Book Review: “American Dervish” by Ayad Akthar

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.

-Synopsis of the novel (Amazon)

As some of you know, I’m a V slow reader, BUT I managed to finish 75% of this novel (according to my Kindle)! I’ve been following this author for a few yrs now; in 2017, journo Bill Moyers said of Akthar: “We finally have a voice for our times.” One of my friends read American Dervish a few years ago; she didn’t recall ALL the details, BUT said that she’d never read something like this before. She passed it onto a friend, then that friend gave it to another. A newcomer to the book club said she also liked the book- subject matter and writing style. The moderator who read it 2 yrs ago said that this book goes into the issues faced by ABCDs (American Born Confused Desis), NOT only those particular to Muslims. 

WARNING: This post contains SPOILERS for the novel. 

NOTE: The following topics/questions (which my book club discussed) can be found here: https://www.bookbrowse.com/reading_guides/detail/index.cfm/book_number/2649/american-dervish

Do you think that one has to reject one identity in order to embrace another? What choice does Hayat make? What will the result be?

I think that children and adolescents (such as Hayat Shah, the protagnist/narrator) can often feel this way; my book club agreed w/ this comment. For Hayat, he identified as a Muslim, at least as a preteen boy. His goal was to be a hafiz (someone who knows the Quran by heart), though his father was dead set against this plan. Akthar said in several interviews that he was V interested in Islam as a child; he convinced his (secular) parents to take him to the local mosque and allow him to study the Quran. 

Hayat’s mother and father have a difficult relationship. In fact, all of the relationships between men and women in the book are complex, often troubled. What might the author be saying about such relationships within this culture?

Back in Pakistan, Mina’s first marriage turned sour b/c of her abusive mother-in-law. Her husband didn’t do anything to stop this, so Mina made the drastic decision to go to the US (w/ her son Imran). She couldn’t go back to her parents; they had urged her to stay w/ her husband’s family (she was rejected in her time of need).  

The newcomer to our group said that there were messed up power dynamics between Hayat’s parents; his mother (Muneer) didn’t have a job, so his father (Naveed) has all the money (thus the decision-making power). The ONLY relationship that was positive was between Hayat’s mom’s best friend, Mina, and his father’s friend/colleague, Nathan. They have an old-fashioned courtship, under the watchful eye of Muneer for about a year. This is a kind of fix-up, though based on mutual respect and admiration. Mina and Nathan talk re: books and ideas, share meals, and grow to love each other. When Hayat asks why they can’t be alone, his mother explains that Mina is a Pakistani woman, so “dating” is out of the question.

Hayat’s mother has grown angry and bitter b/c her husband drinks (secretly, he thinks) and cheats on her w/ white women. The women are possibly nurses at the hospital where Dr. Shah conducts research. Hayat’s mother, Muneer, refers to the other women as “mistresses” and “prostitutes.” Her view of white women is thus very negative, though she has a positive view of the Jewish people (incl. Nathan). In one scene, Muneer says that she’s raising Hayat “like a little Jew” (so that he’ll grow up to love and respect women).

Do you think it’s valid and/or authentic for male authors to write about feminist issues? What was your feeling about the portrayal of women in American Dervish?

Yes, someone can be “a male feminist,” my friend said quickly. Akthar said that he was inspired by the women in his life, incl. his own mother (a medical doc), his aunts, and various Pakistani immigrant women from the community of Milwaukee, WI (where he grew up). 

What are the different visions of Islam portrayed in the book?

Naveed (a man of science) has a contempt (perhaps even hatred) of Islam; this is echoed in Disgraced, where Amir even hides his origins. Naveed makes fun of Nathan when the younger man shows an interest in the religion. After Mina and Nathan’s break-up, he declares to his son that he “never wants to see you w/ that book [the Quran] ever again.” On the flip side, Mina wants to know more re: Islam; she studies and also teaches Hayat for a time. She is BOTH religious and spiritual, explaining to Hayat that it’s the “intention” of an action that counts. 

What did you think of the relationship between Islam and Judaism in the novel?

This is a tough one (IMO), b/c in this novel, these religions are put at odds w/ each other. Mina rejects Nathan (a cultural Jew) b/c he doesn’t want to convert to Islam. After all, he had a shocking/scary experience the one time he attended the masjid. Naveed warned him, BUT Nathan’s curiosity and love for Mina compelled him to give this religion a chance. Muneer, who had such high hopes for the pair, is disappointed when they don’t marry. She saw Nathan as a decent man and great choice for Mina, even though he was white and Jewish. I feel that Muneer wanted her friend to have a better life than herself. 

