American Dervish by Ayad Akhtar

The paradoxes of life, culture and religion.

Synopsis of American Dervish by Ayad AkhtarHayat Shah is a young American in love for the first time. His normal life of school, baseball, and video games had previously been distinguished only by his Pakistani heritage and by the frequent chill between his parents, who fight over things he is too young to understand. Then Mina arrives, and everything changes.

Mina is Hayat's mother's oldest friend from Pakistan. She is independent, beautiful and intelligent, and arrives on the Shah's doorstep when her disastrous marriage in Pakistan disintegrates. Even Hayat's skeptical father can't deny the liveliness and happiness that accompanies Mina into their home. Her deep spirituality brings the family's Muslim faith to life in a way that resonates with Hayat as nothing has before. Studying the Quran by Mina's side and basking in the glow of her attention, he feels an entirely new purpose mingled with a growing infatuation for his teacher.

When Mina meets and begins dating a man, Hayat is confused by his feelings of betrayal. His growing passions, both spiritual and romantic, force him to question all that he has come to believe is true. Just as Mina finds happiness, Hayat is compelled to act -- with devastating consequences for all those he loves most.

American Dervish is a brilliantly written, nuanced, and emotionally forceful look inside the interplay of religion and modern life. Ayad Akhtar was raised in the Midwest himself, and through Hayat Shah he shows readers vividly the powerful forces at work on young men and women growing up Muslim in America. This is an intimate, personal first novel that will stay with readers long after they turn the last page.

My two cents

The book in one sentence: A young Muslim boy finds himself in the middle of a religiously fueled love story.


I don't know what it is about this book, but when I first saw it and read the synopsis, I knew I wanted to read it! Do you ever get that type of book "hunch"? This hunch paid off once again and I came away with yet another favourite read for this year.

Do you know the feeling of being an outsider getting a peek into something people aren't normally privy to? Do you know that feeling where you wanted to speak but couldn't for fear of being politically incorrect? This is how this book made me feel. Reading this book felt a little uncomfortable and I didn't quite know whether I would really like this. Surprisingly, I enjoyed the discomfort because it challenged me to open my mind and not pass judgement on this no-holds barred account of another culture and another religion.

This is quite the provoking read. I can see it becoming quite polarizing as it delves into, among other things:
  • religion
  • the place of women as prescribed by religion 
  • interfaith relationships
  • immigration, the immigrant life, and the melding of two cultures
(Can I breathe now?) 

To say it deals with some very tough issues is an understatement. But don't underestimate the power of Ayad's storytelling! I was so engrossed that I actually managed to read it in a few days, staying up quite late both nights.

The book opens with Hayat as a young man who, coming into his first serious relationship and spurred on by an academic discussion on Islamic history, recounts the circumstances of his life. The book is a flashback.

Thus we enter the ten-year-old Hayat's world: a young Pakistani boy living with his immigrated family in modern America. We become witness to the dynamic within his family -- his loving and rather doting mother, his strict rather secular father,  and an inexplicable coldness between his parents. His mother doesn't mask her discontent with her husband, often bad mouthing him to Hayat. His father secretly drinks - but Hayat knows all about it.

Things become complicated when his mother's best friend, Mina, comes to live with them. Coming from a conservative Muslim family and recently divorced, she is also beautiful, charismatic, well-read and highly spiritual woman. When Mina takes Hayat under her wing to further his studies of the Quran, Hayat cannot help but become totally infatuated with her.

But this isn't merely a coming-of--age love story. This is also Mina's love story. Things start to go haywire when Mina falls in love with Hayat's father's business partner -- a Jew. The story spins into a complicated, messy and emotional disaster which not only involves the two lovers but Hayat's entire family, Mina's entire family, and even the entire Muslim community in their town. Religious conflict boils over, enmeshed in two cultures.

