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American Dervish: A Novel Paperback – September 4, 2012
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"Whether you believe religion is a precious gift from God or the greatest scourge of mankind, you will find yourself represented in these pages. With brilliant storytelling and exquisitely balanced points of view, Ayad Akhtar creates characters who experience the rapture of religion but also have their lives ripped apart by it."―Manil Suri, author of The Death of Vishnu and The Age of Shiva
"Akhtar's graceful and moving novel is a story most immigrants can relate to, regardless of background, but resonates particularly with first generation Muslim-Americans who, in this interconnected world, struggle daily with both a clash of cultures and (today) a deep suspicion of, if not prejudice against the faith of their forefathers. But apart from that, it is a wonderful story of coming to terms with who one is, and who society expects one to be--and absolutely everyone can relate to that."―Hooman Majd, author of The Ayatollah Begs to Differ and The Ayatollahs' Democracy
"A compelling debut with a family drama centered on questions of religious and ethnic identity.... Akhtar, himself a first-generation Pakistani-American from Milwaukee, perfectly balances a moving exploration of the understanding and serenity Islam imparts to an unhappy preteen with an unsparing portrait of fundamentalist bigotry and cruelty.... His well-written, strongly plotted narrative is essentially a conventional tale of family conflict and adolescent angst, strikingly individualized by its Muslim fabric. Hayat's father is in many ways the most complex and intriguing character, but Mina and Nathan achieve a tragic nobility that goes beyond their plot function as instruments of the boy's moral awakening.... [The story's] warm tone and traditional but heartfelt coming-of-age lesson will appeal to a broad readership. Engaging and accessible, thoughtful without being daunting: This may be the novel that brings Muslim-American fiction into the commercial mainstream."―Kirkus Reviews (Starred Review)
"AMERICAN DERVISH opens with an epigram from the Hadith Qudsi (sacred sayings of Muhammad): "And Allah said: I am with the ones whose hearts are torn." A fitting quote for this moving, insightful story about religion and family, immigration and assimilation, wherein hearts are numbed, warmed and broken. Faith and love are found, lost and re-formed as the narrator, Hayat Shah, travels a jagged road through the early years of adolescence with all its confusions and dramatic certainties.... Ayad Akhtar's explorations into the tension between the universal truths of religion and literal readings of its documents plays out effectively in AMERICAN DERVISH,his debut novel. Already a master of scene and dialogue, and evocative prose, he's created a compelling and visceral story. When Mina teaches Hayat to listen to the still small voice within that can only be heard by finding the silence at the end of a breath, Hayat tries, and discovers what will continue to inspire him to find the still, small voice hidden between and beneath each breath, and, with it, wisdom and insight."―Marilyn Dahl, Shelf Awareness
"Loss of innocence-sexual, of course, but also cultural and religious-is the subject of Ayad Akhtar's poignant AMERICAN DERVISH, set in a Muslim-American community in the early 1980s.... With characters full of contradictions and complexity, this debut novel is refreshing for its lack of the political and religious hand-wringing so common in the post-9/11 world. But it's also resonantly familiar in its depiction of youthful obsession and the desire to belong."―Sara Nelson, O, the Oprah Magazine
"AMERICAN DERVISH is an intelligent, courageously honest book about religion that never bogs down in dogma, proscriptions, or easy answers. The characters are memorable and alive, most of all the narrator's fierce, tough-minded mother and gorgeous, tragically principled "auntie," who in different ways help the young narrator on his difficult path of doubt, faith, and, hopefully, happiness. The story is as stirring and thought-provoking as it is compulsively page-turning."―Kate Christensen, author of The Astral and The Great Man
"[A] heartfelt first novel.... Akhtar himself is the son of Pakistani immigrants who settled in Wisconsin, and his knowing take on the complexities of that particular experience feels fresh.... The book's central tension between secularism and religiosity obviously has broader significance, and Akhtar explores these issues with admirable nuance.... Akhtar's characters drive a story that's compelling and believable even at its most alien. AMERICAN DERVISHoffers a rich look at a nearby world that many Americans don't know nearly enough about."―Rob Brunner, Entertainment Weekly
