|photo: Tamara Hijazi
Sahar Mustafah grew up in a family of six, the daughter of Palestinian immigrants. Her first novel, The Beauty of Your Face (reviewed below; W.W. Norton, $26.95), begins as a shooter confronts the young women in the private Muslim school where Afaf Rahman serves as principal. Mustafah intersperses scenes of the present with flashbacks to Afaf's girlhood and adolescence as a first-generation Palestinian American--the disappearance of her older sister and her closeness to her younger brother, Majeed--as well as chapters from the shooter's perspective to build tension and empathy for her characters. We spoke with Mustafah by phone from her home in Chicago, where she teaches English to high school students.
How did you come up with the structure for The Beauty of Your Face? You have us in the palm of your hands with the opening scene of the shooting in the school where Afaf is principal, and then you reveal Afaf's journey to that moment.
I was in a wonderful workshop called "novel in a year" conducted by Rebecca Makkai, who wrote The Great Believers. She's the conductor of StoryStudio Chicago. I went through the year, and it was a failed first draft. I realized it was because I hadn't gotten to the heart of these characters I'd created.
I thought, I need to spend time on one. I made a decision: I can look at Afaf from decade to decade, and what would be the monumental moment in each decade. I was interested in what she would look like not having that older sister anymore as a role model. I think we're so vulnerable as teens; let's add on a family that's dysfunctional, and that felt high voltage to me.
I couldn't lead into her embracing Islam without looking at that challenging period. There was no question there would be the teenage years before hitting on young adulthood afterwards. In order for that story to be told, I needed to show my readers where the victim was coming from.
It was surprising to read the chapters set in the shooter's experience. What made you decide to include them?
The shooter had always been part of this novel. I had a sense there'd be alternating chapters. I had Afaf's life unfold, and the present disrupt her journey. That framing allowed me to hold onto the story arc.
I didn't want to present this sort of case study of a white male domestic terrorist. I was not at all interested in that. I wanted to consider the potential for daily violence against Muslim women and those communities, especially in this political climate and post-9/11.
What ended up happening is there were similarities: they both have immigrant parents; they both experienced the loss of the presence of their sibling. That wasn't planned, but these similarities developed. I was also not interested in "here's how we can stop hate," or "here's the handbook on Islamophobia." I wanted to raise questions in times of fear, in times of a lack of understanding. Hopefully my readers, by the time they're done, are asking themselves those questions and bringing those experiences into their lives.
Afaf's embrace by the women of the Islamic Center, especially her classmate Kowkab, whom she'd remembered as wearing hijab at school, is a pivotal moment in the book.
It was so important for me that this not be, oh and then she converts. Really what happens is that these women embrace Afaf. She's never had any sort of community; she'd had to deal with her mother's mental illness and her sister's absence. She doesn't start wearing hijab until high school. She's been sitting with it; it's been her journey. I love this women's circle, and they're flawed and we see that, but Kowkab is such an embodiment of those transcendent relationships and experiences.
The trip to Mecca with her father turns out to be a momentous and bonding experience for both Afaf and her father.
I just did an article for my British publisher about the research experience; Hajj [the pilgrimage to Mecca] was the most challenging because I haven't been there. You need permits! I had to dig, and I was lucky because I found online journals and diaries of women who were there. Not just the emotions and ritual part, but the awestruck part, which I've heard firsthand from relatives. I tried to express that, what it's like to be part of the pilgrimage. "It's like you're falling in love with God," a native Arabic speaker said--I knew she was wary of the translation, but I also knew what she meant. You're doing this collectively and publicly, which can also be stressful and dangerous. That was the thing I was most nervous about--making that as authentic as I could.
Can you talk about the tension between Afaf's parents, and their struggle to raise their children in a country whose values differ from theirs so dramatically?
That's part of what I consider unique about my story, that the parents are not really pious. I would call them secular. They're not atheists, but they're not practicing Muslims. They're feeling maybe even more disconnected from their roots. I didn't want them to be godless. Baba's trying his best, but Mama has not been able to put down roots and, unfortunately, it's at the cost of their children, and at the root of Afaf feeling lost and not loving herself. This is part of my own experience; I'm familiar with families that aren't particularly religious. There was a resurgence in the 1990s, before 9/11, where women tended to be more practicing, wearing hijab, and more mosques were being built.
But with Afaf's family, we have a mom who doesn't feel she belongs, and they're struggling financially. For some people, religion would be a way to navigate or cope, and for them it isn't. When Baba is reawakened, it feels like more than as a Muslim but that he could start over and make things right with his family. He had had the roots, they just hadn't been cultivated in this country.
Do you think Afaf's mother also resents that her sister married better than she, in terms of marrying a doctor who could ensure her financial security?
Yes, it's a real classic ideal of America being a land of opportunity, which includes economic security. My father was part of a thriving business. But Afaf's parents were struggling. The father was someone who had to put his music career on hold in order to support the family, and this prevents her mother from going home to visit her family. It's sad, understandable, but we also know Mahmood [Afaf's father] is working as hard as he can under the circumstances. I think of my Mom; she wanted to marry an ex-pat who was going to take her out of Palestine. Her family was religiously strict, so she was also fleeing that. We were fortunate to have a roof over our head, and could afford private school. It was another narrative from perhaps what readers were expecting. I hope this is not "the typical immigrant" story. I do appreciate when people see that it's not "a single narrative" of being Muslim in America, or Palestinian in America.
Your portrait of Baba's recovery from his near-death accident and his embrace of the Muslim faith is so moving. His newfound faith drives not just a wedge, but a wall between Afaf's parents. Can you talk about this development in their relationship?
Her resentment comes from a few places. This intense grief that she's been carrying. Not being able to come to terms with the loss of her daughter enough to function for her children, for the living. She imagines the worst has happened to her firstborn. I think there's also a bit of a symptom of her mental illness--I don't want that to overshadow what she feels is a slight and an injury that her Higher Power has given her, and she has a yearning for home. Religion for her is just not going to do it.
I'm very moved by mental illness. It's something that's been taboo, and just starting to change in our communities, through treating mental illness and depression. You were just expected to turn it over to the Lord. She's not buying that, but she's also losing out on a community.
Afaf eventually comes to forgive her mother for her absence in their lives. What role does forgiveness play in Afaf's journey, and where does it fit in the Muslim faith?
It was important for Afaf to gain forgiveness before going to Hajj, to ask anyone you've injured for forgiveness. Still it was difficult for Afaf. She reveals that no matter how pious you are, there's going to be this intrusion of real human feelings of resentment. Her mother's made that suicide attempt. It's been a volatile relationship. I think Afaf continues to struggle, but she can live in the present. Her circle of women, by virtue of not asking her about her past, that feels like forgiveness too.
That may be something that in other religions is a strict ritual--I'm thinking of confession for Catholics. For Muslims, you should always ask for forgiveness for any wrongdoing, but the idea is that you're not going to keep committing those injuries, those sins, so you don't have to ask for contrition. It's about always being present. Do your best now and don't look back. --Jennifer M. Brown, senior editor, Shelf Awareness