Jill's Reviews > American Dervish

American Dervish by Ayad Akhtar
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Dec 21, 2011

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Read from January 10 to 12, 2012

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 behta. Promise me you won’t end up like him. That you won’t live your life 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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Comments (showing 1-13 of 13) (13 new)

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Teresa Lukey this book has attracted my attention for something like 6 months. I want to read it terribly. Can't wait for your review.


message 2: by Jeanette (new)

Jeanette  "Astute Crabbist" "an educational twist....messages strongly telegraphed"
Very nice. Message received, loud and clear. Thanks for the review, Jill. I think maybe I've read this book before, in some other form. ;-)


Jill This review gave me no pleasure because the author's heart was in the right place. Its true audience -- IMHO -- is YA. It may be right for someone, but not for me.


message 4: by Jeanette (new)

Jeanette  "Astute Crabbist" Yes, I do think I've seen YA books with similarities to what you've described here. You've made it very clear in your review what the book's value could be for a certain audience, and what the author was trying to accomplish. (I forget to say these things in my shorthand comments on people's reviews.)


Jill I'm a little surprised at all the rave reviews. But viva la difference, right?


message 6: by Jeanette (new)

Jeanette  "Astute Crabbist" Well, you did mention that it has a lot to offer for the mass market audience. A lot of people like things kept simple, especially if they haven't read much about the topic.


Jill Well, you and I both read and loved Submission, which was so nuanced. I guess that's what I look for these days in a book that tackles potentially controversial topics. Interestingly, I'll soon be attending a play by the same author, who is also a playwright and actor.


message 8: by Jeanette (new)

Jeanette  "Astute Crabbist" Yep, I'm with you. It's hard to stay with a book that tells me exactly what I'm supposed to get from it.
Enjoy the play. It will be interesting to compare his skills, novelist vs. playwright.


Jessica Really that disappointing? That's too bad, I had high hopes for this one. I've got a request for it at the library, so I'll probably still read it but now I'm much less excited.


message 10: by Jill (new) - rated it 3 stars

Jill Hi Jessica -- Well, I've 5-starred books that readers I respect have 1-starred and vice versa. My personal feeling was that it was quite young adult, despite the worthy themes. If you DO read it,let me know if you think I'm off base...or not.


Isabel O. Hi, Jill. Couldn't agree more with this review. Wondering how the play was? My husband and I are in Chicago next week. Worth going?


message 12: by Jill (new) - rated it 3 stars

Jill Isabel, the reviews were generally good. BUT google the review on Disgraced from the Chicago SunTimes; seems like they felt that some of the play was reductive.

My husband and I are avid theater-goers. I'd recommend Enron from the TimeLine Theater, a small but VERY reliable theater group. Race at the Goodman is also superb.


Isabel O. Great. Many thanks for the leads.


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