A book review of The Beauty of Your Face by Sahar Mustafah
Maghrib has come, the sun went down, The shine is left on your face. Maghrib has come, your face Shines more beautiful because of the sun. I would like to warm myself In the beauty of your face - Bosnian folksong
When it comes to exploring the Muslim identity in the realm of fiction, one is hard-pressed to find a story that provides a realistic narrative for the lay Muslim. Whether it’s the war-waging Jihadi, the pitiful oppressed victim, or the faith-renouncing liberal, such orientalist caricatures in literature perpetuate distasteful stereotypes and provide little to no characters for average Muslims to relate to.
In the past few decades, there has been an influx of literature authored by Muslim writers, a success championed by publishers who strive to include and amplify Muslim voices in the name of diversity. Likewise, there has been a slow but distinct shift in the Muslim narrative over time. Novels that debunk popular stereotypes and endeavor to reconcile the Muslim identity with the twenty-first century are finally on the rise. Young Adult Fiction in particular has been instrumental in challenging stereotypes and carving out storylines to empower the young Muslim reader. Though there is certainly much to celebrate, there are still problematic and potentially harmful narratives that impact our impressionable youth. This does not mean we should restrict creative integrity and limit showcasing diversity within the Ummah by any means, rather that we become more conscious about the ideas and morals we promote.
Certain publishers are more than happy to support Muslim writers who pitch a ‘tolerant’ and ‘liberal’ Islam, as if Islam is inherently archaic and in dire need of reformation. The hidden agendas, covert motives, and sly narratives further a secular-liberal worldview and assert that Muslims should be grateful for any morsel of representation they receive in mainstream media. More specifically, it seems that when Muslim women are not being sexualized and fetishized in real life, we are being sexualized and fetishized in literature. True freedom apparently lies in superficiality, that is, in abandoning our hijabs, dressing defiantly and allowing ourselves to be sexualized – enjoying it, even.
A prominent Muslim author has recently written a book starring a young Muslimah with a passion for breakdancing. Despite hostility and discrimination from her peers, she powers through and pursues her dreams. At first glance, the story sounds empowering: who said a hijabi couldn’t breakdance? The catch, however, is the swift introduction of the white boy love interest. Books, movies, and TV shows thrive off showcasing the brown-skinned girl (Muslim or otherwise) fulfilling the exotic fantasy of the white man. There are exceptions to this rule however.
The Beauty of Your Face centers around the life of protagonist Afaf Rahman, a culturally conflicted Palestinian-American Muslim woman. Much of Afaf’s life is spent in Chicago after her immigrant parents, Mahmood and Muntaha, are expelled from their homeland Palestine and migrate to the US. Afaf, her older sister Nada, and younger brother Majeed thus grow up as first-generation Arab Americans.
Flitting between past and present, the novel largely details each major decade of Afaf’s life. The episodic nature of the narrative is such that the events of her past are peppered by an alternative perspective. The sporadic disruptions in the overall narrative track the actions of a school shooter who has suddenly infiltrated Nurrideen Islamic School for Girls where Afaf is the principal. The events that lead up to the convergence of past and present ultimately render Afaf in an intense standoff with the shooter as narratives collide.
*Disclaimer: this is an analytical book review and contains spoilers.*
The Arab-American-Muslim Axis
Literature exploring the immigrant/diaspora identity is nothing new under the sun. There are plenty of writers who explore what it means to be the three-in-one Arab American Muslim. Unfortunately, it is the Muslim aspect that is often the first to be sacrificed. Remarkably, Mustafah carves a narrative that does not center around a compromised Muslim identity, and in fact is quite the opposite.
The Beauty of Your Face evidences just how many interpretations of this identity there can be, debunking the orientalist myth that Arabs and Muslims are a monolith. Each character is unique in his or her attempt to reconcile their internal/external conflicting identities. On one end there lies Nada, Afaf’s older sister, who wholeheartedly embraces American culture and utterly dissociates from her Arab roots by running away from home early in the novel. She expresses her frustrations prior to her escape, exclaiming, “we’re Americans but they don’t want us to act like it.” Nada is inclined towards fully embracing the one aspect of her identity she feels will provide her the freedom she desires. Contrastingly, their mother, Muntaha, harbors the opposite sentiment. Her intense disapproval of American culture stems from it being the land that tore her family apart and caused her favourite child to leave her. Muntaha’s misery calls for nothing less than a return to the homeland. In the end, both culture and religion play a key role in shaping Afaf’s adulthood, with the latter taking precedence.
