American Dervish

American Dervish

by Ayad Akhtar


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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.

American Dervish is a brilliantly written, nuanced, and emotionally forceful look inside the interplay of religion and modern life. Ayad Akhtar was raised in the Midwest himself, and through Hayat Shah he shows readers vividly the powerful forces at work on young men and women growing up Muslim in America. This is an intimate, personal first novel that will stay with readers long after they turn the last page.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780316183307
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Publication date: 09/04/2012
Pages: 356
Sales rank: 485,742
Product dimensions: 5.30(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Ayad Akhtar is a screenwriter, playwright, actor, and novelist. He is the author of the novel American Dervish and was nominated for a 2006 Independent Spirit Award for best screenplay for the film The War Within. His plays include Disgraced, recipient of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Drama; The Who & The What and The Invisible Hand, both of which received Off-Broadway runs and are being produced around the world; and Junk, produced at Lincoln Center in 2017 He lives in New York City.

Read an Excerpt

Prologue: 1990

The court glowed, its wooden surface a golden, honey-brown beneath the overhead lights. Along the edges, players were hunched with their coaches, and beyond, we were gathered, the clamoring rows upon rows of us, eager for the timeout to end.

I remember it all with a clarion vividness that marks the moment as the watershed it would be:

Below, I spied the vendor approaching: a burly man, thick around the waist, with a crimson-brown pony-tail dropping from beneath the back of his black and orange cap, our school colors: "Brats and wieners!" he cried. "Brats and wieners!"

I nodded, raising my hand. He nodded back, stopping three rows down to serve another customer first. I turned to my friends and asked them if they wanted anything.

Beer and bratwurst, each of them said.

"I don't think he's got beer, guys," I replied.

Out on the court, the players were returning to their positions for the last minute of the half. The crowd was getting to its feet.

Below, the vendor made change, then lifted the metal box to his waist and mounted the steps to settle at the edge of our row:

"You have beer?" one of my friends asked.

"Just brats and wieners."

"So two bratwurst and a beef dog," I said.

With a clipped nod, he tossed open the cover of his box and reached inside. I waved away my friends' bills, pulling out my wallet. The vendor handed me three, shiny packets, soft and warm to the touch.

"Beef wiener's on top. That's nine altogether."

I handed off the brats, and paid.

Cheers erupted as our side raced down the court, driving to the basket. I unwrapped my packet only to find I wasn't holding a beef frank, but a marbled, brown-and-white pork bratwurst.

"Guys? Anyone have the beef dog?" I shouted over the crowd's noise at my friends.

Both shook their heads. They were holding bratwurst as well.

I turned back to the aisle to call out to the vendor when I stopped. What reason did I have anymore not to eat it?

None at all, I thought.

We drove to the basket again, where we were fouled. When the whistle shrieked, the roar was deafening.

I lifted the sausage to my mouth, closed my eyes, and took a bite. My heart raced as I chewed, my mouth filling with a sweet and smoky, lightly-pungent taste that seemed utterly remarkable—(perhaps all the more so for having been so long forbidden). I felt at once brave and ridiculous. And as I swallowed, an eerie stillness came over me.

I looked up at the ceiling.

It was still there. Not an inch closer to falling in.

After the game, I walked along the campus quad alone, the walkway's lamps glowing in the mist, white blossoms on a balmy November night. The wet air swirled and blew. I felt alive as I moved. Free along my limbs. Even giddy.

Back at the dorm, I stood before the bathroom mirror. My shoulders looked different. Not huddled, but open. Unburdened. My eyes drew my gaze, and there I saw what I was feeling: something quiet, strong, still.

I felt like I was complete.


I slept soundly that night, held in restful sleep like a baby in a mother's loving arms. When I finally heard my alarm, it was a quarter of nine. The room was awash in sunlight. It was Thursday, which meant I had Professor Edelstein's Survey of Islamic History in fifteen minutes. As I slipped into my jeans, I was startled by the bright prickle of new denim against my skin. The previous night's wonders were apparently still unfolding.

