Kata's Reviews > American Dervish

American Dervish by Ayad Akhtar
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Feb 10, 12

Read from January 31 to February 01, 2012

American Dervish by Ayad Akhtar takes place in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Where I live presently. I don't know what is wrong with me - two local books back to back! I picked up this book because Akhtar recently came to speak at my favorite book store in Milwaukee and while I missed his appearance (snow storm-gotta love Wisconsin) I did listen to his interview on Fresh Air/NPR and I thought okay-okay I'll try it but that makes two local books back to back. Sheesh!

The whole book centers around pious little Hayat Shah. He is extremely devout in his Islamic beliefs which are fed to him by his auntie Mina. Her intentions are good. But Hayat becomes devout in a very literal sense. He is a 12 year old boy interpreting the Qu'ran on his own. Reading his Qu'ran studiously he finds peace in its pages. Mina is not truly his auntie. Auntie is a term of respect. She is his mother's closest friend who has come to live with his family after her husband divorces her in Pakistan. Hayat falls in love with her and becomes protective of her. Love in a child's sense. She is the only adult who treats him like a child and pays special attention to him. Their bond is heavy with familial love despite the lack of blood lines.

Hayat's parents are less than stellar. His father a philanderer and drunk. His mother leaning on Hyat for strength for his father's faults and sharing far too much with the young boy. It is no wonder he seeks out attention from Mina. As Mina's life progress nicely in Milwaukee, Hayat's life becomes more skewed in religious views and observations among time spent with his peers. **Spoiler** Mina passes away and this monumental person in Hayat's life sends him into a downward but spiritually revealing spiral. He grows up. He understands how distorted his views were. He moves into manhood. He casts away his anti-Semitic behavior. And life moves forward in a way that each generation improves more than the last. Isn't that how life should truly be?

This novel made me think of that tv series, the Wonder Years. Hayat is growing up. When a kid grows up he must learn life lessons and that is exactly what this novel is about. You have to read it with the mind's eye of a 12 year old boy. Don't overwork yourself here people!

I will say there are very ardent anti-Semitic and anti-Islamic sentiments in this novel. It's not light stuff. Especially in current cultural times. It makes me wonder, having missed Akhtar's appearance if he has been castigated from the devout because of this novel. If he has been rebuked in any way, then it is a shame, because that wasn't the point. Well, I don't think that was the point...

I revert back to my Henry James statute - insistence that writers be allowed the greatest possible freedom in presenting their view of the world. James claimed that a text must first and foremost be realistic and contain a representation of life that is recognisable to its readers.

This novel captures a realistic representation of life. It's not pretty. It reminds me of a John Irving quote (paraphrased) "beware of confusing faith in a religion for intelligence."

Try Akhtar's novel because maybe you will find it is an intelligent story about a youth growing up. Not a story about faith and religion and the darkness it can cast when its not properly understood.
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