In Sahar Mustafah’s incredible debut novel, we follow Afaf, the daughter of Palestinian immigrants who carve out a life for themselves in 1960s Chicago. When her older sister Nada vanishes, grief threatens to push over the brink a family already threatened on all sides: by mental illness from within and xenophobia from outside. Afaf’s life is recounted through flashbacks, while in the present she comes face-to-face with a gunman in the Muslim all-girls school where she is principal. Mustafah reveals a face of the immigrant experience that I feel is often overlooked: the healing power of religion.
I chose this book not only because it fits with our theme this quarter, but also because it has a thought-provoking dialogue with one of our previous picks, Etaf Rum’s A Woman Is No Man. The novels have been compared before (just check Goodreads!): they examine multiple generations of Palestinian immigrant families as they struggle with the harm of gender norms, generational trauma, and xenophobia. But where Woman centers its conflict around gender, Beauty does so with religion; moreover, Woman left me rather melancholy rather than triumphant. Of course, Woman is still an excellent novel, and a good reminder that some modes of oppression are too thoroughly entrenched for one generation to tackle. But Beauty addresses many of Woman’s core points while still undertaking its thesis of defying dominant narratives of Islamic misogyny.
The purpose and love that Afaf finds in her community, in her choice to wear the hijab, in the forgiveness she learns to extend for her own healing to begin — they are all thanks to Islam. There are wounds that Islam cannot fix or even worsens, but at least it provides solace. I was almost surprised by how lifted I felt during passages when Afaf was surrounded by prayer and kindness. I have never gone to hajj, but when Mustafah describes the sheer pack of bodies walking, praying, sweating in the sun, I felt it. I was floored by how deftly Mustafah drew me into every moment of loss and joy.
This is a difficult time for the world, not least for our Muslim siblings. It seems everywhere we turn, there are new dangers. My instinctual reaction to the story and internal monologue of the narrative’s present enemy, the school shooter, was, “No, that’s way too on the nose.” But… it really isn’t. And I think whether that xenophobia and misogyny are taken straight from a criminal profile or the more mundane everyday sort (e.g. “hijabs are oppressive!”), we have to keep ourselves keen to it. And an important part of that is seeing the power of Islam as a positive force, one that can foster profound feelings of love and belonging, one that can save and create lives — as much as many would like to believe otherwise. I am so thankful to Sahar Mustafah for penning such an amazing novel, and I look forward to following her future work.