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American Dervish, Ayad Akhtar


From the opening scenes of this novel, where the main character eats a bratwurst at a ball game, then goes to a Survey of Islamic History class the next day, I knew that I was going to like this book. There have been many books, fiction and nonfiction, written about those raised in a Christian tradition and who have deconverted, who have questioned their faith and moved form believer to agnostic or atheist; I have read and reviewed many of these. But this is the first book I have read which speaks from a Muslim point of view — in this case, a ten-year-old boy named Hayat, born to a struggling Pakistani couple in the Midwest.

The catalyst in this story is the arrival of the childhood best friend of Hayat’s mother, a woman named Mina, who comes to the Shahs’ home as a divorced mother of a son. The Shah family is complicated — Hayat’s father, Naveed, is an alcohol, a skeptic, and is fond of white women, while Hayat’s mother, Muneer, is outspoken, demanding, and fiercely protective of her friend. Hayat becomes enamored of Mina and of the Quran, which neither of his parents have much use for. Meanwhile, Mina herself is being courted by one of Naveed’s coworkers, a Jewish doctor named Nathan. Each of these strong and unique personalities clash with and against each other in a fascinating narrative seen through Hayat’s quickly maturing yet still naive perspective.

I really really liked this book. It was revealing to see how similar the progression of the infatuation and adoption of religious faith is in a young Muslim and a young Christian, as well as the beginnings of the conflicts within those religious tenets, and how they are played out in a familial setting. Hayat’s confusion and concern over the interpersonal turmoil amongst the adults in his life is something that carries over to young people from any cultural or religious background. This is one of my personal favorites out of the novels I’ve read in recent months.

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