American Dervish

by Ayad Akhtar

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What is an overview of American Dervish by Ayad Akhtar?

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American Dervish by Ayad Akhtar is set in the 1980s in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The novel follows the story of Hayat Shah, an 11-year-old boy who lives with his decidedly secular Muslim parents, Naveed and Muneer. Naveed, a physician, is a serial philanderer—a fact that Muneer never hesitates to share with her son. Meanwhile, one of Muneer's friends, Mina—along with her young son, Imran—has just moved in with the Shah family after fleeing her physically abusive ex-husband in Pakistan, who had threatened to deny her access to Imran.

Hayat falls in love with Mina first, and then with the Quran, as Mina inspires Hayat to take a more active interest in their shared religion. In fact, Mina encourages Hayat to become a Hafiz (someone who has memorized the Quran). Since Hayat is so besotted with Mina, he dives into this project head-first, which causes his nonreligious father great consternation.

Although Hayat is the child, he is actually the one who identifies more as a religious Muslim (at least early on in the novel), especially with his newfound devotion to the Quran. Hayat's father, Naveed, is on the other hand deeply assimilated into Western culture, and his close friendship with Nathan is seen as one proof of his indifference to Islam. When Mina falls in love with Nathan, a Jewish colleague of Naveed, Hayat's jealously leads him to an act he will later deeply regret.

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Hailed as the novel that could bring Muslim-American fiction into the mainstream, The American Dervish is about the coming of age of Hayat Shah, a young Pakistani-American who lives in Milwaukee with his secular Muslim parents. His father Naveed is an important doctor and an unfaithful, alcoholic husband. The Shahs are caught in an unhappy marriage. Yet, their existence is somewhat brightened up by the arrival  from Pakistan of Mina, Mrs Shah's best friend who is escaping from her abusive husband. The woman has a powerful influence on Hayat as well who is fascinated by the Sufi stories that she tells and decides he wants to become a hafiz, someone who knows the Quran by heart. The fascination with Sufism, a less worldy and more ascetic version of Islam, accounts for the title of the novel as a Dervish is someone who practises Sufism and observes its precepts of poverty and austerity. 

Hayat's fascination with Mina, however, will have unpredictable and even tragic consequences on the Shah family, their friends and Mina herself. The most obvious theme of the novel is the characters' search for identity. American Dervish seems to move from the question of what it means to be a Muslim in America. Akhtar problematizes the notion of homogeneous ethnic groups, showing how being a Muslim means different things for the secular Shahs, for the religious Mina who is, however, the victim of certain Islamic traditions, for the young Hayat who has grown up in a secular context but is fascinated by Mina's stories and for an outsider like the Jewish Nathan Wolfsohn.

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