Outside, it was another unseasonably warm and windy day. After hurrying over to the student Union for a cup of tea, I rushed to Schirmer Hall, Quran tucked under my arm, spilling hot water as I ran. I didn't like being late for Edelstein's class. I needed to be certain I would find a place near the back—close to the window he kept cracked—where I would have the space quietly to reel and contemplate as the diminutive, magnetic Edelstein continued to take his weekly sledgehammer to what still remained of my childhood faith. And there was something else that kept me in the back of the room:

It was where Rachel sat.

Professor Edelstein looked fresh and formal in a variation on his usual pastel medley: an impeccably-pressed, mauve oxford, topped and tightened at the neck by a rose-pink bow-tie, and suspenders matching the auburn shade of newly polished penny-loafers.

He greeted me with a warm smile as I entered. "Hey, Hayat."

"Hi, Professor."

I wove my way through the desks to the corner where I usually sat, and where lovely Rachel was munching on a cookie.


"Hey there."

"How was the game?"


She nodded, the corners of her lips curling coyly upward as she held my gaze. It was looks like this—her bright, blue eyes sparkling—that had made me hazard the invitation to the game the night prior. I'd been wanting to ask her out on a date all semester. But when I'd finally gotten up the courage, she'd told me she had to study.

"You want some?" she asked. "It's oatmeal-raisin."


She broke off a piece and handed it to me: "You do the reading for today?" she asked.

"Didn't need to."

"Why not?"

"I already know the chapters he wanted us to heart."

"You do?" Rachel's eyes widened with surprise.

"I grew up memorizing that stuff," I explained. "It's a whole production some Muslim kids go through. You memorize the Quran... - They call it being a hafiz."

"Really?" She was impressed.

I shrugged: "Not that I remember much of it anymore. But happen to remember the chapters he assigned for today..."

At the front of the class, Edelstein started to speak: "I trust you've all done your reading," he began. "It's not ground we're going to cover today, but it's obviously important material. I'd like you guys to keep moving. The Quran can be slow going, and the more of it we get through this semester, the better." He paused and arranged the papers gathered before him. Rachel offered me the rest of her oatmeal cookie with a whisper: "Wanna finish?"

"Absolutely," I said, taking it.

"Today, I'd like to share some of the recent work a couple of my colleagues in Germany are doing. I wasn't able to offer you any readings on their work, because it's very much happening right now. It's at the very forefront of Islamic scholarship..." Edelstein paused again, now making eye-contact with the Muslim-born students in the class—there were three of us—and added cautiously: "...and what I have to share may come as a shock to some of you."

So began his lecture on the Sanaa manuscripts.

In 1972, while restoring an ancient mosque in Sanaa, Yemen, a group of workers busy overhauling the original roof found a stash of parchments and damaged books buried in the rafters. It was a grave of sorts, the kind that Muslims—forbidden from burning the Quran—use to respectfully discard damaged or worn-out copies of the holy book. The workers packed the manuscripts into potato sacks, and they were locked away until one of Edelstein's close friends—a colleague—was approached some seven years later to take a look at the documents. What he discovered was unprecedented: The parchment pages dated back to Islam's first two centuries, they were fragments of the oldest Qurans in existence. What was shocking, Edelstein told us, was that there were aberrations and deviations from the standard Quran that Muslims had been using for more than a thousand years. In short, Edelstein claimed, his German colleague was about to show the world that the bedrock Muslim belief in the Quran as the direct, unchanged, eternal word of God was a fiction; Muslims weren't going to be spared the fate Christians and Jews had over the past three centuries of scholarship: the Quran, like the Bible, would prove to be the historical document common-sense dictated it had to be.

Up in the front row, one of the students—Ahmad, a Muslim—interrupted Edelstein's lecture, raising his hand angrily.

Edelstein paused. "Yes, Ahmad?"

