Fiction

Beauty, Horror, and Waraq Dawali: Sahar Mustafah Reinvents the American Dream, Chicago-style, in Debut The Beauty of Your Face

After Afaf’s older sister disappears one night, their family is never the same. As her mother succumbs to mental illness and her father to alcoholism, Afaf struggles to come of age as an outcast even among her fellow arrabiyat, or Arab-Americans. She finally finds solace in Chicago’s nascent Islamic community, eventually becoming a teacher and then principal at Illinois’ first Muslim girls’ school. But her peace doesn’t last—a school shooter sets his sights on the academy that Afaf has so lovingly built.

The Beauty of Your Face is at once vast and intimate. Mustafah’s vulnerable portrait of one of Chicago’s lesser-known immigrant communities showcases the diversity and resilience of survivors who find and support each other in Chicago’s industrial corridor.

As is always the case when I pick up a book advertising hot-button issues, I initially feared that The Beauty of Your Face might be crushingly depressing, or oppressively pedantic. In the hands of a less-skilled storyteller, this charged political narrative could easily have become heavy-handed or navel-gazing—but Mustafah’s literary voice soared beyond my wildest expectations.

For all its sobriety and nuance, Mustafah’s prose stays clear, bright, and even lighthearted. Moments of laughter and hope slice emotionally taxing content into digestible portions—interludes of children dancing to music familiar both in the US and Palestine, or indulgent meals showcasing homegrown Palestinian-American meals. Accompanying each intense domestic moment are the vivid smells, flavors, and textures of a fusion cuisine so sophisticated I’m about to write Mustafah asking if she has a companion cookbook lined up for publication next.

A particularly vivid scene features Afaf’s aunt, Kalti Nesreen, who lives a comparatively more comfortable upper-middle-class life in Kenosha. Afaf comments that Kalti Nesreen possesses neither her mother’s looks nor cooking skill, but still strives for an idealized femininity combining the Palestinian with the American. For her Thanksgiving meal, Kalti prepares not only a delectable lamb roast and a mountain of Palestinian dishes, but also a roasted turkey—which turns out terrible. While the guests praise the lamb, it’s clear that these families constantly feel like they are not American enough despite their best efforts to fit in.

Mustafah masterfully crafts these seemingly small trials into veritable cliffhangers. Every scene is wracked with tension. I never thought I’d describe literary fiction as “suspenseful”, but each sentence pushed me further to the edge of my seat. In every room there’s just one detail slightly off, a glass on the edge of the table, someone on the verge of becoming murderous, and as the smells and music wafted about I was never sure who was going to survive to the end.

By transforming this domestic story into a psychological thriller, Mustafah fleshes out the fairy tale and horror story that is the American Dream. Every immigrant hopes their children will have a better life and be able to leave the troubles of their family’s past behind, but all too often that dream does not come true.

Many Chicago families have stories like this. Nostalgia for a lost homeland tangles with the reality of persecution that forced families to flee. Religion is stamped our souls and upon our children’s souls whether we like it or not. Generational trauma and general poverty compounds mental health and disability. In these ways, The Beauty of Your Face belongs on the bookshelf beside Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace and Gint Aras’ The Fugue.

Nevertheless, Mustafah salvages from the inherent tragedy a redemption story—not just for Afaf but also for her family and community, and those who would wish to destroy it. Reading between the lines, Mustafah also undertakes an ambitious project of cultural heavy lifting: demystifying Arab-American culture for the general public.

Mainstream US culture has demonized Arab nations and Islamic practices to the point where people associate the sound of Arabic with terrorism, and the hijab with Handmaid’s-Tale-like gender roles. And while Chicago boasts a vibrant Arab-American and Islamic community, you don’t see a ton of folks with hijab or skullcaps walking around in the Loop. It’s easy to imagine that racism against Arab-Americans began and ended with 9/11, and even easier to believe that every Arab is a conservative practicing Muslim, and vice versa.

Focusing in on Afaf’s family living on the South Side in the 1970s, it’s apparent there’s nothing exotic about them. Afaf’s teen angst, while poignant, is quotidian; every teen girl believes at some point that her mother hates her, that she needs the sexual attention of white boys “to be seen.” Enough conversational Arabic was interspersed throughout family scenes that I picked up a few catchy phrases, like the endearing term habibi used to address loved ones. Afaf’s family is a blue-collar and secular; her adoption of Islam as a young adult is a deliberate choice based on her own needs to recover from trauma and find a sense of belonging—pointedly not a family obligation. Mustafah shows the thrill of the ceremony in which she officially choses to don the full hijab—immediately followed by her mother privately shaming her for doing so.

Afaf’s story flips common misconceptions on their head, instead turning the mirror on the fear-mongers who seek to destroy her people. She reacts viscerally to white women who eye her with scorn, or with pity; she works tirelessly to create a safe space for young women to come of age empowered and well-educated, with a sense of identity strong enough to confront a world seemingly groomed to hate them.

Many coming-of-age stories are about finding oneself by breaking away. By contrast, The Beauty of Your Face is about finding oneself by reaching deep and out into one’s community and found family. I felt like I was in Afaf’s shoes, in her mind and soul, for every second of every page. There were no straw-man characters—even the villain, the school shooter, has his own point of view and a compelling character arc. Afaf’s able to tap into what she learned from the difficulties she had with her mother to extend a broader empathetic instinct that saves her life and those of others.

Chicago’s been a shelter and a jump-off point for myriad immigrant and refugee communities. Mustafah’s debut shines a light on the full humanity and moral dynamism of the Palestinian-American enclave, and the smorgasbord of practicing Muslims who also call Chicago home.

Explore a new facet of Chicago from the comfort of your home by order your copy of The Beauty of Your Face from your favorite local bookstore, out April 7, 2020.

Mustafah’s Virtual Release Party will be held on Facebook Live on April 7, at 7 p.m., combined with George Abraham’s poetry release Birthright.

Mustafah will also give a webinar hosted by Seminary Co-op Bookstore and American Writers Museum on April 8, at 6:30 p.m.

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