Almost from the moment Imran could speak, he'd been asking about his father. And, sensing there was more to know than the vague, unsettling outline of a story his mother told him - that there had once been a man who had been his father, but then he'd left, and so was his father no more - Imran turned to others for answers. Indeed, it wasn't long before each new male visitor to the house would find himself besieged by the young boy; Imran would climb up a leg and into the man's embrace. "Are you my dad?" he would ask.
For a long time, young Hayat Shah has heard the same stories from his mother - about her best friend Mina and her mischievous disposition. When newly divorced Mina arrives at their home in the US to protect her son from her ex-husband back in Pakistan, Hayat is entirely captivated by her. From Mina he learns to read and worship the Quran, and is inspired to try and become a hafiz (someone who has memorized the entire Quran). But when Mina falls in love with a Jewish man, Hayat begins to feel betrayed and angry. Around the same time, Hayat begins to hear anti-Semitic stuff that he believes to be true, thus adding to his resentment, leading him to do things that will destroy a lot of lives.
I guess that synopsis kind of sounds intriguing. (I hope so - I struggled to write it.) The book however was just so-so. What I struggled most with was the amount of religious matter in it. I see the point to it - without all that content in the book, I don't think I would be convinced as to how much Hayat fell under the "spell". (I say 'spell' because he was believing what he wanted to believe and there was no one to correct him. At such an impressionable age, that just spells disaster to me.) The stuff did make me uncomfortable and sometimes angry (that's just me), but then I remembered that the person thinking these thoughts was a really young kid. I appreciated the author for not censoring anything while writing this book - that made the book all the more atmospheric.
Having never read a book like this - on one of the ways how religious fervor is born, I liked the insight I got into Hayat's mind. He had good people on his side to help him out, though I felt it's mostly that destructive thing he does which changes him. I did however find it strange that his parents never bothered to tell him that whatever crazy stuff he heard were wrong. For a person all insistent on an atheistic life and hating any form of incendiary talks, Hayat's father felt like a weak character to me. He seemed to more fulfill the role of the dissenting voice in the book than a responsible father who should worry about what his son listens to. Unfortunately, there are lot of fathers like him, so I can't really say that this is the fault of the book. It's just the way a lot of the families are - somehow the nastier aspects of religion, politics and sex education are allowed to collect dust in the attic.
The parts of the book I enjoyed have to do mostly with Mina's four-year old son, Imran. Growing up without a father was tough for him, making him look at any Pakistani man and ask if he was his father. When he is introduced to Mina's lover, Nathan, Imran isn't at all happy about it and sulks most of the time. Imran instead looks at Hayat's father as his own father and this drives Hayat jealous. I loved the dynamics between these two boys, who were like brothers sometimes, and other times, Hayat's jealousy would make him do desperate things.
American Dervish is a really fast read, and although it was challenging for me, it was also engrossing at some level. I was mostly curious as to how Hayat gets transformed (which we know right from the start). And although there were times when it felt hard to look at Hayat as a child and instead as a very troubled person, the author did remind me of that many times. The religious aspect of the book is probably its strongest suit (never thought I would say that), but I felt that the plot was a bit unstable, and a couple of the characters, especially Nathan, felt too comical to me. There are however a lot of stereotypes in the book - most of the "not good" guys are painted as too orthodox or too fanatical. While that gets the point across, I doubt it does much for the Pakistani culture. Overall, the book was just alright. Pity because I love the cover too much.
I received this book for free for review from the publisher.