Hayat Shah is a young Pakistani boy coming of age in the early 1980s. His family is Americanized in most regards — in fact, his father Naveed can’t stand hanging around the more traditional members of the Muslim community — and Hayat has lived a fairly mundane Midwestern childhood. His biggest problem is trying to figure out his parents’ strained relationship, which he is still too young to fully understand. Then everything changes with the arrival of Mina, his mother’s best friend from Pakistan, who has fled from an abusive marriage and has come to live in the United States with the Shah family.
In an instant, Hayat falls in love. Mina is gorgeous and attentive, treating him like a son. She is a devout Muslim, and when she sees Hayat’s interest in learning more about Islam and the Quran, she eagerly begins telling him stories to help him understand the Quran’s messages. Hayat eagerly soaks up these lessons and looks forward to the private time he gets to spend with Mina. All is well until his father’s Jewish colleague — and his father’s best friend — begins courting Mina.
There’s a lot going on in this book. As with any culture or religion, there’s a spectrum of people who each have their own interpretations. Even in Hayat’s family, there are wide ideological differences: Hayat’s father rejects Islam, thinking of it as a backward religion. Hayat’s mother isn’t exactly devout, but neither has she rejected Islam the same way her husband has. Then there’s Hayat, who falls so in love with the religion and its teachings — and obsessed with trying to impress Mina — that he even tries to become a hafiz (someone who has memorized the entire Quran). Still, he’s young and impressionable, and he’s caught in between two opposing Islamic views: Mina’s teachings, which are more spiritual and take into account the intent behind one’s faith (for instance, she sees no point in praying if one’s heart isn’t in it); and the extreme fundamentalist views he’s exposed to at the local mosque.
I fell completely in love with this book. There’s a perfect amount of drama — and believe me, there’s a lot — but it never cross the line and becomes over-the-top. I also thought Akhtar did a spectacular job of showing nuance when it came to matters of religion and heritage. American Dervish is a unique, bittersweet coming of age story with a perspective one rarely sees in American literature. If you’re interested in reading and learning about different cultures, this is one you don’t want to miss.
American Dervish was released on January 9, 2012 by Little, Brown and Company, an imprint of Hachette Book Group.