Customer Reviews: American Dervish: A Novel
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on January 1, 2012
Title explanation: A dervish is a person who gives up everything for Allah.

In 1990, Hayat, from a Pakistani family, is in college. The death of his "aunt" Mina causes him to reflect on her story, and on events that occurred as he was growing up. It tells of his parents' less-than-happy marriage, and the different ways in which his parents shaped his views, as well as of Hamad's immersion in the Quran, with the resultant initial rigid set of beliefs that spur him to actions that he is ashamed of later in life.

Mina Ali is his mother Irshad's best friend from Pakistan. After an arranged marriage to a husband who allows his mother to abuse her, followed by a divorce when Mina is in the maternity ward, Irshad and Naveed (Hayat's father) persuade Mina's parents to allow her and her 2-year-old-son, Imran, to stay with them in America.

How do I describe this one without spoilers? As a reader who is always interested in other cultures, but especially fascinated by stories of other cultures living in America, this was a mind-opener. The parallels here between fundamentalist Christians and their strict, close-minded sets of beliefs and hard-line Muslims are equally full of intolerance.

Mina is a lovely, intelligent woman, and the choices she makes based on her religion are rather tragic in consequence.

Seeing how Hayat's beliefs were whittled and shaped reminds me of my own spiritual growth, and will likely remind you of your own.

I loved the characters and the story. I felt very invested in Mina, and her story is one that will resonate with you as well, dear reader.

The story of Nathan, Naveed's best friend and colleague, the son of a Holocaust survivor, is bittersweet.

There are injustices here, and adultery, and women whose potential is quashed. It is sad in places, hopeful in others, but very real and impactful.

I highly recommend it.


"Hayat, her intelligence has been the curse of her life. When a Muslim woman is too smart, she pays the price for it. And she pays the price not in money, behta, but in abuse."

"I know that you won't understand why I burned your Quran, but there was a reason. It's because you're different. You can't live life by rules others give you. In that way, you and I are the same. You have to find your own rules. All my life I've been running away from their rules, Hayat. All my life. You will be the same. Don't ask me how I know it, but I do."

"So what do I do? I ask her, like any normal person would, 'Why, Najat, does your husband beat you? Hmm?' "
Mother was absorbed in the moment, as if reliving it.
" 'Because we need it,' she says. 'Because it's something about our nature. Something that needs to know its limits.' My jaw hit the floor, Hayat. I looked at her and thought to myself, this is an insane asylum . . . "

Writing: 4.5 out of 5 stars
Plot: 5 out of 5 stars
Characters: 4.5 out of 5 stars
Reading Immersion: 4.5 out 5 stars

BOOK RATING: 4.6 out of 5 stars
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Hayat Shah - the only son of Pakistani Muslim parents living on the outskirts of Milwaukee - is very likeable, the type of person you can imagine sitting down and talking to way into the night. In the first few pages of the novel, he is getting ready to share his life story to a young Jewish woman with these words: "You may not like me very much if I tell you what happened..."

But we do. As readers we do like Hayat as he reveals the good, the bad, and the ugly of his story, which begins when his mother's best friend Mina departs from Pakistan and her controlling ex-husband with her small son. Hayat - at the cusp of adolescence - develops a serious crush on Mina, who encourages him to immerse himself in the Qur'an. Pretty soon, Mina falls for a Jewish doctor - the partner of Hayat's father and his new sense of purpose merges with his growing sense of "love" and confused feelings of betrayal.

It's not only an intriguing but also a timely premise, as thoughtful Americans strive to gain greater understanding of "what it means to be Muslim." And I believe the book has much to offer a young adult or mass market audience who likes a linear story with an educational twist. The story has an interesting protagonist, a story arc, and has much to say about the push and pull of secular, mystical, and religious Islam, the evolving role of women, and the confusion that accompanies growing up Muslim in America.

However, like many plot-driven made-for-TV movies, American Dervish doesn't dig nearly enough, not providing its characters with enough of an inner life, and sacrificing depth for a fluid story line. The result is often platitudes and melodrama, with messages strongly telegraphed.

Here is Hayat's mother, speaking to him: "Listen to me and never forget what I'm telling you. If you give yourself to filth and garbage, you will become filth and garbage. You will become the sum of what you desire...Promise me you won't end up like him." And here is Mina's Jewish suitor, Nathan: "The way he has those people beholden to him. It's revolting and immortal. And it has nothing to do with real Islam. Nothing at all." Or mother talking about her friend Mina: "I keep telling her the fact that Nathan's Jewish is a good thing. They understand how to respect women, behta. They understand how to let a woman be a woman, to let her take care of them."

