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American Dervish: A Novel Paperback – September 4, 2012
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"Akhtar, the star and director of the 2005 terrorism drama The War Within, offers what promises to be one of the most complex treatments of Muslim immigration and fundamentalism to come from an American-born (albeit first-generation) writer."―Boris Kachka, New York Magazine
"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)
"The young teen's personal story about growing up in Muslim America is both particular and universal, with intense connections of faith, sorrow, tenderness, anger, betrayal, questioning, and love."―Hazel Rochman, Booklist
"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 DERVISH offers 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
Ayad Akhtar is an American-born, first generation Pakistani-American from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He holds degrees in Theater from Brown University and in Directing from the Graduate Film Program at Columbia University, where he won multiple awards for his work. He is the author of numerous screenplays and was star and co-writer of The War Within, which premiered at the 2005 Toronto Film Festival and was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for Best Screenplay and an International Press Academy Satellite Award for Best Picture - Drama. American Dervish is his first novel.
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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.
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.
As for the book itself, I really enjoyed it. The writing is good, but occasionally a little unsubtle. It read fast. The author says it was cut to about half its original length, and I suspect that editing helped a lot. I really got the sense that I learned something of the Muslim experience in a thoughtful young man. The book was also a coming of age tale. It reminded me of my own youth in some ways, in a Christian tradition, and led me to reflect on the development of sexuality and religious fervor, and how the two may be connected. And it made me think of the development of fanaticism, something many adolescents may dabble with, though most do not adopt for long. Overall, I think it is an enjoyable read, which also touches on some very important topics.