Echoing calls for “thoughts and prayers” in the wake of mass shootings now operate as a type of doublespeak. The devastating frequency of shootings has laid bare the actual meaning of these calls, particularly when invoked by conservative politicians: no meaningful change to gun regulations will be made, and any mention of regulation will be cast aside attempts to “politicize” a tragedy— a tragedy that, shockingly, can only be prevented from occuring again through political action.
The effect has been to sour the mention of prayer and faith with notions of hypocrisy at best, and a tool used to insidiously enshrine political power at worst. But narrowing our perception of faith to how it is abused by people in power erases the many victims whose faith is central to how they process the carnage. It concedes a powerful tool for healing, communal care, and collective action to people who manipulate it to carry out an agenda that perpetuates more harm, more violence.
Sahar Mustafah confronts this erasure head-on in her 2020 novel, The Beauty of Your Face. The book opens by introducing us to Afaf Rahman, the principal at an all-girls Muslim high school in the South Suburbs of Chicago, who ducks into a small reflection room for a mid-day prayer break when a gunman enters her school. The Afaf we meet in the moments before the shooter enters the school projects a self-assured confidence and anchored piety, but this wasn’t always the case. Instead of the shooting propelling the novel forward, it instead travels back in time to chronicle the journey of how Afaf became who she presently was. What follows is the story of hardships and heartbreaks that shaped the lives of an immigrant Palenstinian family in Chicago, and sheds light on both the possibilities and limitations of faith for helping one make sense of the world, as well as the varying cruelties of life.
The shooting is not the first time Afaf’s life is ruptured by loss—in fact, her life was shaped by it. When she’s in grade school, her older sister Nada goes missing. The pain of Nada’s absence—not knowing whether she had run away or been murdered—slowly overcomes her family like ink drops in a glass of water, saturating them with grief and confusion, and adding more pressure to the fault lines already present in their relationships with each other. Even before Nada’s disappearance, Afaf’s mother was emotionally distant and cold with her and her younger brother Majeed, feeling alienated within herself as she struggled to navigate her marriage, motherhood, and leaving Palestine. To make matters worse, Afaf’s father had been spending time with another woman, adding even more stress on his marriage and family. Now with Nada gone, Afaf’s mother’s sense of alienation deepens and leads to a nervous breakdown.
The family’s tipping point comes when Afaf’s father, grieving Nada and struggling to take care of his wife, develops a drinking problem and gets into a nearly fatal car accident while intoxicated. In the aftermath of this experience, Afaf’s father does something that, to his family, is unimaginable; he asks his wife for forgiveness for the pain that he has caused, and says he thinks God has given him a second chance on life, to make things right.
The acknowledgment of pain and its association with religion feels like a betrayal to Afaf’s mother: “So you’ve found religion?” she asks, her words “slick with disgust,” her eyes “emerald, dangerous.” “After all of these years you think God will ever forgive you? I certainly will not.”
This tension between faith and pain animates the rest of the book. Majeed is disinclined to explore faith, but Afaf reluctantly warms up to it. The women she meets at the mosque are warm and welcoming, offering her respite from the harassment and ridicule she experiences from girls at her high school and from the white boys she haphazardly hooks up with. But the more comfort and healing she finds in faith and community, the more her mother pushes her away.
For Afaf’s mother, pain itself becomes an idol: “The loss of her daughter, a troubled marriage, a lonely existence in a country where she never felt at home—she has no intention of relinquishing such injustices to prayer and fasting. Mama’s pain is supreme and hers alone; no higher being can ever claim that.” After nursing open wounds her entire life, Afaf’s mother refuses to let her efforts go to waste; she cannot see religion as a means of liberation or healing, but only as a threat to the way she has been able to make sense of her life for all of these years. And in service of that pain, she often lashes out at Afaf, mocking her faith, even attempting to rip off Afaf’s hijab.
Embracing faith does not mean that Afaf no longer feels or is ignoring her pain. The pain of losing Nada, the pain of her mother’s contempt, and the pain of growing up in the shadows of her parents’ broken marriage hurt her deeply, and continued to hurt her. But she doesn’t try to “pray away” her shattered heart and the trauma that comes with it. Rather, she is able to place her life within a larger context of Divine Mercy and destiny, helping to resolve the feeling that life and its sufferings are arbitrary. It’s a false paradigm to place belief in God and that everything happens for a reason on one side of the spectrum, and feeling and dealing with pain on the other; the same God that created Afaf’s circumstances created the means for her to deal with them, too. Throughout the book, Afaf is often trying to come to terms with the fact that she still loves and empathizes with her mother, yet has suffered tremendously at her mother’s hands. There isn’t a clean resolution to this struggle, other than Afaf’s commitment to struggling with these emotions—she doesn’t let the trauma define her, but finds meaning in how she moves forward with and from it.
At every point in Afaf’s journey with faith, others inflict pain and project insecurity onto her: her mother sees faith as hypocrisy and betrayal; on her first day of wearing a hijab she’s called a raghead; and when she reports potential child-abuse to state authorities after she sees a young Muslim girl in her classroom with bruises on her body, an elder member of the mosque becomes cold with her, subtly implying that she broke a community norm by getting the state involved in family affairs.
Perhaps it is these very challenges she faces after deepening her religious practice that strengthen her faith and give her the emotional fortitude to become the Afaf we meet in the book’s opening. When the gunman eventually finds her hiding in the closet, he sees in her an enemy who is destroying the country, responsible for his own personal failings in life. But even in this moment, knocking on death’s door, Afaf has the bravery to challenge his conceptions of her, and inquire about the pain that he has felt in his life. Even in this moment, on the cusp of obliteration, Afaf is able to work through fear and pain and meet the circumstances with her full self.
This is a novel about transformation and tragedy in which trauma, faith, family and love all clash, and Mustafah does not afford her characters—or readers— an easy way out of the mess. With prose that strikes a balance between subtleness and sharpness, she puts forth a gorgeous portrayal of a young Palestininan Muslim woman growing in her faith and navigating the challenges that can clip its wings, while highlighting the contours that loving one’s family can create along the way.
While reading this book, I was reminded of Dr. Sherman Jackson, an Islamic theologian and professor at USC, who once prayed to be blessed with “the words, wisdom, humility and courage to speak truth not only to power but also to pain.” Faith-washing the pain and trauma that people experience, without acknowledging and trying to help one heal from the pain itself, does nothing more than push people further from away faith. And given the epidemic of gun violence in the United States, among a myriad of other social inequities that systematically produce pain and trauma, I could say that there is no better time to read this book than our current moment. But that would be incomplete— it’s always the right time to read a book that excavates some of the most painful yet profound facets of life that give us meaning.
Sahar Mustafah, The Beauty of Your Face. $16.95 (paperback). W. D. Norton, 2021. 320 pages.
Farooq Chaudhry is a writer, editor and UChicago law student. This is his first time writing for the Weekly.