Ayad Akhtar - an actor, playwright and novelist - is obviously striving to contribute to Muslim-Jewish (and Muslim-American) understanding, which is a very worthy goal and a good thing. But by leading the reader to conclusions and by simplifying premises, the book just doesn't rise to high literary standards. In a world where "unhappiness hovers" and "nerve ends teem", the novel is ultimately lacking. (2.5)
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on February 8, 2015
"American Dervish" works on many levels. It's a coming-of-age story that explores religious fanaticism, prejudice, friendship, betrayal, hypocrisy, puberty, romantic love, love of God, and what it means to be an outsider. The author tackles themes large and small and succeeds in all of it.

Akhtar is such a gifted writer that he often gives us fully realized characters that arise from spare descriptions. I've read too many books where a character is composed of one or a few traits and the writer can't pull it off. Akhtar doesn't merely pull it off, he excels at it.

I learned a lot about Islam from "American Dervish", whose Muslim characters vary in their knowledge of, belief in and practice of Islam, much as Christians and Jews do. By setting the book in the 1970s Akhtar allows the reader to put aside 9/11 and the present state of fanatic Islam insofar as the consequences, but at the same time shows us the seeds of hate-filled fanaticism. And now that I've been presented with a spectrum of Muslim beliefs that includes moderates, I want to learn more.

(Upon finishing the book I watched the fascinating documentary "Koran By Heart", which is from 2011; my interest in seeing it and learning more is wholly a result of reading "American Dervish." It was the perfect follow-up to "Dervish", watching and listening to these inspiring real-life Hafiz. Rifdah, the young heroine of the film, will steal your heart as she shatters stereotypes of women in Islam.)

Speaking of stereotypes, the Jewish doctor, Nathan, in lesser hands could have been a stereotype and/or a mere plot device, but Akhtar's creation is anything but. Nathan is so realistic there were times I felt like I could hear his heart beating fast. After I finished I had even greater appreciation for the extent to which the author accomplishes a great deal with this one character, without ever being heavy-handed in his portrayal.

There's so much to love about this book. There are villains and heroes, but as in the best literature, sometimes a character is both. There is drama and suspense, and beauty in some slower passages, including one where the author poetically describes the chanting in a mosque. This varied pacing helps to make "American Dervish" a powerful and poignant book. Akhtar is so gifted it's easy to imagine, if he continues writing novels, some day he'll add a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction to the one he's received for Drama.
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on January 18, 2012
A Pakistani family--Naveed, the father (a physician); Muneer, his wife; and Hayat, their son--live a seemingly mundane life in Milwaukee. Then Mina, the life-long best friend of Muneer, and her son, Imran, come from Pakistan to live with the family after Mina's divorce. Mina meets Nathan, a colleague of Naveed's; Hayat's insecurities surface when he feels his own relationship with Mina is being threatened; and thus, the collision begins.......

This book is exquisitely written! We are treated to glimpses of Islamic history and the Quran, enmeshed with the superlative plot. Strong character development is @ the helm of this terrific tale. Ayed Akhtar is a DIALOG GENIUS. The dialog so aptly evokes the personas of the cast of characters that their personalities are virtually tattooed on their foreheads. I can't remember when I last encountered such incredibly concise, descriptive dialog.

