January Book of the Month: “American Dervish” by Ayad Akhtar

American Dervish, by Ayad Akhtar. 320 pages. Little, Brown and Company. Jan. 9, 2012. ISBN: 0316183318. List price: $24.99.

American Dervish, by Ayad Akhtar. 320 pages. Little, Brown and Company. Jan. 9, 2012. ISBN: 0316183318. List price: $24.99.

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.

  • Samstars

    I have an interest in reading this book, mostly due to the fact that I’m stuck in a similar situation- in that huge gap between East and West. On one side, I’m hit by Pakistani righteousness and on the other, by religious intolerance and animosity towards Islam. It’s only until I’ve come to Pakistan that I’ve realized what a huuuge issue these conflicting ideas and opinions are creating. At home, I can happily live in my self created bubble where these problems don’t phase me. Anyhow, the more I learn, the more I’m seeking out new reading material of the Pakistani-American kind (I only say American because there isn’t enough Canadian literature out here) and this review, along with what I initially googled when I saw a post about this on tumblr, is making me feel like I should seek it out.

  • http://twitter.com/WAHWithJL Jamie

    This line drew me in the most – “They hurt each other, as we all do, and yet they lived and suffered for their mistakes out of love for each other.” I also don’t have any books! I used to live and love to read, but all of my books have been donated as I’ve moved. Now, I have my new place, but it’s sadly, book free.

  • Aamna

    Sounds all too familiar: the confusion between religion, culture, and personal identity. This was a beautiful review. Makes me want to buy the book right now!

  • Abdullah

    I want to read it just because of the idea of being able to relate to parts of the story. That connection will undoubtedly make this novel very compelling, and likely hard to put down.

  • http://twitter.com/AdnanLakhani Adnan Lakhani

    Hey Amina,

    Not sure if you listened to Ayad Akhtar’s interview with Teri Gross on npr fresh air a couple of weeks ago but that’s when I first heard about “American Dervish.” Its a great podcast, I’d highly recommend it. Listening to Ayad’s autobiography and the inspiration/background for this novel, has put “American Dervish” on top of my to read list. I guess since Ayad’s and my journey as a Pakistani muslim diverged at some point in early adulthood and the general strokes of islamic views he and I espouse are different, I’m not sure how “utterly understood” I’ll feel when I finish with his work but I’m definitely looking forward to engaging with his ideas.

    After reading your riveting review, it wouldn’t be far-fetched to say that I feel this longing to rush to the barnes & noble like a child running to a candy store. There’s tremendous anticipation. The feeling you describe as you finished is something I’m looking forward to. Thanks for interesting book reviews as always. Definitely a fan of your work online.

    Adnan Lakhani
    Houston, TX

  • http://analogchronicles.wordpress.com/ Sonia

    I’m really excited to read this book! I love South Asian fiction, but so often the novels all center around the same themes and are so similar. This one is so different, even though it covers a few of the same themes, like cultural beliefs and assimilation. I can’t wait to get my hands on a copy of this and it might take me some time, (new year’s resolution: don’t buy hardcover books) so hopefully I have good luck in your giveaway! Thanks for the lovely review.

  • Luaunna

    I had seen this book somewhere and thought about reading it. I am a committe member of a South Asian Book Club in Chicago and always looking for new material for our meetings. We center on South Asian writers and/or fiction. Would love a copy to read for a review for the book club

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