Breaking news: school shooting.
Too often, these words flash across the screens of homes all over America. Listening to the atrocities recounted on TV, it all seems too horrific to be true. Surreal clips of crying family members and mourning communities unveil before our eyes, and disbelief permeates every inch of our being. It’s hard to ignore the unwelcome feeling of morbid curiosity that our imagination sets into motion. What must it be like to attend a regular day at school, only to have it end in such tragedy and horror? What were the victims’ last thoughts? What was the shooter thinking?
Sahar Mustafah’s upcoming novel “The Beauty of Your Face” gives us a glimpse into the terrifying realities of a school shooting, and the circumstances that bring about this all-too-common incident. The story follows a Palestinian-American woman, Afaf Rahman, as she navigates faith, family struggles and the unshakeable racial prejudices in American society leading up to and following 9/11. Afaf’s narrative is told through two alternating timelines. The bulk of the novel focuses on her life growing up in the suburbs of Chicago, while a present-day encounter with a school shooter frames the story. “The Beauty of Your Face” details Afaf’s journey from a scarring youth to a meaningful adulthood, in which she works as the principal of an all-girls Muslim school in Chicago: the Nurideen School for Girls.
With profound insights and glittering words, Mustafah explores the realities of growing up in a community that rejected Afaf’s Palestinian immigrant family. Chicago in the 1970s and ‘80s was a world where women were “kicked and shoved (…) at the supermarket” and called “rag-head” at the gas station for wearing headscarves. As a young girl, Afaf is forced to be hyperaware of her Palestinian roots as she faces everything from microaggressions and ignorance to outright and intentional racism. She suffers heartbreak and hardship when her deeply unhappy sister, Nada, disappears without a trace and her parents succumb to the emotional burden of sadness that descends upon the family. Afaf’s difficult childhood makes her story all the more inspiring as she finds her way out of the spiral of misery that her parents surrendered to through perseverance and her discovery of Islam.
After 9/11, Afaf faces a new set of hardships as the underlying current of xenophobia in America crystallizes into a misguided fear of terrorists. This fear and hate is inevitably directed at Afaf and her family solely because they are Muslim. The headscarf Afaf donned with pride in her late teenage years becomes a symbol of terrorism in the eyes of ignorant American nationalists. In a heartbreaking exchange between Afaf and her daughter Azmia about recent terrorist attacks, Azmia asks her mother, “How can they do that? Aren’t they Muslim too?” to which Afaf has no good answer except “They’re not true muslimeen, habibti.” It is impossible not to share Afaf’s disbelief and frustration at the undeserved abuse she endures just because overseas terrorist groups use her cherished religion in the name of evil.
The story is told mostly from Afaf’s perspective, but her narrative is periodically interrupted by chapters told from the point of view of the shooter. The shooter’s mind is a world of twisted fantasy, fueled by online chat rooms where anyone who isn’t white or born in America poses a threat to his existence. His perspective is both haunting and disturbing, as his initially cold and hateful voice gives way to a deep sense of loneliness. Though at times hard to read, this unconventional perspective highlights the depth of the divide between the xenophobic shooter and the students of Nurideen School for Girls. Mustafah seems to suggest that so much of the violence and hate in this country stems from this fundamental lack of understanding between people.
“The Beauty of Your Face” is a complex generational novel that is all too relevant in today’s divided America. The underlying plea of the characters, “We are a religion of peace, not terror. We are Americans too,” echoes urgently through the pages of the novel. Afaf tries to bridge the gap between her and the shooter, urging him, “Tell me about your pain,” but it’s too late for him to see past their differences. Afaf and the shooter’s lives and experiences have led them to this point, and her small act of recognition can no longer put an end to the events that are unfolding. Nevertheless, the message rings loud and clear. Maybe violence could be avoided if people took the time to understand other people’s pain and find commonalities in their shared human experience.