"Why has your friend not published his findings yet?" Ahmad barked.

Edelstein held Ahmad's gaze for a moment before replying. And when he did, his tone was conciliatory: "My colleague is concerned about continued access to the texts if they were to make these findings known to the Yemeni authorities. They're preparing a series of articles, but are ensuring that they've had enough time to go through all 14,000 pages carefully, just in case they never get to see the documents again."

Now Ahmad's voice bellowed, red and bitter: "And why exactly would they be barred from seeing them again?"

There was silence. The classroom was thick with tension.

"There's no need to get upset, Ahmad. We can talk about this like scholars..."

"Scholars! What scholars make claims without documented findings? Huh?!?"

"I understand this is some controversial stuff... - but there's no need - "

Ahmad cut him off: "It's not controversial, Pro-fess-or," he said, spitting the middle syllable back at Edelstein with disgust. "It's incendiary." Ahmad bolted up from his desk, books in hand: "In-sult-ing and in-cen-diary!" he shouted. After a look to Sahar—the usually-reticent, Malaysian girl sitting to his left, her head lowered as she doodled tensely on her pad—and then another look, back at me, Ahmad stormed out of the room.

"Anyone else want to leave?" Edelstein asked, clearly affected. After a short pause, Sahar quietly gathered her things, got up, and walked out.

"That leaves you, Hayat."

"Nothing to worry about, Professor. I'm a true-and-tried Mutazalite."

Edelstein's face brightened with a smile: "Bless your heart."


After class, I stood and stretched, surprised again at how alive I felt. Nimble and awake, even along my limbs.

"Where you headed?" Rachel asked.

"To the Union."

"Wanna walk? I'm going to library."

"Sure," I said.

Outside, as we strolled beneath the shedding linden trees that lined the path to library, Rachel remarked how surprised she was at Ahmad and Sahar walking out.

"Don't be," I said. "Saying less than that could get you killed in some circles." She looked surprised. "Look at Rushdie," I said. The fatwa was still only a year old, an event still fresh in everyone's mind.

Rachel shook her head: "I don't understand these things... So what did you mean by what you said to Edelstein?"

"About being a Mutazalite?"


"A school of Muslims that don't believe in the Quran as the eternal word of God. But I was joking. I'm not a Mutazalite. They died off a thousand years ago."

She nodded. We walked a few paces in silence, and then she asked: "How did you feel about the lecture?"

"What's to feel? The truth is the truth. Better to know it than not to."

"Absolutely..." she said, studying me: "...but it doesn't mean you can't have feelings about it, right?" Her question was softly put. There was tenderness in it.

"Honestly? It makes me feel free."

She nodded. And we walked awhile in silence.

"Do you mind if I ask you a personal question?" I finally asked.

"That depends."


"What you want to know."

"Did you really have to study last night, or were you just saying that?"

Rachel laughed, her lips parting to reveal her small square teeth. She really was lovely. "I have an organic chemistry exam tomorrow, I told you that. That's why I'm going to the library now." She stopped and put her hand on my arm: "But I promise I'll go with you to the next game... - Okay?"

My heart surged with sudden joy. "Okay," I said with a cough.

When we got to the library's steps, I had the urge to tell her what had happened to me last night. "Can I ask you another personal question?"


"Do you believe in God?"

For a moment, Rachel looked startled. And then she shrugged. "No. At least not the guy-in-the-sky type thing."

"Since when?"

"Since ever, I guess. My mom was an atheist, so I don't think I ever took it that seriously. I mean my dad made us go to temple sometimes - Rosh Hashanah and stuff... - but even then, my mom would spend the whole way there and back complaining."

"So you don't know what it's like to lose your faith."

"Not really."

I nodded. "It's freeing. So freeing. It's the most freeing thing that's ever happened to me... - You asked me how I feel about the lecture? Hearing Edelstein talk about the Quran as just a book, a book like any other, makes me feel like going out to celebrate."

