American Dervish is a brilliantly written, nuanced, and emotionally forceful look inside the interplay of religion and modern life.
Hayat 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.
I remember it all with a vividness that marks the moment as the watershed it would be:
The court was glowing, its wooden surface honey-brown beneath the overhead lights. Along the edges, players huddled with their coaches, and beyond, we were gathered, the clamoring rows upon rows of us, eager for the timeout to end.
Below, I spied the vendor approaching: a burly man, thick around the waist, with a crimson-brown ponytail dropping from beneath the back of his black-and-orange cap, our school colors. "Brats and wieners!" he cried. "Brats and wieners!"
I nodded, raising my hand. He nodded back, stopping three rows down to serve another customer first. I turned to my friends and asked them if they wanted anything.
Beer and bratwurst, each of them said.
"I don't think he's got beer, guys," I replied.
Out on the court, the players were returning to their positions for the last minute of the half. The crowd was getting to its feet.
Below, the vendor made change, then lifted the metal...
Akhtar does a magnificent job threading his story through the dark, long-lashed eyes of Hayat, and it's through this lens that Akhtar captures his reader. Besotted with Mina's love and attention, yet torn by adolescent angst, Hayat's vulnerability propels the story as he works through American Dervish's multi-layered themes of race, religion and familial bonds.
(Reviewed by Megan Shaffer).
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