We humans are social creatures, highly gregarious and communicative. We are wired to be open to the world, so I am always shocked when I encounter intolerance, blatant displays of ignorance, or various other forms of hate. Life just seems too complicated as it is to add to the challenges with human pettiness.
This is the frustration in which seventeen-year-old Shadi Nasreen navigates two years after the 9/11 attacks. She is a Persian girl who detests the posturing of people trying to prove piety in the face of persecution and despises the bullying she must endure because she wears the face of the enemy.
In her novel An Emotion of Great Delight, Tahereh Mafi explores the depth of frustration that Muslims suffer in the United States while challenging all readers to assess their own biases. “There’s no such thing as an Islamic terrorist,” Mafi writes. “It [is] morally impossible—philosophically impossible—to be a Muslim and a terrorist at the same time. There [is] nothing in Islam that [condones] the taking of innocent lives” (33).
With the rhetoric of hate, Muslims are stripped of their complexity and lumped into a terrifying mass, making them monsters. Unwilling to stop wearing her hijab, Shadi carries the weight of this burden and the burden of her convictions. Even her friend Zahra removes evidence that can brand her as potentially evil and stops wearing her hijab. Zahra treats Shadi with shocking cruelty and passes unfair judgment born from jealousy and her own insecurities that Shadi is her friend simply because Zahra’s brother Ali is gorgeous.
When Shadi’s brother is killed in a vehicle accident, the death traumatizes Maman, and Shadi’s father—who shoulders some of the blame since it was his anger that caused Mehdi to flee the house that night—endures several heart attacks. Shadi and her sister Shayda argue, with Shayda defending Father while Shadi believes it is the parent’s responsibility to protect and be smarter than the child. All of the stress of a broken family leads to Maman’s depression, self-harming behaviors, and need for grief counselling—which she flatly refuses.
With her family fractured and everything around her swirling in turmoil, Shadi finds it difficult to participate in her own life, her own interests. Her chest too often tightens with terror. “Terror. It haunted me, tormented me: terror, terrifying, terrorist, terrorism—these were my definitions. . . with my face, surname and first name” (79). Shadi doesn’t fight back, doesn’t engage with the bigots because of a promise to her mother. She takes the hits to her pride for her mother. With her lips stitched closed and without the love and stability of a functional family in which to confide, Shadi’s heart, mind, and body struggle to process the pain and grief.
Shadi finds some solace in Ali, who shows her affection, and in Noah, who helps to heal some of the fractures in her heart. In their kindness and friendship, readers will find the reason for the novel’s title.
Although occasionally confusing, with its peculiar organizational plan, Mafi’s book gives us all food for thought. Through her characters’ challenges, Mafi suggests that we all might benefit from finding comfort in the process of changing our minds and making mistakes. She also reminds us of the consequences that occur when we skip the clarity of conversation, which might offer explanation, and go right to assumption and accusation.
Reading this book reminded me that humans have a tendency to follow preconceived ideas about things, to harbor preferences, and to accept social conventions as truth. Such tendencies lead to a type of blindness. Although our impressions are real to us, we must remember that not everyone shares our reality; other realities exist.
Mafi also offers an interesting perspective on religion as a paradoxical practice. Although intended to unite us in compassion, empathy, and understanding, religion often inspires competition and divides us.
- Posted by Donna