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Sahar Mustafah : The Beauty of Your Face

Afaf Rahman is the principal of a Muslim girls school – the Nurrideen School for Girls – located in the Chicago suburbs. Not surprisingly she has various problems. One problem is the parents – the book opens with her fielding a complaint from a parent that her daughter is reading a work of great depravity – The Great Gatsby. The other problem is the locals who are not entirely enthusiastic about having a Muslim school in their midst and had tried to block it. They weren’t keen on the expansion of un-Christian spaces. The school receives bomb threats, M-80s lobbed over the wall and loudspeakers blaring out their opposition. The school has recently hired a former police officer as school guard.

Afaf is very proud off her pupils, which include her fifteen year old daughter Azmia who has started an Amnesty International chapter in the school and it is clear that the younger generation are seeking more freedoms than their parents had.

We are going to follow, in alternating chapters, the story of one eventful day at the school and Afaf’s back story.

She is the daughter of Palestinian immigrants to the United States. Her older sister, Nada, was born in Palestine. The family received sponsorship to go to the United States and moved to Illinois. The father ‘s family had been forcibly driven out of Haifa. In the United States, the couple continually fought and the mother threatened to return to Palestine. Afaf and her younger brother, Majeed, were born much later. Things did not go well for the family and they had two major incidents, which made things much worse for all of them. The father could play the oud and wanted to be a professional musician but the locals were not interested in his kind of music . He eventually gets a job in a factory.

As she grew up Afaf went somewhat off the rails, particularly as regards boys, for which she was admonished. She clearly does not fit in, not least because she is different and the other girls are critical of her and even the teachers show that they are racist. Majeed does fit in as he is good at baseball, though even he gets racist abuse. Afaf does not feel she is good at anything but does enjoy reading.

After one of the incidents, the father turns to religion for solace, to his wife’s disgust. He attends the local Islamic centre regularly and is often seen praying at home. On one occasion Afaf accompanies him and meets a former classmate. They become friends and Afaf also turns to religion, even wearing a hijab (for which she is often mocked). Her mother is not happy though her brother accepts her decision. Meanwhile she has left school and trained to be a teacher while her father proposes doing the hajj at great cost. Afaf will meet a Bosnian and they fall in love and marry.

While we are gradually learning all of this, we are also following Afaf’s day as a principal of the girls school. After the routine stuff it all goes much worse. A gunman has decided to shoot up the school and, interestingly, we initially follow the story from his point of view. He had protested against the school, as had many others. However, he seems to be happily married and though he has no children, he clearly loves his dog. He has no trouble getting into the school as a workman – security seems to be quite lax – and off he goes. Inevitably he will meet Asaf.

Though Asaf and her family are Palestinian, the racist issues they face are because they are Muslim. The Palestinian issue on its own does not seem to be much of a factor. Of course once Asaf starts wearing a hijab and after 9/11, things get worse. It is not helped by the tense atmosphere at home. Becoming a committed Muslim gives Asaf a security and certainty that home and school life did not give her and becoming a teacher and, of course a wife and a mother (she has three children) reinforces that.

The lone gunman is just the culmination of the basic story, namely that Muslims (and other peoples of colour, briefly mentioned) are subject to continued racist abuse, often simply verbal but also physical as well. The book happens to be set in the Chicago suburbs but the abuse of the Muslims can be found all over the world.

Publishing history

First published in 2020 by Norton