 

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Top 5 Shakespeare Films (or Best of The Bard Onscreen)

1) Much Ado About Nothing (1993)

If there was just one word to describe this film, it would be “luminous.” Filmed during a Summer in Italy, the FAB cast includes Kenneth Branagh (who directed), Emma Thompson, Denzel Washington, Michael Keaton, and Keanu Reeves (whose presence is odd, yet doesn’t spoil the movie). You have the innocent/fresh-faced lovers: Hero (Kate Beckinsale- SO adorable and young) and Claudio (Robert Sean Leonard- who ages quite slowly), In contrast to this hopeful pair, there is the sharp-tongued/witty older couple: Beatrice (Thompson) and Benedick (Branagh). Her father fears that her sharp tongue will render her single for life. Benedick declares that he’ll die a bachelor, BUT his jovial friend/lord Don Perdo (Denzel- looking esp. FAB in leather pants) has other plans. Who doesn’t LOVE Denzel doing light-hearted roles!? Almost everyone (aside from Keanu- DUH!) does well w/ the (complicated) words, incl. the newbie Beckinsale. The veterans (all Brits) in the cast add authenticity and Keaton brings in eccentric humor. Aside from the gorgeous scenery, the music (composed by Patrick Doyle) is amazing (I had the CD back in the day).

2) A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1999)

This is another visually gorgeous film (w/ a talented cast from BOTH sides of the pond), though NOT as seamless as Much Ado (also a popular comedy). There are several pairs of lovers, incl. fairies: Oberon (Rupert Everett) and Titania (Michelle Pfeiffer) and humans: Lysander (Dominic West- famed for The Wire) and Hermia (Anna Friel- Brit stage actress); Demetrius (the FAB Christian Bale) and Helena (American TV darling Calista Flockhart); Theseus (character actor David Strathairn) and Hippolyta (Frenchwoman Sophie Marceau). The naughty fairy, Puck, is played by the always great Stanley Tucci (FYI: he even published an Italian-American cookbook a few yrs back- WOW!) I really liked Kevin Kline’s portrayal of Bottom (the weaver who wants to play every part in the play- LOL). Kline is a theater pro, just like Denzel (and it shows). Pfeiffer admitted that she never understood Shakespeare, BUT hey, she does a good job (w/ the best costumes/hair).   

3) Titus (1999)

This movie is NOT for the faint of heart- it’s one of The Bard’s bloodiest tales come alive (thanks to Broadway’s Julie Taymor). Come for the spectacle, BUT stay for the (terrific) acting from a cast that includes Americans, Canadians, Brits, and Scots. Anthony Hopkins is in the title role of the war-weary Roman general, Titus Andronicus, who has captured the queen of the Goths, Tamora (Jessica Lange), her three sons, and her secret/Moorish lover, Aaron (Harry Lennix). Though Tamora begs for his life, her eldest son is slaughtered; Titus, who lost MANY sons of his own during years of battle, shows no mercy.

Tamora vows revenge against Titus and his kin, along w/ her other sons: Demetrius (Matthew Rhys) and Chiron (Jonathan Rhys Meyers). Titus’ household includes his kind-hearted brother, Marcus (Colm Feore), his remaining sons: the grown-up/practical Lucius (Angus MacFadyen) and a pre-teen boy, and his only daughter-sweet/innocent- Lavinia (Laura Fraser). She is in love w/ Bassanius (James Frain), an honorable young man running to become ruler of this city against the vain Saturninus (Alan Cumming). Titus’ family become outcasts when Tamora (who is BOTH smart & gorgeous) convinces the new/gullible emperor, Saturninus (Alan Cumming), to marry and ally w/ her family. Who knew that Lange could be SO wonderfully evil!? I loved her chemistry w/ everyone, incl. Lennix (who worked as a teacher before getting into film). Fraser impressed me a LOT also; you hear NO hint of her (real-life) thick Scottish accent.

4) Romeo & Juliet (1996)

The actor who really sells this Baz Luhrmann adaptation is Claire Danes (great at ANY age)! Sure, Leo was the draw for the younger gen, BUT she is the one who raises the game w/ her interpretation of an innocent teen girl in love for the first time. Even is you’re NOT a fan of modernized Shakespeare, give this one a chance (IF you already haven’t). I know MANY high schools are using it to appeal to teens. 

5) Twelfth Night, or What You Will (1996)

Some of you may NOT have seen this film from Brit director Trevor Nunn (which is shot in Ireland and England), BUT it features two strong female performances. A young foreign noblewoman disguised as servant boy, Viola (Imogen Stubbs), unwittingly sparks the interest of a noblewoman from Illyria, Olivia (Helena Bonham Carter). Gender confusion is a common theme in Shakespeare; in The Merchant of Venice, a woman even disguises herself as a male lawyer and wins a court case for the man she wishes to marry. Viola finds herself falling for her boss, Duke Orsino (Tody Stephens- still looking cute w/ quirky facial hair) who pursues Olivia, though she spurns all men (b/c mourning her brother). Look out for Sir Ben Kingsley in the supporting role of Feste, the fool in Orsino’s court.