The years after September 2001 were difficult for Muslims. It can be difficult to realize the toll that 9/11 took on Muslim communities in America – suddenly, your neighbors who invited you to their barbecues now regard you with fear. It’s somehow become acceptable for people to be afraid of you, because of your hijab. Though Tahereh Mafi’s newest book An Emotion of Great Delight is set in 2002-2003, the waves of Islamophobia that the protagonist deals with aren’t far off from what Muslims deal with today. It’s disappointing to realize how little the world has changed over the past 20 (!!) years.
An Emotion of Great Delight hits all the hard spots. The protagonist, Shadi, is a 17-year-old Iranian-American Muslim girl in 2003, dealing with waves of Islamophobia against her family, her community, and her culture. The book is split into two parts, with each part running alongside the other. One part takes place in 2002, also known as ‘The Year Before’, where Shadi struggles with the waves of Islamophobia from her classmates and her professors. She also struggles with trust – this is a time of mistrust against all Muslim communities when FBI agents grilled Muslims in their own mosques when community members were interrogated and forced to turn on each other.
Shadi also comes to a head with her best friend, Zahra, and her insecurities. Zahra’s brother, Ali, is an attractive, charming, charismatic young man, and Zahra has grown weary of others using her as a stepping stone to reach her brother, causing her to view any relationship between her friend, Shadi, and her brother with disdain and paranoia. The relationship eventually falls apart when Zahra accuses Shadi of using her to get to her brother and then ignores her completely.
What’s unfortunate to note is that Shadi has walked on eggshells the moment her friendship with Zahra began and was forced to push Ali aside, to please his sister. The friendship felt toxic and manipulative, with Zahra forcing her insecurities onto their friendship. A part of me was glad that Zahra eventually left Shadi – Shadi does not deserve the continual drama and accusations that Zahra flung at her face, all because she couldn’t handle her own insecurities over her brother. For her part, Shadi tries her hardest to please her friend, but toxic friendships are just that – toxic, which means that there’s no winning, and there’s not going to be a resolution. The only solution is to walk away.
The second part takes place in 2003, the year Shadi’s life falls apart – the year her brother is killed because of a drunk driver. Suddenly, Shadi loses her grip on reality and is forced to confront an empty, bleak world. Though she does find some comfort in her religion, it’s difficult to keep moving forward.
Her brother’s death creates a schism in the family. Shadi retreats into herself, determined to become as invisible as possible, to be less of a burden. Her mother spirals downwards, and her sister picks up the slack, struggling to keep the house in functioning order, while her father is hospitalized due to a heart condition. Shadi’s relationship with her sister, Shayda, becomes estranged as the two of them have different ideas on why their brother died. Shadi blames her father, but Shayda does not. It’s a complex relationship that’s broken by grief and loss, one that Shadi wants to fix but doesn’t have the slightest idea on where to begin.
The book is an incredible, heartbreaking read because the author did a few key things right. Tahereh Mafi addresses grief in ways that I haven’t read about before; the loss of a child is a burden that no parent should face, and each parent deals with it in a different way. Shadi’s mother collapses while her children are forced to mature and deal with it. We only ever see Shadi’s point of view, which means we see her justifications when she runs away from her problems, or her internal struggles with her family.
However, we don’t see what her sister does – how Shayda manages to keep food on the table, how she tries to move forward with her life, take care of her mother, and worry about her father in the hospital while her younger sister virtually disappears. There are just a few lines in the book when Shayda and Shadi actually talk, but that conversation was heavy – it made me realize that all the reader sees is Shadi’s perspective. Shadi is trying her hardest in a difficult situation, but her attempts are (understandably) flawed.
She’s struggling in a broken world, with a broken family, and no one else to turn to. Even better is that Shadi is a complex character who constantly fights to see the good in others and make things better. She actively tries, in her own way, to alleviate her family’s pain. Whether she does that well, is another question – but she tries. That’s what’s important.
Another thing that the author does well is infused the novel with a sense of hope; the eponymous ‘emotion of great delight’ isn’t just love, but it’s hope as well. Hope that the future will be different, that things will change for the better. This emotion comes closer towards the end (spoiler alert!) but it’s a bittersweet feeling – we see how much Shadi has gone through, and the mountain that she still has to climb.
From Islamic culture to familial loss and pain, Tahereh Mafi does an incredible job detailing the loss that Shadi’s family struggled with, combined with the loss that Muslim families in America struggled through after 9/11 – the loss of security, trust, and safety in their own homes, all while watching wars erupt in their home countries. The book is a definite tear-jerker, but it’s made me appreciate my family, and my situation, so much more after reading it, and isn’t that the sign of a good book?
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