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:

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. 


“Disgraced” (Arena Stage)


Ayad Akhtar has composed an exacting tale for our turbulent times.  His script demands that I bring forth the lyricism of a clarifying order from the chaos of cultural misunderstanding that is the woven fabric of this remarkable play, while being ever vigilant in spotlighting genuine insight into the complexity of perception in what it is to be Muslim and American.  –Timothy Douglas, director (Arena Stage)

As my regular readers know, I’ve written about this play before; I heard about it nearly 2 yrs ago, then read the play.  I had NEVER read anything like it before!  One of my NYC gal pals went to see it during its Broadway run in 2014 (wow, was I jealous of her then)!  On SUN, May 1st, I went to see the new production at Arena Stage (w/ one of my gal pals).   


Amir Kapoor, a Pakistani-American, is a successful lawyer living on the Upper East Side of Manhattan w/ his beautiful/blonde artist wife (Emily). With the hope of becoming a partner at the firm around the corner, it seems like nothing can stop him. But when he hosts a dinner party for an African-American co-worker/friend (Jory) and her Jewish husband (Isaac), the conversation quickly turns to everything Amir has spent his  adult life trying to suppress (race, religion, etc.)  All these characters, as well as Abe/Hussein (Amir’s college-going nephew), are confronted with the struggle between culture and identity.  Below is a trailer for the show:


Review & Analysis

SPOILERS: Don’t read from this point if you don’t want to know details from Disgraced.

Portrait of Juan de Pareja (1606-1670) by his master,  Diego Velazquez

After a waiter is incredibly rude to her husband (offstage), Emily (who has been focusing recently on Islamic art) decides to paint a portrait of Amir, inspired by the one of Juan de Pareja. (FYI: He was a Spanish painter of Moorish descent, born into slavery. He was a member of the household of painter Diego Velázquez who freed him in 1650.)  Amir doesn’t understand why she’s making such a big deal, but she comments:”He didn’t SEE you!” That waiter didn’t realize what a success Amir was- he just saw his brown skin.

The couple are interrupted by  the son of Amir’s older sister, Abe Jensen (who has recently changed his name from Hussein Malik); this is a source of humor for Amir.  The young man, who was born in Pakistan, has come to plead w/ his uncle re: representing an imam (“a harmless old man who didn’t do anything wrong.”)  This man is in FBI custody accused to raising funds for Hamas- Amir wants nothing to do w/ it (besides, there are two OTHER lawyers on the case).  When Amir pointedly comments that the imam is “not comfortable w/ Jewish lawyers,” Abe insists that’s not the issue (the imam liked Amir when they met before).  Emily says: “Just TALK to him!”  (She is the one who advocates for Abe, when Amir ignores his phone calls in the story.)  Amir’s  eventual decision to appear in court, beside the other lawyers, will have repercussions on his career. 

Emily excitedly shows her painting (reminiscent of tile work found in Andalucía from the Moorish period) to a curator from The Whitney, Isaac (who is married to Amir’s co-worker, Johri). This painting, white and blue w/ a hint of red, is hung on the mantle of the apartment’s living room (the sole set for this play). 

The crux of the action occurs a few months after during the dinner party.  Amir is already in a terrible mood (Emily doesn’t realize why) and drinking more than usual (Scotch) when the guests arrive earlier than expected.  Emily has made appetizers, fennel salad and pork tenderloin.  She wants to make a good impression b/c she wants to be in a new show which Isaac is putting on at his museum. 

WE are the new Jews!  -Amir explains to Johri

Jory and Amir drink and talk re: work- one of the partners (Mort) has been away for SOME time, traveling, and meditating.  There will soon be a new partner, BUT Amir doubts that it will be he or Jory.  Hey, why don’t they start their OWN firm!?  (We get a little background on how WASP lawyers didn’t want to deal w/ mergers and acquisitions in the past.) 

More drinking, more jokes- this humor here is biting, dark, controversial- perhaps even to the MOST open-minded viewer/reader.  (This was inspired by a dinner party that Akthar had back in 2006.)  Eventually, all hell breaks loose- these civilized folks are ALL revealed to be dysfunctional, duplicitous, and (no shocker) prejudiced!  But Amir is the tragic figure- he loses the MOST in the end. In my opinion, when he strikes Emily, he is NOT only hitting his wife (who is most close to him, yet cheated w/ Isaac), BUT also hitting back at the symbol of white/upper-class patriarchy (though she is female).  There is NO excuse for domestic violence, BUT it does happen (even among very cultured/intelligent couples). 

I was skeptical when I heard Nehal Joshi was going to play the lead. He just did not look old enough, first of all.  Secondly, I’d seen him last year as Sancho in Man of La Mancha (STC); he did a good job w/ the comedy, singing, and dancing. Lastly, the words that I’d read didn’t make much of an impact from ANY of the actors (aside from the actress who played Jory).  One young lady, who had ALSO read the play and attended the same night as I did, tweeted that she “hated it” (but liked the story). I wouldn’t go THAT far- these actors need to get more comfortable w/ the text and project that confidence onstage (in future).   