"What a pleasure to encounter a first novel as self-assured and effortlessly told as Ayad Akhtar's AMERICAN DERVISH. Mr. Akhtar, a first-generation Pakistani-American, has written an immensely entertaining coming-of-age story set during the early 1980s among the Pakistanis in the author's hometown, Milwaukee.... Mr. Akhtar's astute observations of the clashes between old world and new, between secular and sacred, among immigrants might seem familiar to readers of both contemporary and classic literature.... But what distinguishes Mr. Akhtar's novel is its generosity and its willingness to embrace the contradictions of its memorably idiosyncratic characters and the society they inhabit.... Mr. Akhtar is particularly adept at depicting the tensions between Jews and Muslims in pre-Sept. 11 America.... Yet for all the rage and satire contained within its pages, Mr. Akhtar's novel is far from an antireligious screed in the tradition of Christopher Hitchens. It is instead admirably restrained, deeply appreciative of some aspects of Islam and ultimately far more interested in raising provocative questions than in definitively answering them.... [A] charming debut."―Adam Langer, New York Times
About the Author
- Publisher : Back Bay Books; Reprint edition (September 4, 2012)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 384 pages
- ISBN-10 : 031618330X
- ISBN-13 : 978-0316183307
- Item Weight : 12 ounces
- Dimensions : 5.4 x 1.25 x 8.2 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #126,272 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
Top reviews from the United States
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But there are also dervishes who chant, and those who renounce all earthly pleasures - ascetics who seek to abnegate any sense of selfhood, and who aspire to make themselves indistinguishable from the dust in the ground. This spiritual stance and world view is the polar opposite of the American cult of personality and individualism. In this novel, two characters demonstrate aspects of dervish behavior, the protagonist, Hayat, and his enchanting young aunt, Mina. Does Mina allow herself to be ground into dust, or is she fulfilling her destiny or her choices in life?
It is clear from this novel, from "Disgraced," and from interviews that the author has granted that he struggles with coming to grips with aspects of traditional fundamentalist Muslim doctrine that he sees as atavistic, misogynistic and paternalistic. His intellectual journey reminds me of that of Roger L. Martin of the University of Toronto, in his seminal work ""Opposable Mind." The author rejects false dichotomies, and posits that the best leaders and the best thinkers do not settle for imperfect Choice A vs. imperfect Choice B, but dig deeper to discover an integrative less imperfect Choice C or beyond. In this sense, Hayat's journey, and that of Mr. Akhtar, represent a form of Hegelian dialectic, moving from the thesis of fundamentalism to the antithesis of atheism to the synthesis of some form of reasoned spirituality. During the journeys that Hayat and Mina take, the author treats issues of Anti-semitism, the paternalistic roots of the three Abrahamic faiths, the role of women in Islam and in America, the many routes one may choose on the way to self-discovery, the sacrifices one may choose to make to protect those we love.
It is the default setting of this provocative author not to offer facile answers, but to pose "a more beautiful question" that causes the reader to pause, to consider, to ruminate, and to begin to see things in a new light.
I am off to order another one of Mr. Akhtar's thrilling works of art.
What I found most intriguing about this book was its view of Islam; at some points I felt the book was an apologetic for it and at other times a diatribe against it. Reflecting back on it all, I now see it simply as an excellent example of Islam in all its rich diversity and complexity. Those who view Islam monolithically as a religion that is violent and hateful will be disappointed with this book, as will those who view Islam as a religion of peace and brotherly love.
My perception of Muslims after reading this book is not all that different from my evaluation of Christians: sometimes they are wonderful, sometimes they are terrible, and sometimes they are simply human.
The novel reads very fast, but that does not mean that the subject matter is light. It is a coming of age story of Hayat, a pre-teen American boy who happens to be a Muslim of Pakistani descent. His father is a successful doctor who has rejected Islam and "the hypocrites" who practice it in his Milwaukee community (his father also drinks alcohol and cheats on his wife with white women). His mother is devoted to him and angry with his father, and Akhtar states in an interview that she is a "lukewarm Muslim." The novel begins with and surrounds itself with the relationship between Hayat and his mother's best friend, Mina, a recent divorcee who arrives from Pakistan with her 5 year old son. Mina is a devout Muslim who doesn't accept the rigidity of the religion, but rather uses the teachings as a way to get a deeper connection to both the world and herself. Hayat has a severe physical crush on her but also feels moved by the spiritual teachings that Mina provides him.
An excellent novel.
The book is a very easy read, and one of the things I liked about it was the there are no real heroes or villains, at least among the main character; each is flawed and damaged in some way. That made it seem more real. The characters are well developed, if a bit like caricatures to some degree.
The latter fact, plus the fact that the writing is so simple and straightforward, made it seem at times as though the book was really meant for the YA reader rather than an adult. That changes as the book deepens and the plot gets darker, but it never went away for me. Still, four stars is nothing to sneeze at, and this is worth reading for sure.
