Title: American Dervish
Author: Ayad Akhtar
Release Date: January 9, 2012
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Genre: Literary Fiction, Cultural Fiction (South Asia)
Rating: 5 out of 5
Hayat Shah is a Pakistani-American boy living with his parents. His mother’s and father’s relationship isn’t ideal, but the family gets by. That is, until Hayat’s mother’s best friend arrives from India. Mina changes everything in the Shah household. The atmosphere becomes softer, less difficult, and Mina teaches Hayat about Islam and the Qur’an. But as things begin to change, Hayat clings to Quranic teachings, and is forced to learn some difficult lessons about what he is capable of.
American Dervish is a novel of contradictions. There is so much beauty, hope, and love in this novel that it is spilling out of the pages, yet these feelings are tempered by the ugliness of narrow mindedness and racism. Hayat is an appealing young boy, bright and eager to learn. It’s clear that he has become somewhat lost in the struggles between his parents, so when Mina arrives and showers attention on him, it’s Hayat’s dream come true. He can’t help but develop a crush on her as they study the Qur’an together, and through the holy book, he finds peace.
Akhtar captures the simultaneous beauty and ugliness of religion perfectly in American Dervish. He shows Islam as a religion of peace, something which can bring solace to an open soul. His portrayal of Islam is simple, yet gorgeous; through Akhtar’s prose, the religion’s appeal is completely understandable. Yet somehow, Akhtar also manages to show the reader the darker sides of Islam just as well. From the dangers that stem from a literal interpretation of the Qur’an to the closed-mindedness of some in Muslim communities, he does not shy away from these more difficult aspects. It’s incredibly well done, a nuanced portrait of a religion that, like any other, is subject to interpretation by its followers. However, even in the darkest points of the novel, the reader has Mina to remind them of Islam’s beauty and wonder.
The novel focuses on the effect that religion can have on a young, naïve mind through Hayat, and it’s not a pretty picture. Hayat becomes more difficult and misguided as the novel progresses. Because Akhtar took so much care in developing him, Hayat never loses the reader’s sympathy, but it’s difficult to watch him go down this path. It’s an excellent commentary on the interplay between strict religious beliefs and modern life, especially in a child.
Despite the fact that the subject matter of American Dervish isn’t always the easiest to read – issues such as racism, adultery, and abuse permeate the novel – Akhtar’s prose always lightens what would otherwise be a heavy burden. His gorgeous writing keeps the book from ever becoming too much and shows the reader the small joys of everyday life. I cannot say enough about how readable Akhtar’s prose is. This is simply a wondrous book to read.
I feel like I have gone on and on about this book, yet barely scratched its surface. The fact is, it’s difficult to describe exactly why this book is so good. The expert character development, relevant issues, amazing prose – they all come together to create something that is truly incredible. I feel lucky to have had the chance to read this book; it would be a perfect book club pick, as readers will want to discuss it for weeks after reading it. It’s a novel that will definitely stay with me for a very long time, and I can’t recommend this pitch-perfect debut novel highly enough.