Afaf Rahman is the principal of the Nurrideen School in Tempest, Illinois, who must lead this all-girls’ faith school through the hostility of its surrounding community, who are wary of immigrants in their neighbourhood, and the parents of the pupils who fear their children are being led astray by their Western education.
It’s Tuesday morning and one of the mothers calls Afaf to complain about the state-approved text she is teaching them, The Great Gatsby, presumably because of the decadent parties that are featured in the book: “The state of Illinois is not raising my daughter to be a proper muslimah, Ms Rahman,” she says.
As Afaf muses over a wealth of similar complaints, she if confronted with a more urgent issue: The school is targeted by a radicalised shooter, a storyline which reflects a growing trend in popular culture to explore right-wing terror attacks, rather than the Islamic fundamentalist suicide bomber plot which has been exhausted, including in TV series such as Homeland.
The attack sends Afaf through a kaleidoscope of memories through which the reader discovers how and why Afaf is the woman she is today, with a particular focus on her time at school as a Palestinian immigrant, caught between her own culture, the one she is growing up in, and how outsiders perceive and treat her.
Here lies the biggest drawback to this novel, which is otherwise a beautifully written and fascinating portrait of life as an American, Muslim immigrant. Although we understand more about Afaf’s motivations and learn why she makes certain life choices by understanding her childhood, the continuous dive back into Afaf’s past, rather than her life now, feels frustrating and makes the book a slow burn.
In some ways The Beauty of Your Face defies Western stereotypes – the women in her family don’t wear headscarves, her father drinks, Afaf has a reputation for kissing the boys at school. But in other ways, it reinforces them. When Afaf gets into a fight at school her mother asks, “Is this how normal girls behave?” The decisions Afaf makes are not black and white either which gives a depth to her character, a complexity that is rarely seen in the depiction of Muslim women.
What is particularly tragic are the racist attacks Afaf is subject to when she is a child. “We wouldn’t want your parents selling you to a haram:” “Would your father shoot you if he saw me doing this?”; “Raghead,” are all levelled at her. Her journey towards discovering Islam “saves” her from her experiences at school and eventually lead her to a partner who is very different from “memories of white boys fumbling with her bra straps,” but not all the women on this part of her journey are everything they first appeared to be.
In one chapter, Afaf ponders over whether to report an incident of domestic violence one of her pupils has suffered and we see the consequences of the continued targeting of certain cultures and religions, for example by the media – reticence to come forward when something does happen for fear of confirming the stereotypes.
This and other scenes, for example the woman in the mosque whose sons fled the US because of coupon fraud, explores the moral question of whether certain cultures or communities must be 100 per cent good to be granted universal justice or whether they “deserve” to be attacked, whether verbally or violently, because they are flawed characters.
The Beauty of Your Face is a story of faith and belonging in a polarised America, but at its heart, Sahar Mustafah’s novel also has a universal concept: a young woman navigating complicated family relations.