Hayat, in his utter innocence, unwittingly plays a role in the ensuing drama. I am reminded of Atonement by Ewan McGregor when Hayat looks back on his past and thinks about what he could've done otherwise to spare people the anguish of his actions.


This is a story of paradoxes, a confluence of spirituality, religion, relationships. There is the paradox of spirituality versus organized religion. Whether we like it or not, we are living paradoxes. In this book, there are many examples. There is the paradox of Hayat's teenage friend being known as being a spiritual prodigy ... yet acts upon his very male urges. There is his father, who Hayat fears will be severely punished ... because of his love for alcohol, a sin in Islam. There is his Auntie Mina, a devout Muslim ... in love with the Muslim-loathed Jew. There is the  relationship between man and woman ... which is known by many to be abusive yet is not challenged because it is shrouded and even condoned within the propriety of religion. There is his religious community, which preaches of love and respect, yet shows disdain and even hate for someone of another religion.

Hayat cannot wrap his head around these paradoxes as his world is still in black and white, absolutes and he has yet to learn the subtleties of gray. It is the raw honesty of how these paradoxes are described and come into play that really struck a chord in me. Substitute any other religion for Jew or Muslim and this story could be anyone's life -- prejudice and intolerance rear its ugly head in insidious ways in our everyday lives.

When Hayat grows older, he comes to some surprising realizations and he is able to make sense and make peace with himself, his family, his religion, and most of all, his beloved Auntie Mina. I was touched by the ending. This is one of those rare books that I felt was truly honest and I appreciate Akhtar's ability to write in a sensitive, caring and respectful manner.

Verdict: A beautifully sensitive story of a Muslim boy's life and love in today's America. Highlights that the message of tolerance and respect for humanity cuts across the boundaries of religion, gender or age. I highly recommend this for those who want to learn more about Islam, immigrant life, and the complexities of relationships.  

Random quotes:
"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. They understand how to give a woman attention. I told Mina-Auntie that he will give her a life she can never dream of with a Muslim man. Muslim men are terrified of women ... all of them." She leaned in, kissing me on the nose, her face just inches from mine, her soulful eyes swollen with abounding love. "That's why I'm bringing you up differently, so that you learn how to respect a woman. That's the truth, kurban: I'm bringing you up like a little Jew." - p. 117

"'To be a Sufi,'" she continued, "'means to give up the world and everything in it. To be a Sufi means to depend on nothing, to want nothing, to be nothing.'" [..] She sobbed quietly into another tissue. "This is what life does to us, behta. It grinds us, grinds us to dust. The Sufi is just someone who doesn't fight it. He knows that being ground to nothing is not bad. It's the way to God." - p. 274

I won a copy of this book in a giveaway.


  1. A most interesting story and probably not all story either.We all have our perceptions of other people and their cultures, usually from TV or the movies. Ever find it interesting that the view from inside a culture when written is not very exotic or foreign?

    Religion is not something as easily stripped away as nationality though. Being Jewish, Mormon, or a Sunni Muslim really does mean the believer has to hold themselves apart from the rest of the world outside their community.

    There's a whole host of issues that government for sure and most societies are not prepared to deal with when it comes to religion. I think the question becomes does a religion create a culture or can a culture change a religion?

    Without hard evidence it would seem that culture can have an impact as Muslims in North America appear different than Muslims in Europe, while both are completely different than Muslims in Yemen.

    It will be interesting to see how the literature coming from these communities changes over time. Books like this are in a sense a time capsule.

    1. There is a tendency to generalize about cultures and media does a great job of reinforcing stereotypes. How true - why is something so much more exotic, romantic when you're looking in as an outsider?

      I agree that religions can be sub-cultures and what an intriguing question you pose - which comes first?

  2. This is on my TBR list. It looks great. SO nice to read your review.

    1. I am glad, Juju, it's a fantastic book! Love to hear your thoughts when you're done :)

  3. "Provoking" is a good adjective for this book. I recommend it as well.


© guiltless readingMaira Gall