“The Beauty of Your Face,” a novel by Homewood-Flossmoor High School teacher Sahar Mustafah is drawing national acclaim.
The work was listed on the New York Times’ Editors’ Choice list of staff picks May 24, and has been selected as one of 27 finalist selections in the 2020 First Novel Prize competition sponsored by The Center for Fiction.
This is her first novel. In 2017 she published “Code of the West,” a collection of 14 short stories.
Mustafah, a creative writing teacher and faculty advisor for Edda, H-F’s creative arts student publication, is gratified by the recognition her book is drawing.
The plot centers around Afaf Rahman, a young woman from a fractured Muslim family who over the years finds love and solace despite numerous struggles. Then she faces her own tragedy when she is face-to-face with a terrorist.
Afaf’s story starts as a Palestinian American teenager unable to find her place among her peers. At home she deals with a mother who suffers from mental illness after her oldest daughter disappears and a father who turns to alcohol as a balm for all that has gone wrong. The father eventually turns back to the mosque, renews his faith and encourages Afaf to join him. Through the mosque she discovers a welcoming group of women.
“(Afaf) is sort of floating and this is the first group to give her a sense of herself, the power to become a teacher, and it’s a wonderful thing,” Mustafah says of her central character.
In her later years, Afaf, a wife and mother, is serving as a principal of a Muslim girls school. The book’s antagonist, a young man who is alienated from his family and turns to alt-right beliefs, storms the school. It is Afaf who confronts the terrorist.
“I really just wanted to take people on this journey of these two characters arriving at this moment at this critical time. All the choices, all the forces and the writing just took off after that,” Mustafah said.
“I felt like if I was going to be presenting this incredibly heinous, tragic hate crime I want to be able to first reveal their humanity; really get at the core of who they were.
What would a victim or a survivor tell their attacker if they had a chance. What would they want them to know about themselves. And would that necessarily change their mind about the act.”
Mustafah started the book in 2015, but said it just wasn’t coming together. She turned back to it in fall 2016, and this time she had inspiration. She admits to being a “quick writer.”
Launching the 293-page book during a pandemic has been tough, and several of her scheduled book signings were canceled. But the author has enjoyed being part of book clubs and hearing readers’ responses.
Mustafah sees the book as a story about a family made up of interesting characters and a moving plot laced with Muslim insights.
She has found many books that have pigeon-holed the characters into less than flattering stereotypes of Muslims today. Her intent was an interesting story told through the lens of this family.
“The response from readers both within the (Muslim) community and white readers is they hadn’t read stories like The Beauty of Your Face,” the author said. Readers think the book is another terrorist portrayal but then “they’re like ‘Oh, wait. She’s telling a story.’ I think readers are going to find so many familiar things.”
Mustafah, a second generation Palestinian American, said the story isn’t autobiographical, but she does develop her characters from what she knows of her community.
She is especially appreciative of the noticeable change in the publishing world that she says is recognizing a new genre of Muslim stories and writers.
She hopes that readers who come to her book with preconceived notions will be “challenged by the end” and will be able “to get really close to characters.”