The school shooting is an integral part of the storyline. Although the story would have been intriguing enough based on Afaf’s religious journey alone, the shooting proves vital in showcasing her development as a protagonist. It is during her tenth year of teaching at the Islamic school that the shooting takes place. These scenes are written from the first-person perspective of the shooter, a middle-aged white man. Mustafah does a great job at providing a granular account of the motives behind the attack from his perspective. The shooter is exposed for what he truly is: a radicalized, xenophobic, perverted individual who harbors sick thoughts, especially towards women. The juxtaposition of his calm, mundane demeanor on the morning of the incident and his horrifying, dastardly actions later on in the day are chillingly relayed.
What’s quite interesting about the school itself is that it was formerly Our Lady of Peace, a convent. The standoff between Afaf and the shooter happens to occur in the confessional, a dwelling Afaf frequents for prayer. Within this space, the shooter also reflects on his own rocky experience with religion. Interestingly, many parallels can be drawn between events that shaped both the protagonist and antagonist’s lives.
The Rahman family never cared for religion, neither Mahmoud nor Muntaha expressed an affinity for faith or spirituality, and as such their offspring were raised with little to no knowledge about Islam. Palestinian culture therefore plays a big role in cementing the Rahman family’s values and traditions. The writing incorporates common Levantine vernacular (unitalicized, thankfully) in a manner that flows coherently throughout the novel. Despite the parents being fluent in Arabic, the children are not, and thus the crisis of identity is even more so pronounced. In one scene, Afaf is mocked by her Arab brethren for her lack of Arabic competency. Nada’s disappearance plays a major role in exacerbating unstable family dynamics. Afaf’s irreligiosity is so deep-rooted that, “she never prayed to God, not even when her sister disappeared.” Ultimately, it is this lack of faith paired with parental negligence that serves as the primer of Afaf’s rebellion.
Discovery of Faith
The uniqueness of The Beauty of Your Face lies in is its faithful portrayal of Islam. Mustafah’s novel digs into the core of religion, that is, salvation from worldly misery. A sad reality for many immigrants is that their journey for a better life in a foreign land often results in faith being lost along the way. Does becoming an immigrant by necessity confer leeway in blame for a deficiency of faith? Indeed, no one expects to one day be so abruptly expelled from their homeland, and a holy land at that. As Muntaha criticizes, “why has the Lord turned away from the suffering of the Muslimeen? Why has He forsaken the Palestinians?” A lackluster understanding of religion, coupled with the devastation of losing one’s homeland results in a trauma that seems unsalvageable.
Afaf’s irreligious upbringing causes her to express an interest in Islam only after witnessing her father’s discovery of religion after a fateful accident – “it’s like he’s stumbled upon a spring of water and he wants them all to drink from it.” Her father’s transformation is exemplary in evidencing how changed behavior speaks louder than words. Rectification of his prior behavior is more inspiring to his daughter than harsh parenting.
Afaf’s key transitory moment in becoming a practicing Muslimah occurs principally during her visit to the city’s Islamic Center. It is here that she has her first taste of spirituality and a desire to be part of something greater – “[she] feels like a stranger who’s finally come home.” The contrast between the rejection she faces by her peers at school and the acceptance she receives from the wider Muslim community strengthens her embrace of religion. The apprehension and edginess she feels during her visit exemplifies the feeling universally experienced during a first experience. It is seldom the glorious, idealistic moment one expects. It is here that Afaf ends up befriending Kowkab, the sole hijabi at her school. Kowkab becomes a significant presence in Afaf’s life, instrumental in supporting Afaf on her religious journey. This moment really emphasized the importance of good company (suhba) in aiding one’s religious growth and spiritual development.
As an adult Afaf begins her teaching career at the Islamic School and at a center for refugees. Her adoption of the hijab is a notable moment, signifying just how far she has come. No longer is she the faithless, confused teenager with no sense of direction in life. She is now firm in her beliefs and wishes to display her faith to the world. The novel depicts this honorary donning as a celebratory event, with Afaf surrounded by her friends congratulating her on this bold move. Afaf’s marriage to a non-Palestinian man also marks a change in her mentality and growth as they support each other as a couple and even go on Hajj with Afaf’s father. Her mother’s battle with mental illness, however, takes a turn for the worse. Though Muntaha is an incredibly strong figure, the façade of stability can only be kept up for so long. As Afaf returns to religion, her mother returns to Palestine, and her father returns to God.