POSSIBLE SPOILER ALERT: The author leaves adequate possibility for a sequel at the end of the story, i.e.,Hayat's post-pubescent relationship history and the uncertainty of Mina and Nathan's ultimate involvement...NMR
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VINE VOICEon February 7, 2016
I found this debut novel by Ayad Akhtar to be a wonderful companion piece to the author's play "Disgraced." In both works, Akhtar wrestles autobiographically with his evolving views of the Muslim religion and of the Pakistani culture into which he was born. The title, "American Dervish," needs some explication. For most of us, the only kind of dervish with which we are familiar are the legendary "whirling dervishes."
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.
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on January 18, 2012
American Dervish is a terrific coming of age story. What makes it particularly stand out is that the protagonist, Hayat Shah, a 12-year-old Muslim boy isn't simply the victim of selfish parents or bullying schoolmates. He has a petty and vindictive side, too, and the novel focuses on the lifelong guilt he feels over one particularly cruel act that he's convinced changed the course of his "auntie's" life. The auntie, Mina, comes to America to live with Hayat's family after her arranged marriage in Pakistan fell apart because of her meddlesome and overbearing mother-in-law. But when her husband divorced her, he threatened to take custody of their son when the boy turned seven. To help her escape that fate, Hayat's mother, who was a childhood friend of Mina's, lets her and her son come live with them at their home in Milwaukee. Through Mina, a brilliant and religious woman, Hayat learns about Islam and the Quran for the first time. Hayat's father, Naveed, lost his faith after his sister died when the two were teenagers and he has nothing but contempt for the religious Pakistanis in their town, whom he sees as ignorant, backward, and hypocritical. Mina uses the Quran to teach Hayat how to appreciate every aspect of life and to live with ultimate humility before God's graces. She makes him want to become a "hafiz," someone who memorizes many verses of the Quran. Hayat believes that if he does, both he and his parents will get into heaven - a possibility that fills him with great hope because he worries that otherwise his father's philandering and drinking will make him burn in hell. The beautiful Mina is more than a religious inspiration to the naïve Hayat. At 12, he still does not know what sex is, isn't even sure if women have different parts than men, and when he starts having wet dreams, he doesn't know what's happening to him. Without understanding anything about sex, Mina is his first crush - a situation that becomes all the more complicated when he catches Mina in the middle of the night naked in the bathroom and on the verge of touching herself. As aroused as that image of her makes him, he doesn't use it for his own masturbatory fantasy, but instead tries to become more devout. But when Mina meets and falls in love with his father's partner, Nathan, Hayat does all he can to destroy that relationship, out of jealousy and because Nathan is Jewish. When Mina herself realizes the relationship with Nathan won't work because of their religious differences, her family's objections, and her son's desire for a father who isn't white, she settles for a marriage to a weak and mentally unstable but domineering Muslim man, and Hayat has to deal with years of guilt for sabotaging her one chance at happiness. Hayat's mother is a particularly strong character. She suffers the constant humiliation of her husband's affairs and opens up to her son about far more than she should, but when Mina lashes out at Hayat for trying to poison her son's mind about the prospects of a Jewish stepfather, Hayat's mother comes to her son defense and lets her best friend know she'll kill her even she ever touches her son again. Overall, this is a courageous book and one that offers a not very flattering look at the anti-semitism and misogyny of a small group of Muslims who use the Quran to justify their hatred of the Jews and, in some cases, men's right to beat their women. But this community of Muslims is no different, I suppose, than the Christian right when they use the Bible to justify homophobia. Here, Mina, provides the thoughtful counterbalance, by showing the goodness and humility the Quran can inspire when interpretations of it aren't use to justify mean-spiritedness and cruelty. There is a lot of wonderful moral complexity to consider here. Is Hayat responsible for Mina's fate or is Mina the one who set the ball in motion by filling his head with verses from the Quran and leading him to a mosque that would never accept Jews? Did Hayat's one sabotaging act truly alter the course of Mina's life or did she make free choices along the way? It's a lot to ponder, and the author deserves considerable accolades for embedding these issues inside a highly entertaining and moving story with so many great, fully rounded characters.
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on January 13, 2012
By taking us into a community that most of us don't know, except as stereotype, and seeing it through a child's eyes, this book has the vitality and vibrancy of something entirely new. American Dervish brings us into the heart of a Muslim boy in the Midwest who is trying, like all children, to make sense of the world he lives in. His immigrant parents are caught between assimilation and the pull of their culture of origin. The boy's own journey into emotional and spiritual discovery opens a door on absolutist thinking -- one of the more pressing issues of our time. The joy is that the door to transcendence is also opened, and the characters are so well realized that story feels entirely authentic.
While this is an adult book I would recommend it to any parent looking for an excellent read for a teenager. It is a treatise on keeping an open mind.
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on September 3, 2012
It takes a lot of courage and honesty to write the story of a teenager of Pakistani origin growing up on the United States, surrounded by mixed messages about culture and religion. He has to find his way through this maze of conflicts, his "first love", the character flaws of his father and the lonliness of his mother. Dervish gives you the uncanny insight into the story of every first and second generation immigrant trying to embrace change, and yet at the same time, clinging on to her heritage and his own worldview. The story is told with the brutal honesty of a child. Ayad holds back nothing, not even the repulsive bigotry that is depicated through some characters and the opposing and balancing view held by others. At the end of the day, it comes down to your own "ijtihad" or interpretation of right and wrong. Young Ayad is swayed by both. There is a sense of loss, of a cruel act commited in the rush of religious fervor and of regretes without absolution.

I highly recommed this book.
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on February 28, 2015
This is a fascinating book, and perhaps I should begin my review by disclosing that I am a retired Baptist pastor. Other reviews have noted the book's excellent story, dialog and character development. I would like to add something about its theology.

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.
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on August 13, 2015
I liked this book a lot. The Kindle version included an interview with the author at the end, which was helpful in getting a perspective on the different views of religion in the book, as well as the Muslim experience in America. It also included a list of discussion questions for a book group. And I really liked the "playlist," which was a list of songs important to the author when he was a youth of Pakistani extraction growing up near Milwaukee, and songs he listened to while writing the novel. Great addition. It reminded me of getting a jazz cd as a bonus with a Michael Connelly novel, something else I enjoyed.

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.
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