Code of the West
"Mustafah is an excellent writer, creating lush imagery and life-size characters. She uses her words to bring about an unfathomable emotion in her readers . . ."
Good short story collections are hard to come by, especially written by non-western authors. That’s why Sahar Mustafah’s Code of the West is an exciting new addition to the multiple categories of short stories, multicultural fiction, and diasporic writing.
Code of the West sheds light on a group of people who are often misunderstood and frequently stereotyped: Palestinians. Simply put, this collection of real-life stories features a mixture of native Palestinians as well as immigrants in all sorts of situations.
Most importantly, the stories are not about terrorism or any of the other tropes we tend to associate with Muslim characters. There is life and laughter and tragedy and success in the same way that it occurs for every other group of people, and therein lies the beauty of Mustafah’s collection.
The book isn’t without its understandable themes of otherization. The title story sets the tone of immigrant angst very well, with the main character Riyad being harassed due to his ethnicity. In another story, “New and Gently Used Hijab,” a woman at a mosque collects clothing donations for Muslim women, only to be approached by the mother of an Iraqi war veteran in an encounter that disturbs her. These are snippets of life as Arab, as Muslim, as “the other.”
Interspersed with these important narratives are stories that address other vital but universal topics that could happen to anyone, anywhere, anytime. Samah takes her job as the aide of an autistic boy very seriously. Layla struggles with infertility and a discovery that her family includes an unknown member. Nizar takes care of his ailing father when his mother runs off. Mahmoud has a gambling addiction, until he meets a girl young enough to be his daughter. There are so many other characters, such a rich tapestry of ideas and situations and locations, that readers will receive their fill.
Mustafah is an excellent writer, creating lush imagery and life-size characters. She uses her words to bring about an unfathomable emotion in her readers, helping them come to the realization that the world of Palestinians is not so different from their own. As they read about the house or the park or the airport or the funeral of the characters in this collection, they will surely be reminded of their own. The kitchen in one story is so similar to the kitchen in a reader’s home, and the liquor store in another story is just like the one he has frequented so many times. In effect, without seeming to, the otherization of an entire group of people is lessened and perhaps even removed, through Mustafah’s writings.
“In our kitchen, the women busied themselves with plates of tangy spinach ikras and baklawa, layers of golden pastry soaked in syrup. . . . They talked over and past each other, pinching each other’s arms in affectionate replies, and giggling like young girls again. Their voices rose in crescendos, yet never seemed to descend. I felt a warmth in their unfettered exuberance as I wiped down the countertop until I realized how futile it was while the women continued to serve coffee, then tea, honey-colored liquid splattering onto the speckled granite.”