"Sounds like fun," she said, smiling again. "If you wait 'til tomorrow, we can celebrate together..."

"Sounds like a plan."

Rachel lingered on the step above me just long enough for the thought to occur. And when it did, I didn't question it. I leaned in and touched my lips to hers.

Her mouth pressed against mine. I felt her hand against the back of my head, the tip of her tongue gently grazing the tip of my own.

All at once, she pulled away. She turned and hopped up the steps, then stopped at the door and shot me a quick look. "Wish me luck on my exam," she said.

"Good luck," I said.

When she was gone, I lingered, in a daze, barely able to believe my good fortune.


That night, after a day of classes and an evening of ping-pong at the Union, I was sitting in bed, trying to study, but thinking only of Rachel...when the phone rang. It was Mother.

"Behta, she's gone."

I was quiet. I knew, of course, who she was talking about. A month earlier she and I had gone to Kansas City to visit Mina—not only my Mother's life-long best-friend, but the person who'd had, perhaps, the greatest influence on my life—as she lay in a hospital bed, her insides ravaged with cancer.

"Did you hear me, Hayat?" Mother said.

"It's probably better, isn't it, Mom? I mean she's not in pain anymore."

"But she's gone, Hayat," Mother moaned. "She's gone..."

I listened quietly as she cried. And then I consoled her.

Mother didn't ask me that night how I felt about Mina's passing, which was just as well. I probably wouldn't have told her what I was really feeling. Even the confession I had made to Mina while she lay on what would turn out to be her death bed, even that hadn't been enough to assuage the guilt I'd been carrying since I was twelve. If I was reluctant to share how aggrieved I was with my mother, it was because my grief was not only for Mina, but for myself as well.

Now that she was gone, how could I ever repair the harm I'd done?


The following evening, Rachel and I sat side by side at the pizzeria counter, our dinner before a movie. I didn't tell her about Mina, but somehow, she sensed something was wrong. She asked me if I was alright. I told her I was. She insisted. "You sure, Hayat?" she asked. She was looking at me with a tenderness I couldn't fathom. "Thought you wanted to celebrate," she said with a smile.

"Well... after I left you yesterday, I got some bad news."


"My aunt died. She was like... a second mother to me."

"Oh God. I'm so sorry."

All at once, my throat was searing. I was on the verge of tears.

"Sorry," I said, looking away.

Feeling her hand on my arm, I heard her voice: "You don't have to talk about it..."

I looked back and nodded.


The movie was a comedy. It distracted me. Toward the end, Rachel pushed herself up against my side, and we held hands for awhile. Afterwards, she invited me back to her room, where she lit candles and sang me a song she'd written as she played the guitar. It was something longing and plaintive about lost love; she looked down at her hands as she played and sang. Only three days ago, I couldn't have imagined myself being so lucky. And yet I couldn't push away thoughts of Mina.

When Rachel finished her song, she looked up at me.

"That was great," I said.

"Still thinking about your Aunt, aren't you?"

"Is it that obvious?"

She shrugged and smiled. "It's okay," she said, setting her guitar aside. "My grandma was really important to me like that. I went through a lot went she died."

"But the thing is, it's not just that she's that I had something to do with it." I didn't even realize I'd said it until I was almost finished with the sentence.

Rachel looked at me, puzzled, folds appearing along her forehead, between her eyes.

"What happened?" she asked.

"You don't know me very well... - I mean, of course you don't. It's just... - I don't think you realize how I grew up."

"I'm not following you, Hayat."

"You're Jewish, right?"

"Yeah? So?"

"You may not like me very much if I tell you what happened..."

She shifted in her place, her back straightening. She looked away.

You barely know her. I thought. What are you trying to prove?

"Maybe I should leave," I said.

She didn't reply.

I didn't move. The fact was, I didn't want to leave. I wanted to stay. I wanted to tell her.

We sat in silence for a long moment, and then Rachel reached out to touch my hand.