Top reviews from other countries
The very personal story in the novel can almost be seen as representative, as pointed out in earlier perceptive reviews, of the complex, long-standing relationship between Islam & Judaism, connected by history and sharing so much in common (prophets), but soured by recent grievances over territorial issues.
With regards to the novel itself, it is a page-turner, full of deft characterisation, the dialogue capturing a range of voices, from those of a vibrant, soulful woman, Mina, to those of children, the curious Hayat & the more innocent Imran, as well as the unctuous members of the local Muslim community in Milwaukee. The book itself is more cinematic in tone than literary, and would probably lend itself to adaptation quite easily though this is not to devalue its emotional power and the complexity of Mina's very personal interpretation of Islam.
The novel is filled with several dramatic confrontations, indicative of Ayad Ahktar's background as an actor/playwright, and I felt it did occasionally lurch towards melodrama. Having read a piece on Ahktar & his work, his acclaimed play `Disgraced', he is conscious of his audience & I found `American Dervish' poignant at times, some scenes emotionally intense(the parting between the Shahs & Mina, the scene in the hospital), if a little manipulative. But they worked because they pulled my heartstrings.
The novel itself is in the tradition of a Bildungsroman, the coming of age story of ten year old Hayat, as he comes to terms with Islam and a multiple identity as a Pakistani-American, the secular & the religious. Through Hayat, the first person narrator, we explore the transforming quality of religion, but also its more negative side, about how it can indoctrinate an impressionable young mind. `Allah's light' eventually guides Hayat to a very different revelation, an insight into the human heart & a journey - foreshadowed by his own `night journey'/dream in hospital - from a willing, often literal acceptance of things (hellfire, anti-semitism) to a new scepticism.
`American Dervish' is very much about the push-pull dynamic & tension characters experience as a consequence of a dual identity and the hope embodied by Hayat & his inter-faith relationship at the end of the novel is counterbalanced by the tragedy that ultimately leads to the physical and mental disintegration of his beloved Aunt Mina in the novel. The charismatic Mina, who has sought sanctuary in the US with her son after getting divorced in Pakistan, transforms an unhappy household, bringing light & love, and falls in love with Nathan, a Jewish colleague of Hayat's father. Already febrile, this mix is intensified by Hayat's infatuation for his Aunt and his jealousy of her new found happiness. He is a young boy conscious of feelings that he does not understand.
The novel casts a critical eye over Islam in America, of the religious intolerance and hypocrisies practiced by the local Muslim community in Milwaukee, such as the dark satire on Imam Souhef's rather bizarre sermon (showing how even the most tenuous of links can be used as a vehicle to peddle hatred, an interesting philosophical premise simply winds up as pandering to the lowest common denominator, anti-Semitism), the shared complicities, even by wives, but the book should not be seen as a diatribe against Islam. Rather, I see Akhtar's portrayal of Hayat's beloved Aunt as representing Islam in a positive light & that under fairer, less patriarchal circumstances, such a woman possessed the intelligence to become a maulavi herself (imam). The independent Mina practices `ijtihad', a personal interpretation of Islam, humane & compassionate. Dragged down by fate & circumstance, she ultimately becomes the eponymous 'American Dervish', whose suffering and pain brings her closer to Allah - and where it should be perhaps remembered that `sufism' (mysticism) emerged as a reaction to the more austere teaching of Islam.
I did like the characterisation of Hayat's parents, Naveed & Muneer, their volatile relationship, and Muneer's bitterness towards her husband's drinking & womanising, though she ultimately realises that their marriage is one of equals and a proper marriage in name rather than the virtual act of self-sacrifice made by Mina. Though their marriage, too, is a comment that same-faith marriages contain the same inherent problems as any marriage: the need to communicate; and ironically, Mina & Nathan are perhaps more emotionally compatible than Hayat's parents despite their cultural differences.
I did like the easy-going, irreligious Naveed though, perhaps the other extreme of Muslim experience in America (he is aloof from the community, preferring a Western lifestyle), and, ironically, his rare acts of intolerance are usually directed towards Islam/fellow Muslims and one in particular, an ironic reversal of the Rushdie affair.
Browsing other reviews, on the both UK & US amazon pages, I did feel some of the criticism about the authenticity of the characters and situations perhaps had a ring of truth. The ill-fated lovers from warring faiths, Hayat's later relationship with Rachel are perhaps more wish-fulfillments & the well-intentioned hopes of an author trying to posit a solution - the need for more tolerance & understanding of people of different backgrounds through the personal. Upon reflection, I really do wonder how likely, or how possible this is in a world where people do categorise/compartmentalise one another and frequently lead separate lives side by side.
So far there are not so many books like this one.