In “The Beauty of Your Face,” Principal Afaf Rahman’s private Islamic school for girls is housed in a former Catholic convent to Benedictine nuns. The fictional Chicago convent is inundated with realistic details, like the rest of Sahar Mustafah’s book—this novel is as much about Chicago as the individuals inside the city.
Once a waystation during the Depression and a refuge during the Great Migration, the former convent is besieged by threats ranging from vandalism to bombs. But the book begins with a school shooting, that most American of tragedies. Afaf’s journey from defiant teenager to devoutly religious matriarch is bookended by the school shooting—a constant reminder that what is feared most is often the most vulnerable—defenseless girls at school.
Reminiscent, at times, of last year’s magnificent novel “Queenie” by Candice Carty-Williams, where another brown woman is made to feel like an outsider in her own country. Afaf is an exotic object to her classmates, “To the white boys, she’s something to conquer and explore, not to keep.” She never feels a part of any group, even her own family, until she meets the women at the prayer center. The welcome and kindness she receives from the women envelops her. With them, her past is forgiven, and she creates herself anew. She allows herself to grow from a surly teen to an open-hearted woman. “Afaf feels like a stranger who’s finally come home, one who’s forgotten the language, the mannerisms of her people.”
She quickly conforms to her new community, finding comfort in Islam and peace within the circle of the caring women, a respite from the hatred she faces outside, where her experience feels like constant accusations and muttered racism. It’s not until Afaf discovers that a child at her school is being abused at home that her new community is challenged. Faced with inviting in outsiders, many in the faith prefer to allow the situation to be resolved quietly, within the community. It’s a “code of silence” that spans many religions, with similar results. Experiencing the world through Afaf’s eyes is exhausting—how does she face this constant barrage of bigotry? Is this our city? This story is equally exhausting and enlightening. Her faith and hope allow her to create a more understanding world.
Sahar Mustafah will read from the book via an American Writers Museum event on Zoom on April 8, 6:30pm CST.
“The Beauty of Your Face”
W.W. Norton & Company, 312 pages