A Nation in the Crossroads

The United States of America has long been seen as the citadel of freedom. For decades, it was a pillar of democracy and has long held on to the distinction of being the most influential and powerful nation in the world. A nation that was built on values and morals imbibed by its leaders such as Abraham Lincoln, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, cracks in the daunting armor has started to appear. It has turned into a nation that is divided by the increasing disparity in the prevailing political ideologies. If the events of the January 6, 2021 is any indication, the world is witnessing a nation that is at odds with its core values.

In her debut novel, The Beauty of Your Face, Palestinian American writer Sahar Mustafah grappled with timely and seminal hardline questions exposing these cracks. Mustafah’s novel zeroes in on Afaf Rahman, the daughter of Palestinian immigrants. Afaf was the principal of Nurrideen School for Girls, a fictional Muslim school located in the suburbs of Chicago. Her life unraveled when, on what was supposed to be another typical Tuesday at the school, an enigmatic character entered the school, Donning mundane work clothes, he escaped suspicion and notice. Once inside the school, he launched an attack that caught everyone off-guard.

The novel portrayed one reality that American society has been grappling with for the longest time – the prevalence of school shooting incidents. It is a taint on the reputation of a nation renowned for its democratic ideologies. Has its brand of democracy gone unchecked? School shooting incidents has become ubiquitous in the contemporary history of the United States. The Columbine High School, perhaps the most popular of these incidents, is just one of several in a very long list, a grim list that unfortunately just keeps getting longer. The reality, however, is that shooting incidents has become commonplace that even cinemas, workplaces, and even private properties are no longer safe from them. With the rise in shooting incidents, the nation remains at odds with its gun policies and itself.

But whilst the state grapples to address this growing concern, another question surfaces. What has motivated or has pushed these shooters into committing this dastardly acts that has caused the lives of many? Mustafah, with careful attention to detail, crafted the profile to a shooter. Through a series of flashbacks, the story of the shooter was vividly painted. What surfaces is a story that is all too common. He was a man who has grown spiteful because of his life experiences. Mustafah, through his backstory, also underlined the seminal role internet and the world wide web plays in the radicalization of internet users. The virtual world, with its free flowing and uncensored contents has evolved into a powerful tool not only in research but also in espousing of radical ideologies. It has also become a tool for surveilling individuals and for the recruitment of terrorist elements.

“The prosecution strenuously enforced the term hate crime, though the defense categorically objected.” Of important note was how the unconscionable act was reduced to an act of a “lonely, disgruntled middle-aged man who’d gotten caught in a cyber web of hatred.” It was a clear reflection of the current realities where hate crimes are not acknowledged and are merely reduced into isolated acts of mentally unstable characters. Just this March 2021, a tragic shooting incident in Atlanta, Georgia left eight dead. However, policemen shrugged off claims that it was a hate crime. However, the statistics don’t lie. Six of the eight victims were women of Asian descent.

As the narrative moved forward, more layers of the novel is unveiled. Beyond the shooting incident, the novel has grappled with several timely and seminal subjects such as the immigrant experience. Afaf was born to a first generation of Palestinians who moved to suburban Chicago in the hopes of having a better life and to escape the turbulent political atmosphere of their native land. Through the Rahman family’s story, Mustafah created a distinct but relatable immigrant experience, from the disappointments and the hopes, from the trials and the tribulations. The Beauty of Your Face has also captured the diversity existing in the various communities within the sphere of Chicago and how these communities have continuously evolved with the passage of time.

One subject that has become synonymous with the immigrant experience is the quintessence of the American Dream. It is no secret that many of us yearn for that American Dream. Our dreams of rising above the quagmires of poverty is inevitably anchored on the hope of settling on the Land of Milk and Honey. There were many that have succeeded but there were some who have failed horribly. But as many find themselves successful in a land not their own, the American Dream has started to evolve. A nation that once welcomed migrants with open arms have increasingly become hostile. Individuals who don’t have the same color of the skin, or shape of the eyes, or the same clothing are frowned upon. Religion and religious beliefs have also become tools for division.

“Her hijab had become a thing that attracted sheer hatred, fear. And yet where would she be without it?” The clothes one wear in public has also become a tool for division and resentment. The hijab, an emblematic traditional garb, is enough to attract the interest of onlookers. Muslim women experience discrimination as their traditional attire also sows fear. At some points, the hijab can incite violent sentiments in non-Islamic individuals. These brazen acts further raises the question of the current condition of American social affairs. On another note, Mustafah’s positive presentation of religion to counter the negative stereotypes about Muslim women was commendable.

“We are a religion of peace, not terror. We are Americans, too.” As the shooter and Afaf crossed paths, finding themselves isolated in the school prayer room, a discourse took place that formed a significant portion of the plot. Their unlikely interaction has exposed several subjects that the novel dealt with such as prejudice, xenophobia and Islamophobia which have become ubiquitous. One doesn’t have to look too far in the past to gain more examples of the growing xenophobia in contemporary United States, in light of the increasing violence towards Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. Islamophobic sentiments are also prevalent

What propelled the narrative was Afaf and her story. As she attempted to understand the situation at the school, she fell back into memories, of the events that has led her to this point. She has not lived a comfortable life as she had to struggle with complicated relationships. She also grappled with her own identity. She also had to deal with the growing rift between her and mother following the sudden disappearance of her older sister, Nada. She took it upon herself to save her family from being doused after her sister’s disappearance. Beyond the veneer of composure is the voice a young woman that longed to be heard, to be seen and to be listened to.

