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Aisha Yusuff

The Beauty of Your Face by Sahar Mustafah

The Beauty of Your Face navigates a country growing ever more divided. [Getty]

Date of publication: 2 September, 2020

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Book Club: A Palestinian-American woman wrestles with faith, loss, and identity before coming face-to-face with a school shooter in Sahar Mustafah's searing debut.
Sahar Mustafah's debut novel, The Beauty of Your Face, explores the complexities of growing up as a first-generation Palestinian-American, with a gruesome school-shooting as the backdrop. 

The book zeros in on Afaf Rahman, a Palestinian-American principal of Nurrideen School for Girls in Tempest, Illinois. One typical morning, Afaf's life takes a devastating turn when a shooter radicalised online attacks the school. It is during Afaf's encounter with the gunman that the main plot of The Beauty of Your Face takes shape.

The story revolves around memory, and early on in the book the reader can see how this theme plays a poignant role in the plot delivery as supporting characters are introduced through Afaf's recollections. This prepares the reader for the rhythmic alternation between the present and past that unfolds later on in the story.  

In 1976, when the eldest daughter of the Rahman household, Nada, goes missing, the family falls apart and the cracks created by migration begin to show.

Through the family's loss, Mustafah highlights how immigration and the yearning for home affect people's emotional availability - and may ultimately destroy their family relationships.

Afaf's mother, nursing a deep desire to return to Palestine, devoted all of her attention to Nada, who was born in Palestine, in the hope that she could preserve her love for home in her daughter's Palestinian-ness. This devotion transforms into a years-long mental breakdown after Nada's disappearance, which left Afaf and her brother, Majeed, with no staunch motherly support to overcome the identity crisis they would face in their early years. 

Sahar Mustafah's debut novel explores the complexities of growing up as a first-generation Palestinian-American

Mahmood, Afaf's father, although more expressive with his emotions, turns to music from his oud, alcohol, and adultery to make sense of the loss and his own nostalgia. It is during this period that Afaf, at ten years old, begins to experience micro-aggressions and racist bigotry. 

Mustafah sprinkles everyday micro-aggressions experienced by MENA immigrants and Muslims into several parts of the story, thereby pointing to the longstanding implicit bias against immigrants, even before 9/11. Afaf's classmates, mostly white, taunt her repeatedly throughout school and Nada's disappearance causes other Arab mothers to forbid their daughters from engaging with Afaf. This leaves her without a support system to help her through her experiences. 

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The micro-aggressions further manifest in the school system. Her English teacher refuses to upgrade her reading assignments because "she hasn't mastered English properly"; the social worker wants to know "if her parents are too strict" when she defends herself after a white classmate assaulted her. 

Afaf, unable to fully understand these comments for what they were, internalises them and begins to nurture a self-hate that slowly eats away at her confidence. This process of damaged self-esteem is often experienced by second and third-generation immigrants and Mustafah highlights this struggle through Afaf's thoughts and acts of rebellion. 

After a near-death experience, Mahmood turns to Islam and encourages his family to do the same, but only Afaf, with her longing for a safe space, heeds his call. At the Islamic centre, Afaf eventually finds Islam, a lifelong friend, and a welcoming community.

There is a deliberate uncoupling of Islam with Afaf's Palestinian heritage in the story and by doing so Mustafah debunks the widespread notion that being of MENA heritage automatically equals being 'Muslim'. She further solidifies this by introducing other Muslim characters who don't share Afaf's Palestinian heritage: there is Bilal, her Bosnian husband, and the Parkers, a Black family whose patriarch becomes one of Mahmood's closest friends. 

Mustafah highlights how immigration and the yearning for home affect people's emotional availability

There are also ample descriptions of Islamic rituals and practices as well as sayings that are common in the Muslim community. In addition to these, Mustafah also touches on the culture of silence in the Muslim community on issues like domestic violence, when in later years some members of the centre try to guilt-trip Afaf into dismissing the abuse of one of her students. 

The Beauty of Your Face is the quintessence of Muslim representation as its characters explore their religion for the sole purpose of faith, and not as an unspoken extension of their heritage.

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Although the school shooting, an important narrative arc in the story, does not take up as many parts as Afaf's memories, this does not take away from Mustafah's striking storytelling.

Afaf's recollections mirror the brief glimpses of the shooter's past; in pain, loneliness, and a sense of alienation. Afaf recognises this during her encounter with the shooter when she asks him to "tell her about his pain".

By superimposing two similar experiences of two completely different people, Mustafah illustrates to the reader that hurt people don't always have to hurt other people to feel peace: they just have to make the choice not to become the aggressor.

Afaf turns to faith to guide her through her pain and she ends up contributing meaningfully to society; the shooter turns to online white supremacist platforms and upends Afaf's work, leaving more pain and hurt in his wake. 

Language is another pivotal tool that Mustafah uses to craft the story. The dialogue between most of the characters include many Arabic sentences, phrases, and words, which add a more personal touch to the Palestinian heritage of the main character.

Mustafah also deliberately uses 'Amerkan' to replace 'American' to illustrate the hybrid that is created when English blends with an immigrant's mother tongue: a hybrid which might not fit the white supremacist view of what an American should sound like but that nonetheless serves as proof that America is truly a melting pot.

The Beauty of Your Face is unique in the way Mustafah guides readers into a world where the tables are turned: 'Muslim-ness', which is often equated with 'terrorism', suffers a devastatingly gruesome pain at the hands of the ostensibly innocent 'whiteness'.

Aisha Yusuff is a book reviewer with a focus on African and Muslim literature. Her work can be found on @thatothernigeriangirl as well as in digital magazines like Rewrite London. 

Follow her on Twitter: @allthingsaeesha 

The New Arab Book Club: Click on our Special Contents tab to read more book reviews and interviews with authors:

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