Oftentimes, secondary and tertiary characters in stories are overlooked as their sole purpose is usually to flesh out the protagonist, rather than being distinct characters in their own right. In The Beauty of Your Face, it is these characters that define the novel alongside the protagonist. There are several pivotal moments in the book that propel each family member into finding his or her own individual purpose. The characters in Mustafah’s novel are three-dimensional, familiar, and personal:
Afaf – Afaf’s initial demure nature is emphasized as the sibling living in her older sister’s shadow, one that is perpetuated by her disappearance. Afaf faces much discrimination in school by both her Arab brethren and her white peers. The fetishization of brown women is touched upon in the narrative, its prevalence in Western society acknowledged and accounted for. The statement, “they think she’s exotic—not beautiful” demonstrates the ‘otherness’ that is part and parcel of a non-white visage. Some storylines tend to climax here – the innocent brown girl inadvertently captures the attention of the white boy who frees her from her backwards culture. Whilst the story acknowledges this, the concept imminently wanes into irrelevancy. This is not the instrumental moment that shapes the rest of Afaf’s life.
Muntaha – Of all the characters in this novel, Afaf’s mother Muntaha is one of the most fascinating. Afaf’s relationship with her mother is complex. On the one hand, Afaf adores the doting mother who endlessly strives to maintain the presence of Palestine in their lives. However, after Nada’s disappearance, her mother becomes a shell of her former self, so intensely overcome by grief that she barely acknowledges her remaining children. Muntaha’s every waking thought is punctuated by a longing for the homeland, and eventually her wish is fulfilled. Though Nada’s disappearance is indeed the root of her misery, it is not the only thing that deteriorates her sanity. Mahmood was no ideal husband, and her declining mental state can attest to that.
Mahmood – Afaf’s father is the key player in the turning point of the plot. It is through his own discovery of Islam after a terrible accident that his daughter Afaf herself submits. The rekindling of the father-daughter relationship does not happen overnight, rather Afaf’s observation of her father’s changed behavior inspires her to abandon her rebellion. Grief-stricken Muntaha, however, is skeptical of her husband and daughter’s newfound faith. She criticizes her husband’s sudden zeal for a religion he never formerly cared for: “So you’ve found religion? After all these years you think God will ever forgive you? I certainly will not.” Likewise, there seems to be a sense of betrayal in her daughter following her husband’s footsteps and joining him in his reclamation of faith. An avid oud player, Mahmood’s comfort is found in playing the traditional Arabic instrument, a hobby that was halted after his accident. The melody of the oud suffuses an appreciation for Palestinian culture throughout the novel.
Nada – Nada’s absence for the majority of the book does not render her a forgotten presence. The gap she leaves in the collective life of the family is one that is unable to be reconciled. Instead of drawing the family closer together, it drives a rift between them, hitting Muntaha the hardest. It is often the most favorite child that ends up rebelling the hardest, the constant suffocating attention having the opposite desired effect. Afaf idolized her sister, describing her as ‘bold and fearless.’ Nada’s return towards the end of the novel was heartwarming and emotional and provided closure to her family.
Majeed – A typical younger brother, Majeed experiences the same upbringing as Afaf. Where Afaf and her father are one, Majeed and his mother are one. Majeed’s affinity to his mother is birthed from his perception of Mahmood as a negligent father and careless husband. Thus, the skepticism Muntaha harbors regarding Mahmood’s discovery of faith are reflected in Majeed, who eventually resents his father and spends his adolescence living out in university far from family politics.
The novel ultimately drives home the importance of family ties and the impact a holistic understanding of Islam can have on the traditional family structure. Up until this book, I had little faith in literature doing justice to Muslim women. It is not often that one finds a narrative so personal and relatable. Afaf’s spiritually devoid upbringing, teenage rebellion, family trauma, and most importantly her rocky journey to Islam are experiences many diaspora Muslims can identify with. The exploration of her renewed faith in light of her traumatic childhood and life struggles are inspiring to the Muslim and non-Muslim reader alike.
The Beauty of Your Face succeeds at providing a narrative that does not only forgo falling into clichés, but demonstrates the beauty of Islam as a means of redemption in an increasingly irreligious, immoral and shameless world.
Amazon link to the book here. This is not a sponsored post.
About the Author: Sahar Aslam studied life sciences at the University of Warwick and currently works in healthcare. She is an avid reader and writes varied book reviews. An advocate of diversification in literature, she focuses on amplifying the voices of authors who are reclaiming the Muslim narrative in contemporary fiction. You can find her reviews on Instagram (instagram.com/bookifiction) and Goodreads (goodreads.com/sahar96).