Wednesday, June 23, 2021

The Beauty of Your Face is Truly Beautiful

Sahar Mustafah’s debut novel is a stunning achievement. “The Beauty of Your Face” was called one of the most anticipated novels of 2020 but it never really seemed to gain traction and I had to wait forever to get it from the library. It is advertised as a book about a school shooting, a subject that might turn many The Beauty of Your Facereaders away in these increasingly violent times, but please be assured that the shooting is a minor piece in this beautiful exploration of Islam, the culture and the religion.

The action does begin on a normal school day at the Nurrideen School for Girls where Afaf Rahman, the principal fields phone calls from the moment she hits her office door. Not that she minds. It took years for the local Islamic community to raise the funds for this progressive high school and the sounds of her girls laughing, chatting, learning, is the sound of music to Afaf. Still, she takes a moment to slip away to a small closet where she keeps her prayer rug when it’s time for a respite. Lost in thought, on her knees, facing Mecca, she wonders why she hears fireworks, then the screams, and finally the realization dawns.

Mustafah leaves us there, hanging in fear, and goes on to pen a family story, Ataf’s reminiscences of her secular childhood here in Chicago, the family’s flight from persecution in Palestine, her father’s difficulty acquiring steady work, and her mother’s utter hatred of all things American. When Afaf’s older sister Nada, her mother’s favorite, disappears, weeks, then months pass with no news and Afaf’s mother slowly loses her mind while her father seeks solace in the comfort of religion.

To keep us on the hook, Mustafah returns to the present day and the school in brief chapters where we try to relate this calm, level-headed principal, confronting and even questioning the shooter, with the depressed, rebellious young Afaf who barely survived her own school years as her family fell apart and she understood that she could never fill the hole in mama’s heart left by Nada’s disappearance.

I don’t know that I have ever read a novel that so perfectly describes the lure of a religious sect as this one does. The comfort and solidarity offered by the mosque saves Afaf’s life, drawing her closer to her father while further eroding the gulf between her and her mother. When Afaf and her husband decide to make the Hajj, the ultimate pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia that all Muslims are called to complete during their lifetimes, Mustafah explains the logistics and the importance so clearly that I truly had an ah ha moment.

This lovely novel, overflowing with joy, love, and forgiveness, would lend itself to fabulous book discussions. Check it out!

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