"Tell me," she said.

What People are Saying About This

William Green

A riveting and disturbing tale.... The power of this unsettling novel lies in Akhtar's refusal to simplify such contradictions.


A Conversation with Ayad Akhtar
Why the title American Dervish? To most, a dervish connotes someone who spins their way to ecstatic union with God.
In the Islamic tradition, a dervish is an ascetic renunciate, one who is laboring to be shorn of his or her attachments. There are dervishes who whirl, others who chant, and still others who deprive themselves of nourishment and comfort for the sake of the denuded state which is the precursor to union with the divine source. The ostensible dervish in the novel is, of course, Mina, who despite her tragic circumstances does indeed seem to be experiencing a kind of perpetual ecstasy of the everyday by the book's end. But it's debatable whether she is, in fact, the American Dervish. That, to my mind, would more likely be Hayat himself, whose journey sheds him of the obstacles that have kept him from his own heart, and whose story ends with a moment of quiet ecstatic grace. He has to lose all his ideas about God and faith and Islam in order to experience that deepening of the heart that the Sufis identify as the result of closeness to the divine source.
How does your background as a screenwriter, playwright, and actor inform your fiction?
Fiction has always been my first love. I'd been writing short stories for years, and I have written another novel, which I shelved without ever trying to get published. That said, I think the acting process has deepened my understanding of creative process, and has given me techniques to identify and empathize, to immerse myself in psyches that are not my own. The same holds true for playwriting as well, in that acting has helped me to be inside the characters I write. But the truth is, writing plays is very different than writing fiction. In a play, everything has to be revealed through dialogue, and this presents its own challenges. From a formal point of view, it's really my work as a screenwriter that is most responsible for the shape and feel of Dervish. I approached the story structurally as if it were a film in the form of a book, ordered around set pieces, and unfolding in a sequence of vividly realized scenes. I wanted the reader to have a visceral immediate relationship to the main characters in the story, a being-with-ness that is usually associated with movies.
You chose a 10-year-old boy to narrate American Dervish. What were the advantages and disadvantages of having someone so young tell the story?
The trick with American Dervish was not to be limited to the ten year-old boy's consciousness as a narrator. Indeed, the truth is that the narration is actually set up as a reminiscence. This was the choice I made so that I would have the latitude to tease out subtleties and illuminate context in a way that was more ample than Hayat's limited ten year-old perspective would have allowed. But I had to do this without betraying the eternal now of the ten year-old's experience, as that forms the bulk of the story. Folding both parts of this dual voice into an undivided flow was, for me, the biggest challenge of the book. It took me the better part of three years to work this out fully.
What inspired you to combine study of the Quran with Hayat's family story?
American literature is filled with Biblical allusions, from Melville to Faulkner and Hemingway to Toni Morrison. Whatever else the Bible may or may not be, it is certainly the formational text of the Western literary tradition. Similarly, telling the story of a Muslim in America in literary form necessitated a familiarity with the Quran as the basis for the Muslim experience. As a Muslim-American writer, my task was two-fold: both to introduce these Quranic narratives and tropes to the American reader, and also to play off of these stories and locutions in evocative ways.
Further, the novel is an attempt to liberate the more heartfelt metaphorical version of religious experience from the literalist dogma of the orthodoxy. As such, the Quran has two faces: One that transcends its cultural specificity and evokes deeper, universal truths, and another that is bound by its origins, and which serves as a restrictive, atavistic force. I wanted to dramatize the tension between these two points of view. This is the real conflict of the novel.
Who have you discovered lately?
I have recently discovered Percy Shelley! I have been slowly making my way through his collected poems, a journey accompanied by immersion in Richard Holmes' magisterial biography of the poet, Shelley: A Pursuit. I can't remember a time I have felt so transformed by my daily reading. I've also been immersed in the work of Harold Pinter. Rediscovering these plays that had such an impact on me as a young man, and seeing just how deft, evocative, and masterful his craft really is.

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