January Book of the Month: “American Dervish” by Ayad Akhtar
Who is Ayad Akhtar and why is he giving away all of our secrets?
It turns out Akhtar is a playwright and director from Milwaukee, Wis. His first novel, “American Dervish,” debuted this month to widespread acclaim and this review will do nothing to refute its reputation as powerful and honest. Akhtar tells the story of a boy named Hayat, the only child of Pakistani immigrants who grows up in suburban Wisconsin and discovers Islam through his mother’s best friend. When Mina and her young son come to live with Hayat and his family, everything changes. And changes, and changes.
As Hayat flashes back to his confusing and tumultuous childhood, Akhtar captures the barrage of complications that arise from the Shah family’s personal, religious and political beliefs and affiliations. Perfectly paced and never overdone, “American Dervish” whisks the reader along, igniting anger and wrenching the heart at all the right moments.
But “American Dervish” is more than a well-told story. It is a brutally honest account of Pakistani-American Muslim beliefs and hypocrisy. It betrays to the outside world all the ways that we hurt others and ourselves, through selfish blindness and inflexibility. It reveals our many flaws, and in doing so, it portrays us as what we really are: thoroughly human. Not the monstrous barbarians many in the West imagine us to be, nor the saints those who believe they have our best interests at heart foolishly believe we are. Akhtar celebrates our humanity, in all its imperfection, bringing to life characters who one could fathom meeting in real life.
Akhtar conquered topics like persecution (of our people and by them), truth and forgiveness with the knowledge of an insider and the analysis of an onlooker. The universality of the errors his characters made was even more potent, considering the similarity of their backgrounds to mine. They hurt each other, as we all do, and yet they lived and suffered for their mistakes out of love for each other. Despite everything, there was family, and as all Pakistanis know, there is nothing more important.
Very few people are honest on the regular. But in “American Dervish,” Akhtar hands us a story that drips of truth and cleanses pain with each drop. So drawn in to Hayat’s tale are you that his reality becomes your own, and as he starts to figure things out, so do you. By the end of this book, I was spent. As I turned the last page, my heart began to settle. And then I sat, quietly, soaking in the weight of what I’d read and feeling utterly understood.
There’s no other way to say it: I’m not sure how anyone can top “American Dervish” this year.
To enter to win a copy of “American Dervish,” leave a comment on this review explaining why you want to read it by Friday, Feb. 3 at 11:59 p.m. EST. US only.
Amina Elahi is Divanee.com’s Managing Editor. Check out her blog, where she posts words and images that make her think.