The audience was (as usual) quite elderly, liberal, and white (esp. in the orchestra section where we were sitting).  I spotted a few desis (South Asians) here and there, along w/ some African-Americans (mainly women).  The Q&A session after the play (w/ a local imam working on his Ph.D.) was fun and informative; he is associated w/ Georgetown University.  He came to the play w/ his four teen kids; they sat very quietly in the same row as me and my friend.  (This material isn’t geared to their age group, but the themes are relevant.)  I think this play is worth reading, BUT I can’t recommend this production.  No fear, there are MANY theaters (around the US) that will be putting on Disgraced this season.   

Related Links

Review: The Not So Unexpected Twist in Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced

Hanging in a Muslim Neighborhood


Interviews featuring playwright Ayad Akthar

Ayad discusses Disgraced (on Broadway), Aasif Mandvi, etc. w/ NYC theater critics.  This convo goes from the 2:00 min mark until 17:10.

This is a lengthy, yet V interesting vid!  Ayad is in convo w/ a Lebanese writer (Rabih Almeddine- never heard of him before) while Indian writer (Amitava Kumar) serves as moderator.  There is a smart/funny Q&A section w/ interesting points made by BOTH the audience & writers! 

Aasif played Amir in Disgraced at Lincoln Center Theater.  Josh played Isaac on Broadway (opposite Hari Dhillon).  These guys are ALL friends- pretty cool! 

WARNING: This next 2 videos contain SPOILERS for Disgraced. 

Another long, yet very recent, interview (January 14, 2016)- it includes the meaning of the title, which is explained by Abe, the young nephew of Amir (who has “legitimate historical anger,” as Akthar comments in the vid). 

For 300 years, they’ve come to out part of the world, made- drawn new borders, taken our land, made us want to be like them, look like them, and marry their women.  They disgraced us.  They disgraced us.  Then they pretend they don’t understand the rage we’ve got.


For DC Area Theater Fans

Othello (Sidney Harman Hall: FEB 23-MAR 27)

This is my favorite Shakespeare tragedy; I love it even MORE than Hamlet!  In this production Othello will be played by a Pakistani-American actor- Faran Tahir. VERY exciting…  I’m going to be seeing it SUN, FEB 28 (7:30PM).


Some of you will recognize him from the first Iron Man movie and the J.J. Abrams Star Trek reboot films.


Link to 2014 podcast interview with Faran Tahir

Link to play website

Use promo code OTHELLO20 for 20% off price.

Disgraced (Arena Stage: APR 22-MAY 29)

I’m VERY excited to go see this play; one of my gal pals and I got tickets as part of a package!  Actor-turned novelist and playwright, Ayad Akthar (who I blogged about before) won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for this play, which was also his first. 

This play is being produced in 40 different theaters in the 2015-2016 season- WOW!  In some ways, it looks to be a simple domestic play, as it has only one set and five actors.  The play is set in the Upper West Side Manhattan apartment of South Asian American corporate lawyer, Amir, and his artist wife, Emily.  They hold a small dinner party w/ Amir’s work friend Johri, an African-American woman, and her secular Jewish husband, Isaac.  As the night goes on, more and more alcohol is consumed, the conversation gets  heated- the mood of the play turns serious.  Amir, who seems to have totally separated himself from his Pakistani and Muslim identities, is revealed as a complex and troubled man.

I read this play less than 2 years ago, after seeing clips about the Lincoln Center production (which starred The Daily Show’s Aasif Mandvi).  One of my acquaintances saw it when it premiered on Broadway; Hari Dhillon (an Indian-American of Sikh heritage) played the lead role. The PBS Newshour piece (see video below) features Dhillon and How I Met Your Mother actor Josh Radnor (who played Isaac). 

Akthar said that he wrote this play “for the global Muslim audience” (many of whom will never see it, given restrictions on freedom of speech) and the “typical (mostly white) theatergoing audience here in the U.S.”  Something important to keep in mind- the major influences for Disgraced were Othello and Death of A Salesman by Arthur Miller. 

Link to play website

The Who & The What (Round House Theatre – Bethesda: MAY 25 -JUNE 16)

“The Who & the What” (the title of Zarina’s novel)… explores intergenerational and interfaith conflicts with fluid eloquence and intelligence. Mr. Akhtar writes dialogue that, while often funny and always natural, crackles with ideas and continually reveals undercurrents of tension that ratchet up the emotional stakes.  -Charles Isherwood (NYT) re: 2014 Lincoln Center production

I read this play soon after Disgraced.  It focuses on an upper-class Pakistani-American family in Atlanta, which includes the father, a widower and religious Muslim- Afzal (who runs successful donut shops) and his two daughters- complicated and intellectual Zarina and the more simple and beautiful Mahwish.  Since his younger daughter is almost done w/ grad school and unofficially engaged to her  (father-approved, Pakistani-American) beau, Afzal is eager to find a husband for Zarina, who is around 30 at the start of the story.  (It may remind you a bit of The Taming of the Shrew.)  Like MANY people, Afzal turns to an online platform for Muslim singles; he meets a smart and caring man who is a white convert.  Eli, who grew up in Detroit with liberal parents and many Muslim friends, is the imam of a small and humble masjid.  Zarina decides to give Eli a chance, but her main focus is a book on the life and times of Prophet Muhammad.  The topic of this book is VERY controversial- it could jeopardize her closest relationships!

Link to play website

PWYC: WED, MAY 25 (7:30 PM) & SAT, MAY 28 (2 PM)

Related Videos

Ayad Akthar’s TED Talk