der·vish: A Muslim (specifically Sufi) religious man who has taken vows of poverty and austerity. Dervishes first appeared in the 12th century;…
I just finished listening to American Dervish which was written and read by Ayad Akhtar. Often when I listen to a book read by the author himself, I am disappointed. I wonder why the author did not have a professional read it. American Dervish was an exception. Avaf Akhtar’s beautiful reading made his story come to life. Perhaps because so much of it was based on a life not so much different from his own.
We first meet Hayat Shah as a college student. Out with the guys at a sporting event he had just eaten his first bratwurst sandwich. Yes, he had eaten pork and the world did not come to an end. He actually felt great. He felt unburdened. The next morning Hayat rushed to his Survey of Islamic History class, Quran tucked under his arm, hoping to find a seat near Rachel, a girl he had a crush on all semester. Today he was going to ask her out on a date. Unfortunately the night before the date was to take place, Hayat learns of the death of his dear “Auntie” Mina. He has a lot on his mind, and a story to tell Rachel.
“You’re Jewish, right?”
“You may not like me very much if I tell you what happened……”
Hayat’s story is a fascinating one. It is the story of a young Pakistani American boy growing up in a Muslim home in Milwaukee. A story of a family trying to fit in, a family caught between two worlds. Hayat’s father is a physician, considers himself an atheist, drinks too much and is unfaithful to his wife. Hayat’s mother is an unhappy woman and is always trying to teach Hayat about how to treat a woman, warning him not to be like other Muslim men. When “Aunt” Mina, Hyat’s mother’s best friend leaves Pakistan to escape a bad marriage, abuse and divorce she moves in with the Shahs along with her two-year old son Imran. Life changes when Mina arrives. “Auntie Mina” plays an important role in Hayat’s life, telling him stories and teaching him the Quran. He thinks she is beautiful and loves her dearly and Imran is like a brother. But Hayat is still just a child and some of his decisions and actions have devastating results.
American Dervish is a glimpse into the life of a family torn between assimilation and holding on to their beliefs and customs. The difficulties of growing up surrounded by mixed messages. Yes it is fiction, but the characters in American Dervish are real, faults and all. I could even understand why Hayat made the decisions he later learned to regret. The book also gave me insight into the frightening beliefs of the devout Muslims. I was sickened and frightened by the anti semitic sermon given by the local Imam, as well as the actions of others.
Ayad Akhtar was born in New York to Pakistani parents. Like Hayat he grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His story is a good one and well worth the read.