The Beauty of Your Face by Sahar Mustafa is a novel focusing on a Palestinian- American woman, Afaf Rahman, as she navigates a world that is torn apart by hate, misunderstanding, and cruelty. She is the principal of a Muslim all-girls’ school in a Chicago suburb. The story focuses on two timelines: the present where Afaf is facing a school shooter, who has been radicalized by the online alt-right, and the other is a flashback of her life.
Like any novel focusing on the immigrant experience in the US, this story grapples with wider questions of identity, the idea of home, cultural assimilation, xenophobia, and loss. Afaf and her brother, Majeed, are American citizens. Their elder sister, Nada, ran away from their home in the US, and this disappearance casts a shadow over the family. Their mother yearns to return to her home in Palestine and is mentally ill. Their father tries to cope with everything while working at a plastic factory. Afaf does not have a stable and loving home and family; her problems are not glorified and she is lost. It is heartbreaking to see her life and her relationships with her parents and her brother.
Afaf turns her life around when she encounters Islam; her family was never religious. Yet, her transformation, her sense of community and kinship with others in the mosque, and her decision to wear the hijab are presented very matter-of-factly. Afaf’s search for identity is a major theme of the story. The novel has quite a few Arabic words which may be a problem but can be understood, based on the context. It is a difficult read especially, with the systemic racism and prejudices that Afaf faces as a daughter of immigrants, her religion, her gender, and her decision to wear a hijab. The story also displays the power of female friendships, the importance of having a belief/moral system, and how much social justice work needs to be done.
If you are interested to know how Islam works, how casual racism is a lifestyle, how easy it is to radicalize an ordinary White person into a terrorist and understand a perspective vastly different from your own, then this novel is a good starting point.