Afaf’s growth and development as a character was also on the forefront of the novel. The teenage Afaf was the typical teenager. She had rebellious streaks whilst tolerating the abuses hurled at her by her peers. At her school, she was an outcast who did not have any friends. She struggled to find her place in society which continually excluded her for her “otherness”. She struggled to find a simulacrum of belongingness. In her desperation to feel something, she used her body to gain power over white boys. As the realities suffocated her, she started losing her own identity. The path to finding her took having her father survive a fatal car accident. Turning to Islam, he managed to convince his daughter to take the same path, albeit reluctantly. In Islam, she finally found a community that embraced her for who she is.

The novel explored several important themes and had several interesting facets. However, the powerful parts of the narrative was undermined by some of its flaws which surfaced as the narrative moved forward. The novel’s definition of community was rather limited. Mustafah’s definition for community was feeble as community should never be limited by color, race, gender, or nationality, and especially religion. Whilst the novel was not preachy, it was insistent on the idea that religion was the cure for all of one’s maladies.

The school shooting incident also felt underdeveloped. shooter’s motivation did not seem credible. The portrayal of the shooting incident was lacking and the discourse between Afaf and the shooter lacked power and insight. The shooter and Afaf kept circling on the same subjects about loss. “I know about losing people you love,” she told him to which he replied, “I don’t give a shit what you lost.” It was a scene, when properly orchestrated, that could have stirred more emotions and greater understanding. It was hastily portrayed. The novel did have a brilliant start but it was negated by the conclusion.

Despite its flaws, The Beauty of Your Face is a profound and compelling read. Mustafah’s brilliant writing wove a rich tapestry about the current realities the United States is grappling with. It explored seminal and timely themes such as Islamophobia, racism, discrimination, and xenophobia. She never shied away from tackling the inconvenient as she also grappled with the disappointments and hopes that inevitably comes along with the proverbial American Dream. She painted the complexities and dynamics of the immigrant family life with vivid strokes. Above all, The Beauty of Your Face is the portrait of a young woman who once lost herself but eventually found it. In finding a community that made her feel wanted, she finally came into grips with who and what she is.

Ratings

72%

Characters (30%) – 23%
Plot (30%) – 20%
Writing (25%) – 18%
Overall Impact (15%) – 11%

Before 2020 commenced, I was already searching for books to include in my 2020 Books I Look Forward to List. One of the titles that I kept coming across in similar lists was Sahar Mustafah’s The Beauty of Your Face. It immediately piqued my interest and it didn’t take much convincing for me to include it in my own list. However, procuring a copy of the book during the pandemic was quite a challenge; it was not even available in our local bookstore. Thankfully, I managed to find an online bookseller who was able to find me a copy of the book and towards the end of the year, I was finally able to dig into the narrative. The Beauty of Your Face is a seminal narrative that echoes the realities of the contemporary. It depicted the escalation of violence in places the public has deemed as safe havens whilst simultaneously portraying the oppression that migrants experience in the United States. What elevated the narrative, however, was the story of Afaf. But whilst these gains were undermined by the shallow backstory of the radical shooter, The Beauty of Your Face is nonetheless a timely and relevant story that needed to be told.

Book Specs

Author:  Sahar Mustafah
Publisher: W.W. Norton
Publishing Date: April 2020
Number of Pages: 312
Genre: Coming-of-age

Synopsis

A Palestinian American woman wrestles with faith, loss, and identity before coming face-to-face with a school shooter in this searing debut.

A uniquely American story told in powerful, evocative prose, The Beauty of Your Face navigates a country growing ever more divided. Afaf Rahman, the daughter of Palestinian immigrants, is the principal of Nurrideen School for Girls, a Muslim school in the Chicago suburbs. One morning, a shooter—radicalized by the online alt-right—attacks the school.

As Afaf listens to his terrifying progress, we are swept back through her memories: the bigotry she faced as a child, her mother’s dreams of returning to Palestine, and the devastating disappearance of her older sister that tore her family apart. Still, there is the sweetness of the music from her father’s oud, and the hope and community Afaf finally finds in Islam.

The Beauty of Your Face is a profound and poignant exploration of one woman’s life in a nation at odds with its ideals, an emotionally rich novel that encourages us to reflect on our shared humanity. If others take the time to really see us, to look into our face, they will find something indelibly familiar, something achingly beautiful gazing back.

About the Author

Sahar Mustafah is the daughter of Palestinian immigrants. She has earned her Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in Fiction from Columbia College. She was a Follett Graduate Scholar.

In 2017, Mustafah made her literary debut with the publication of Code of the West. A collection of short stories, it won the Willow Books Grand Prize. Prior to 2020, Mustafah wrote mostly short stories dealing with her Palestinian origins. Her short stories have been awarded the Guild Literary Complex Prize for fiction, a Distinguished Story honor from Best American Short Stories, and three Pushcart Prize nominations, among other honors. In 2020, she published her first novel, The Beauty of Your Face. It was named as one of the Notable Books of 2020 by the New York Times.

Mustafah was also named as one of 25 Writers to Watch by The Guild Literary Complex of Chicago, and is a member of Voices Protest and Radius of Arab American Writers. She currently resides in Chicago with her family. She is also currently teaching literature and creative writing to high school students.