American Dervish by Ayad Akhtar
Published by: Little, Brown & Company
Published on: January 9, 2012
Page Count: 357
My Reading Format: Review copy of the audiobook sent to me by the audiobook publisher for consideration
Audiobook Published by: Hachette Audio
Narrator: Ayad Akhtar
Audiobook Length: 9 hours and 28 minutes
Available Formats: Hardcover, eBook, and Audiobook
Hayat Shah was born in Wisconsin to Pakistani parents. His father is a doctor who has no time or patience for the Islamic faith in which he was raised. His mother is a homemaker, unhappy in her marriage. She does not want her son to grow up to be like other Muslim men. Even at the age of 10 she shares with him the troubles in her own marriage. It is into this less than ideal family situation that Mini, Hayat’s mother’s oldest friend, breathes fresh air. Mina is a divorced young mother who was set to lose custody of her son. It was through the intervention of Hayat’s parents that she is able to leave Pakistan and come to live with them. It is Mina who brings a holy expression to the Islamic faith into Hayat’s life. Mina brings so much beauty, peace and love into the household. The longer she and her son live in the Shah household, the more confused Hayat becomes about love and religion. The choices Mina makes in love ultimately shine an unintended spotlight on other ways in which the Quran can be interpreted. Hayat’s juvenile reactions to Mina’s growing freedom in the United States sets in motion a chain of events he cannot escape.
American Dervish is a coming of age novel that captivated me in the same way as The House of Tomorrow. Hayat is trying to make his way in life in a time and place and culture where all he is ever getting are mixed messages. He is the pawn in his parents’ marriage and it isn’t until Mina arrives that he finds a sense of purpose and fulfillment. Even still, he is surrounded by adult problems that he is too young to handle. While he certainly finds Mina beautiful and luxuriates in her attention, I don’t believe his reaction to her Jewish boyfriend Nate was so necessarily just because he was jealous. Young children act out and throw tantrums to get the attention they crave. He doesn’t know what to do with the feelings he has. He wants his home life with Mina to stay the way it is, so he reacts very much like the child he is to keep what he feels is his own. You need not be an adult to wreak havoc on the adult world.
There is so much to discuss while reading American Dervish. I loved the double-sided look at the Muslim faith. The way in which Mina introduces prayer, tradition, and the Quran to Hayat was simply beautiful. In many ways I, as a reader, was like Hayat. I enjoyed her teachings on the Quran and the Muslim stories she told. My own knowledge of that faith is limited at best. I also spent a good deal of time thinking about how the major religions, at their essence, are so very similar. It is the human element, as we find out later, that creates the distance and the discord. The other side comes in to the story with Nate’s decision to convert from Judaism to Islam. It is then that different interpretations of the Quran come to light. Ayad Akhtar doesn’t pull any punches with the anti-Semitism in the local Pakistani community. It wasn’t just the Muslims who felt that way. The local Christians were no better. The depth and breadth of the hatred was shocking at times. I would have greatly appreciated having someone to discuss this with especially.
Despite the success I’ve found in the past with audiobooks narrated by the author, I was hesitant to request a copy of American Dervish in audio for that very same reason. I’d never heard of the author before. I decided to give it a chance because I wanted to read it as soon as possible and because Ayad Akhtar is an actor. If I knew then what I know now, there never would have been a question. If there is a difference between an author narrated audiobook and one narrated by a professional, I couldn’t pick it out here. Akhtar brought all of the charisma, tone and emotion to this recording I have come to expect from a good audiobook. While others may be able to bring a wider range of voices to a book, Akhtar brought just enough spice to each character’s voice that I knew who was speaking. More importantly, he brought me there with him.
There is a scene in American Dervish between Hayat and his father. It is a confrontation over the Quran and it was unlike any other scene I’ve ever experienced in an audiobook. The entire time I could barely breathe. I was in the room with them and their energy had me pinned to my couch. There was so much fear and tension in the air that I couldn’t move. I wouldn’t have if I could because I didn’t want to break the spell. I enjoyed the entire novel, but it is for this scene in particular that I recommend this novel. It is powerful and honest. This audiobook has a place in my best listens of 2012. It will be difficult to top.