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The Sweetness of Tears, by Nafisa Haji.

October 11, 2014

The Sweetness of Tears, by Nafisa Haji. William Morrow Paperbacks (2011), Edition: Original, Paperback, 400 pages.


A touching contemporary novel about Muslim/Christian acceptance, about the human damage caused by the War on Terror, and about grief as more healing than anger.

Jo March, named for the heroine of Little Women, grew up in a family of Christians, missionaries and televangelists.  When she learned of a Muslim from Pakistan hidden in her family tree, she decided to study Urdu and Arabic in college and become a missionary. Believing she could help her country after the 9/11 bombing, she joined a private security firm  working in Iraq. She was appalled by the behavior she witnessed. Her twin brother served in the Marines in Iraq and was also traumatized by the experience. To heal her own and her brother’s pain, Jo set out to find forgotten relatives in the Middle East and South Asia.

Nafisa Haji is the daughter of Pakistani parents who came to the United States before she was born. She continues to have close ties to relatives in Pakistan. She herself is Sufi, active in inter-religious work.  The Sweetness of Tears is a tender, hopeful book rather than a literary or deep one. Her characters are good people, not aggressive ones, with sorrows they learn to release and share.  The plot is engaging, if somewhat unlikely.  Haji is able to bring to life different groups of people, each with their own flaws and customs, and describe their interactions.  Initially I was afraid I would find the Christianity of Jo’s overpowering, but I did not.  Jo and Chris do not experience religious doubt or confusion after their wartime experiences, but their wise grandmother strongly challenges the smug self-righteousness of other family members.  The book is honest and open about what it was like for Americans to serve in the Iraq War and suffer trauma afterward.  Yet this is a hopeful book where trauma can be healed.  Sharing tears is a positive experience.

The Muslims in The Sweetness of Tears are Shia, not the more familiar Sunni. Shia believes that a descendent of Mohammad, his friends, and family were killed in a struggle over the succession for the leader of Islam. They still mourn his loss with annual rituals of grief and pilgrimages to holy sites in Iran. Haji describes these effectively in her novel. Knowing little about the actual practices of the Shia, I was moved by her account.  Haji is also clearly aware of the ways that Islam, like other religions, is full of practices that belittle and harm women. She does not claim that women should leave their faith, however. She includes warm accounts of Muslim women worshiping apart from men.

I recommend this novel to readers interested in Shia practices among Muslims and those who enjoy hopeful books.  Those looking for an enjoyable, but relevant narrative will like this book, perhaps more than I did. I look forward to reading her other book, The Writing on My Forehead, a multi-generational story about Muslim Americans.

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