Review of “American Dervish” by Ayad Akhtar

Hayat Shah is just a fifth grader when he first meets his Aunt Mina, who has come with her son Imran from Pakistan to live with Hayat’s family in Milwaukee. Hayat develops a crush on Mina and does whatever he can to earn her love and attention, including studying the Quran. His parents don’t approve of his religious immersion, but the more diligent he is, the more Mina seems to respond positively to him. In fact, the whole family seems happier with Mina around, and Hayat’s father sets her up with his colleague and best friend, Nathan Wolfson, who is Jewish.

Nathan is ready to convert for Mina until he is exposed to the anti-Semitism of the mosque. Furthermore, Hayat, acting out of jealousy, takes some irrevocable steps to sabotage the relationship. The result is worse than he anticipated, and nothing short of catastrophic.

Discussion: The whole of the book seems to be a confession by Hayat about how he hurt his beloved Aunt Mina with his use of the Quran to wreak havoc on her romance with Nathan. But by the end of the book, I did not get any sense that he understood why what he did was wrong beyond hurting his aunt. That is, he doesn’t seem to have gained insight into the complexity of the Quran and the pitfalls of reading portions of it out of context; nor does he seem to have any awareness of the 7th Century sociopolitical atmosphere that led to conflicts between Muhammad and other traders and thus informed the Quran. Moreover, he shows no insight into how contemporary politics also affect interpretation of the teachings of Muhammad by the imams in the mosques. Finally, in spite of numerous instances of Hayat being confronted by hypocrisy by adherents of Islam, he never reflects upon what this might mean. In summary, Hayat shows no insight over anything; there is only regret that his scheming turned out worse than he hoped it would.

To me, it seemed like the author was giving Hayat redemption for confessing. That felt shallow to me, and not enough justification for reading through the whole story; I would have been more satisfied from redemption through some self-awareness.

Evaluation: This book provides an interesting look at the life of Muslims in America, but the plot was ultimately unsatisfying to me.

Rating: 2.5/5

Published by Little, Brown and Company, a division of Hachette Book Group, Inc., 2012

Note: Julie of Booking Mama reviewed this recently, and she loved it; be sure to check out her positive take on this book!

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20 Responses

  1. I had this one on my wishlist so i was sorry to read it left you somewhat disappointed. I have read a few positive reviews, so maybe I’ll try it down the road (perhaps as an audio). Thanks for the honest review.

  2. When I read the plot synopsis, I though: “o, oh”, since these complex issues ask about exactly the discussion you gave above, and I’m sorry to hear they are lacking in the book itself.

  3. Thanks for your review. Like Iris and Diane I have seen this book around and the reviews seem to be positive. It is nice to read a review with a different opinion. Gives me something to think about before deciding to try it.

  4. Julie had me so excited about this book and you just rained on my parade. Just kidding! I’m really glad to see a lesser review, so my expectations won’t be so high when I read the book.

  5. In many ways, it seems that this would be the reaction of a 5th grader.

  6. Oh bummer – I have this one in the queue :(

  7. I had such high hopes when I was reading the synopsis. So disappointing that it falls short of what it could have accomplished.

  8. Sad. You expect a character to grow or change in some way because of the experience in a story. Otherwise, what use is the story really?

  9. This is one that I need to read soon and discuss with you, and it seems to be getting a lot of attention lately. I can see where you stand in regards to wanting the characters to have some self realization and actualization. Need to make time for this one!

  10. I’m listening to this on audio right now and am really enjoying it. I’m about halfway through and was wondering where all this talk about the Quran and Judeaism was going. Although in enjoying it right now (the author narrates the audio and does it well) I can see myself being disappointed with those aspects you pointed out as well.

  11. The book sounds interesting but also complicated.

    My attention was drawn to your sidebar button: the birthday party pledge. I wandered over there for a while and then came back. What a great idea that is. Thanks for posting that. I’m going to explore over there some more and probably take that pledge too.

  12. This was in the stack of books you sent to me. I haven’t picked it up yet as I have been waiting for you to review it. LOL. Now, I’m not sure if I will read it at all, besides to discuss it with you.

  13. I got this book at SIBA this year, and I do intend to read it and decide if it is worth the hype. EW gave it a B+, but generally the reviews have been glowing. It is good to have some balance!

  14. Sounds like the author was trying for something important, but maybe needed a better approach.

  15. Wow! You weren’t kidding that you were disappointed. LOL! I don’t disagree with you about Hayat, and I definitely didn’t like him; however, I found him to be fascinating… along with some of the other characters.

  16. I was all excited for this book. Now I don’t feel like I need to rush out and read it, which is good news for the other books sitting around waiting to be read.

  17. I really trust your judgement and that 2.5 rating speaks volumes to me. Sounds like it could have been better!

  18. What an amazing review! I don’t feel like I need to read this right now but I might give it a try in the future.

  19. This one sounds like it could have been so much more so ultimately disappointing. What a shame.

  20. What you wrote about not really feeling that Hayat understood his mistake except for realizing that he hurt his aunt is just what I thought. It didn’t appear as if he addressed the traps he fell into – he just put the book away and called it quits. I felt the book wanting in that respect.

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