Jenny's Reviews > American Dervish

American Dervish by Ayad Akhtar
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's review
Jan 22, 2012

really liked it
bookshelves: read-in-2012

American Dervish is a coming-of-age story of sorts. It tells the story of Hayat Shah, a Muslim Pakistani American growing up in Wisconsin. Adolescence is difficult enough without having to learn to manage a cultural divide, and American Dervish follows Hayat as he learns to do just this. We enter the main part of the story when Hayat is 10-years-old. Hayat's parents appreciate their culture but are fairly mainstream in terms of their lifestyle. But then they bring Hayat's "aunt" Mina from Pakistan to save her from her wrecked marriage. Everyone is drawn to Mina, including Hayat. Mina starts teaching Hayat about the Qur'an and encourages him to study to become a Hafiz (one who memorizes the entire Qur'an). Much to his parents' dismay, Hayat passionately takes on this religious study. In the meantime, Mina meets and falls for a Jewish doctor whom Hayat likes well enough but dislikes for his Judaism. Hayat naively acts on this, and this ironically innocent act of hatred leads to unforeseen consequences which ultimately aim to teach Hayat about life and about what Islam really means.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book. I haven't read many (any?) Muslim coming-of-age books, and it was interesting to learn from Mina about the Qur'an along with Hayat. I loved some of the insights she relayed, whether they were talking about the Qur'an or life in general. I didn't bookmark it so I don't have the exact quote, but her explanation of what happens to people who keep their pain inside (they become their pain, feel they deserve pain, etc.) was so astute (and something I thought I could use in therapy!) I had a lot of these moments in the first half of the book. I'll admit, though, that as the story progressed and Hayat became more immersed, I became more uncomfortable. There were a couple moments when I felt like the philosophical talk about Islam became a little too much that I started to feel detached from the story. But it could also have been my discomfort with Hayat as well. Especially as he starts to really think negatively about Jewish people at one point; I'm not Jewish, but it was still uncomfortable for me. He starts to ignorantly take on beliefs without really thinking through them and often doesn't think them through unless something happens or, as in one instance, his mother confronts him about the ridiculousness of what he is saying.Despite my discomfort, I was so absorbed in the story and the things that happened to the family. The experiences that the others had, not just Hayat, in dealing with their culture and faith while living in America were interesting. And it was disheartening in some ways, because they weren't always able to just be themselves or follow their true desires because of the pressures and expectations from others of their heritage.

Jill mentioned in her review her disappointment in Hayat and his failure to grow as a character throughout the book. I read that when I was about halfway through so it was on my mind a little, and I do have to agree that Hayat's growth was fairly superficial. I did find myself immersed in the story and his journey, though, so for me American Dervish was still really enjoyable.

It's also possible, however, that I enjoyed this book because I listened to it on audio (which I haven't done much of but hope to get into more). I didn't realize right away that the author narrates the book himself. And I only thought to look because I was really enjoying his narration. He has a nice reading voice, and he did an excellent job with the different voices which involved various Pakistani accents, a Boston accent, and a couple times a female Wisconsin accent. I looked him up and turns out the author is also a trained actor which would account for the great audio performance. Despite some of its flaws, there are some really interesting aspects to this story, and I would still recommend it.

Taken from my blog at
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