Review: “American Dervish” by Ayad Akhtar

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Title: “American Dervish”

Written by: Ayad Akhtar

Publisher: Little, Brown and Company

Publication Date: 2012

ISBN: 978-0-316-18331-4

I’ve been flirting with the idea of purchasing this book for two years now. Seeing it on sale, I finally made the commitment and I don’t regret doing so. Akhtar’s “American Dervish,” told by the narrator, Hayat Shah, begins as Hayat finds peace and freedom in religious defiance. He, a young Muslim man, meets a young Jewish woman in whom he has a romantic interest. He opens up to her about his past, his struggle with Islam, his family, religious tolerance, and sexual awakening. Hayat, introduced to the Quran by his mother’s friend Mina, find meaning and comfort in the book’s teachings. He becomes a driven and devout Muslim and by age twelve, he has memorized one third of the verses. As his devotion deepens, Hayat becomes lost in the teachings of Islam. He lacks guidance and his interpretation of the Quran becomes distorted by the extremism of certain figures in the community, as well as the lack of studied faith within his family. Hayat’s misinterpretations, and perhaps the lack of connection he feels with his family, result in act of defiance as he lashes out in anger. Hayat experiences an awakening when his beloved Mina becomes trapped in a violent and potentially deadly marriage. It is her suffering that brings about his realization of his wrongdoings. 

I did not like the character of young Hayat, although he is struggling with many difficulties in his life: an alcoholic and adulterous father, a neglected and angry mother. Hayat has no one he can turn to until Mina arrives in their household. As a child, I found Hayat to be a bit of a brat. As he becomes more and more devoted to his father, he becomes less and less relatable as character. His devotion serves to cut him off from the reader. His comments become pointed and judgemental and he often doesn’t know why he acts with such anger. He becomes filled with hatred towards those in the Jewish community, but cannot back up his hatred. He pulls information and belief from many sources in his community, but these beliefs are inconsistent. Hayat is confused, although he does not know it at the time. 

I did enjoy Akhtar’s writing. His style is easy to read and is very clear. His story flows well and the story arc is well-defined. I did find the end to be a little rushed as the story is thorough until Hayat turns twelve, then the plot skips and jumps until we return to the “present” Hayat. I would have liked to see less time spent on the beginning of the story and the last 2 or 3 chapters extended a bit more. 

I have little more to say about this story. It was an easy read that addressed many difficult topics that have strong roots in truth. Akhtar’s voice is honest and compelling. “American Dervish” is definitely not a favourite of mine, but it was an enjoyable and quick read. 

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