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American Dervish


American Dervish

Ayad Akhtar’s debut novel centers on the dual nature of religion in both the everyday and extreme sense, revealing abhorrent ugliness and pure beauty in devout religiosity. This is the story of a Pakistani family, immigrants to America who struggle in their unhappy home, divided by differences in religious philosophy and cultural clash, and culminating in a disastrous situation that unfolds when their only son --- a blooming adolescent --- begins reading and interpreting the Quran himself.

"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."

Four main characters evolve in this contemporary American family. The matriarch, Irshad: A loosely devoted Muslim who feels great bitterness toward her unfaithful husband. The patriarch, Naveed: A professional in Milwaukee who drinks too much and cheats on his wife continually with an American woman, openly disrespecting his family’s traditional customs. Mina: Irshad’s  best friend who has come to stay with the family along with her infant son, escaping Mina’s abusive ex-husband in hopes of making a new start through the only means she knows: marriage. And Hayat: A teenage boy whose emotional struggles form the heart of the story, a lonely adolescent who approaches all things quietly and observes bits and pieces of his native culture along with a very contradictory American culture, ensuing in many internal conflicts and confusing ideas for a child who is left to digest this alone.

Mingling with difficult encounters within Hayat’s community are his own muffled feelings about life --- his daily pain and ambivalence as he watches his parents’ marriage deteriorate, observing calculating American kids in his community who mistreat children of different faiths, and falling in love for the first time with a grown woman but possessing no real means of approaching his development and feelings. Hayat comes of age within a counterculture in America that expressly forbids sexual education to Muslim kids and projects traditional Muslim views of Americans as sexually repulsive and corrupt. His riveting life story takes off swiftly with Mina’s arrival and leads quickly to his seeing Mina in a different plane, as a giver of inspiration, a means to finding some elusive inner peace for himself, and as a sexual being. But Hayat sees the world through a thick veil of untempered religion.  

At the start of the book, I had absolutely no idea what a “dervish” was. This term is explained in many ways, literally and figuratively, throughout the book. Mina defines a dervish as “someone who gives up everything for Allah,” an interesting perspective that is key to appreciating many of the messages herein. A dervish can become a positive force for change --- leading to selflessness and internal humility --- or (as Hayat discovers) can also be extremely damaging. Both things happen here; in giving himself completely to Allah, Hayat feels fulfilled as he never has before. But then he becomes entangled in a bandwagon of anti-Semitism, something Mina and Hayat’s family had not intended. 

However you feel about reading religious books, this is one that deserves your attention. Akhtar is a well-experienced, wonderful writer who approaches a difficult subject confidently and without any pretense. He has many interesting and constructive ideas, and anyone who has ever lived among intense religiosity will find truth --- and a warning --- here. His book is all about the power of ideas, to corrupt, inspire, elevate…and consume. AMERICAN DERVISH is one of those rare (and, at times, uncomfortable) books that deserves a literary award.

Reviewed by Melanie Smith on February 16, 2012

American Dervish
by Ayad Akhtar

  • Publication Date: September 4, 2012
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Back Bay Books
  • ISBN-10: 031618330X
  • ISBN-13: 9780316183307