Review: American Dervish

Since both Penny and Jackie read American Dervish for our Wink 3 Book Club, we decided to provide our reviews under the same post. Let’s see if we are of the same opinion.  :-)

Synopsis (From Goodreads) 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.

Penny’s Thoughts on American Dervish: Wow. And I think that can sum it up entirely. Wow. Or another one: Intense. Very intense. It was intense and powerful and wonderful too. I am going to give it 5 stars. I thought, hmmm, 4.5? But no, let’s just go ahead and assign the full 5 here. According to our new and improved rating system, it reads that a 5 star is one of the best books I’ve ever read. Okay, so a 5 star may be strong, but this was seriously one intense book and I really really liked it a whole lot. It left me breathless, anxious and a few times I had to put it down, get up and walk around to shake it off.

Remember those sayings about taboo subjects for conversation? As in the only safe conversation is about the weather? And you never ever bring up religion or politics? Well, Mr. Akhtar here brings that point home with crystal clear clarity. Wow, does religion ever stir up so much emotion, controversy and intensity.

There are so, so, so very many passages in here that have my sticky notes attached, passages that I wanted to include here, but I’m afraid I would make this review 3 pages long and Jackie wouldn’t have any room left! I don’t want to do that to her. But honestly I’ll just advise you to read the whole book yourself. You will not be disappointed.

Around page 200 was when the liberal sticking of sticky notes began to fly! I honestly had to get up and walk around the room and take a break because the intensity with which the story was progressing was incredible and again intense. It’s a word I can’t stop using to describe American Dervish. And around this page 200 is when you clearly realize that Mr. Akhtar has very harsh, furious and sharply critical things to say about devote Muslim men and their “sheep-like” following of their religion. And that he casts a clearly sympathetic viewpoint towards Jews and women.

The interpretation of the Quran by the men is harshly criticized and written to show their interpretation as ignorant and cruel, yet Mina’s teaching of the Quran to Hayat is done in a beautiful magical way, more to demonstrate the underlying beauty of its teachings.

Mina says to Hayat repeatedly, “Remember what I always told you. Intention. That’s all Allah cares about.”

These conflicting interpretations are what Hayat agonizes over and results in an event that changes Mina’s life forever and is one that Hayat feels is entirely his fault and everyone’s undoing is entirely because of his actions. He is deeply confused by the two varying interpretations.

Just as Souhef had said Jews were. So ungrateful that it made him blind to the very truth he had heard that afternoon and that could have saved him. What I was seeing before me, I thought, was the very reason that Allah turned his back on Bani Israel. The Quran is right, I thought. They will never change.

Akhtar does not let the story peter out in the final chapters either, oh no, he’s just getting started here! It becomes an (again here comes that word) intense flurry of cruelty and emotion and superb storytelling.

It’s an amazing journey we take with Hayat and it’s one that I can’t get out of my mind.

Recently, a story in our own city, and university (shamefully) took place that demonstrates these underlying emotions religion can evoke. You can read the story here.

Jackie’s thoughts on American Dervish: Well, I just closed the book and still have a tear to wipe from my eye! Yes, this was an extremely powerful book! Very intense and very eye-opening. Add Ayad Akhar to the growing list of authors whose first novel has turned out just FANTASTIC. I will definitely be interested in reading more from this guy!!

What I loved most about this book was the balance. Akhar was able to perfectly illustrate how there can be both beauty and ugliness in the religion of Islam– just as there can be in any organized religion when taken to the extreme. The Quran, like the bible, was written by man, with man-made ideas and interpretations– most often benefitting man himself and not the “god” they supposedly worship. Both the Prophet Muhammad and Jesus Christ lived their lives on earth spreading the message of love, peace and tolerance– how that message ever got twisted into violence, abuse and persecuting others that don’t share the same beliefs is a mystery to me!

Remember what I always told you. Intention. That’s all Allah cares about. ~Mina

The character of Hayat illustrated so well that the idea and intention of religion is complex. He starts out with a childlike vision of god and heaven from his beloved Auntie– that learning the Quran would help him to find love through Allah in everyday things and if he truly followed the teachings he would be guaranteed a spot next to her and his parents in the afterlife. He hears a totally different version of its interpretation at the mosque and within the Pakistani community– one that is much more full of hatred and intolerance. This leaves Hayat to question which version is right. When he is made to feel a fool publicly because of his interpretation by “leaders” of the community and sees the suffering his Aunt has to go through because of her beliefs Hayat’s bubble is so sadly burst that he abandons the religion he has loved so much for a long, long time to come.

Apart from the religious turmoil in Hayat’s life I also had to feel sympathy for this boy’s rocky family life. His parents’ constant fighting and their insistence of putting him in the middle just broke my heart! I could feel sympathy for his mother for living with the philandering ways of his father but I could not STAND the way she would go over every detail with her son! To force a child to divide loyalties between parents makes me completely sick! I know way too many people in real life who do this sort of thing and then wonder why their kids have trouble coping. Sad, sad, SAD!

This was really a great read! It was just long enough to evoke the proper emotion but it was not too long to that you started to skim to get to the end– you wanted to savour every word! (I was so glad to see Nathan again at the end– even tho not all was revealed, it did provide a great closing to a great story!) I can agree with Penny on the rating– I was going to say 4 but can easily bump it to a 4.5 and then round up to a 5– how’s that for a mathematical and logical overall rating?? LOL. Read. This. Book.