jesus Christ, which was very interesting.

All these elements are tied together with well-executed prose, sentences that illustrate the pain and passion of these characters' lives. I felt present in the book as I read it -- the scenes were vivid in my mind with every word.

American Dervish is a powerful and at times disturbing book. It takes an unabashed look at Islam and lays it out with its positive and negative facets. I think Hayat's story will not fail to illuminate and move those who read it.

4 stars

Warnings: Some of Hayat's friends take it upon themselves to teach him the facts of life; some strong language, much of it associated with the aforementioned scene; some brief violence


  1. Thanks for the review! This book has been sitting by my bedside for a good couple of months at least but I've been wanting to read--I actually started it this morning whilst waiting for my car's oil change.

    1. Oh good, I'm glad that you have started it! It is a really fascinating book -- really thought-provoking.


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