For many years, I had been trying to figure out how to explain, describe, encompass, sum up, or simply understand what has happened to this world in the last ten years. I have been wondering how humanity, faith, identity, tradition, race relations, extremism, terrorism, and international law have shaped our world and our senses since 9/11. I finally found what I was looking for in the intricate fiction narrative created by Nafisa Haji in her novel, The Sweetness of Tears.
I read this book while traveling from Washington, D.C. to Los Angeles, California – from a place where policies and procedures on the War on Terror had been drafted, to a place that is home to the largest American Muslim population. These two cities are also the settings for the plot in this novel. The book remained tucked in my suitcase, under the school souvenir mugs I had bought for my parents. It lay there while I opted out of the x-ray scan and was patted down by a female officer. It was astonishing how accurately it captures a post 9/11-War on Terror world, including my own experience.
The novel looks into the lives of two families living on opposite ends of the world, starting with Jo March, whose questions about her identity amidst the War on Terror take the best of her, and launch her into a quest to find earth-shaking answers. March comes from an Evangelical Christian upbringing, where her mother ran a day camp with obstacle courses to test virtues and vices like patience and doubt. Going back generations and across oceans, we meet Deena, a Pakistani Shia woman who, despite her thirst for adventure and great literature, must succumb to traditional societal customs, where she meets an unexpected life-changing trial.
Author Nafisa Haji does a flawless job of describing the nuances of Shia practices, juxtaposing them to Sunni belief and customs, along with the views of those who choose to solidify the differences, and those who choose to ignore the barriers of division. This is the first time that I have come upon an account that so clearly and seamlessly explains and describes Shia tradition and customs in contemporary literature. Carving out these nuances is crucial to describing the diversity of Islam and Muslims, even within Muslim countries.
Similarly, the Evangelical Christian narrative is also nuanced, with members of the same family disagreeing about what it means to serve God. Surprisingly, it is an older member of the family who has the most fluid and inclusive views about “saving” and “being saved.” The younger member of the family was more reluctant to understand other belief systems. As an American Muslim woman, I have always been familiar with Christian belief and practice, but it was refreshing to see how this specific family dealt with its own devotion with regard to its encounter with Islam and Muslims, that came before them suddenly, rather than gradually.
The book embraces interfaith, intra-faith, intercultural, inter-generational, and inter-continental dialogue at its finest. The work truly defines the power of storytelling through the eyes of several players, not just one. I think that these diverse voices are a reflection of what we are witnessing today. That “us” versus “them” dichotomy quickly deconstructs itself through the narrations of each of the characters of this novel.
This book is not a deeply and stereotypically sensational story about harems, 4 wives, or the immigrant South Asian experience that is personally all too familiar. The Sweetness of Tears goes beyond all of that, providing dynamic stories through even more dynamic characters. The story is so compelling, that I couldn’t put it down. I recommend this book to all those who are trying to find answers and navigate through a complex, yet deeply connected world that we live in today- and that is everyone.
Shazia Kamal is Associate Editor of Altmuslimah