Review: The Beauty of Your Face by Sahar Mustafah

This book about a Palestinian family in Chicago, Illinois begins with a school shooting.  Afaf, the principal of a school for Muslim girls, is praying when the gunman opens fire.  Then the book goes back to Afaf’s childhood.  Afaf is raised in Chicago in the 1970s with her not very religious parents, her older sister, and her younger brother. Her father loves records and music, but her mother longs for her home country and struggles with what seems to be depression.  The family is torn apart when Afaf’s teenage sister, Nada, doesn’t come home one night.

I can’t say I loved The Beauty of Your Face, but it did make me think, and I identified with Afaf’s struggles as a girl and as a teenager to fit in with her schoolmates and develop her identity.  As a teenager, she internalizes the loss of her sister and her mother’s depression, and she tries to lose herself by fooling around with the boys at school – because at least by being bad, she feels something.

Her father becomes religious and invites her to join her at his mosque – there she begins to find an acceptance and an identity she didn’t have before.

I always appreciate reading about Muslim families, to get more insights about their religion and different customs.  I liked that Mustafah presents different views of the religion and doesn’t show its followers as perfect.  She also shines a light on the racism and bigotry aimed at those who are Muslim and Arab, especially after 9/11.

However, as I’m not very religious, the book felt a little too insistent that religion was a cure-all for Afaf’s problems. I would have liked a more nuanced approach, although I can appreciate that author Mustafah wants to present a very positive view of the religion, while countering the negative stereotypes about Muslim women, like the idea that women wearing traditional clothing like the hijab are oppressed.

Unfortunately, the latter part of the book, where Afaf is a mother and wife, felt short and disconnected. I  felt the school shooting storyline wasn’t as well developed as it could be. I appreciated that as a school leader, Afaf had prepared for the possibility of a school shooting, particularly in a school that had already experienced vandalism and bomb threats.  We get some insights about the shooter, but these were pretty minimal, and the conclusion of the book felt abrupt. 

Note: I received a complimentary copy of this book from NetGalley and publisher W.W. Norton & Co.  The book published April 7, 2020.

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