Sahar Mustafah’s Code of the West is a debut collection to be reckoned with. These stories touch on family, infidelity, alienation, isolation, secrets, fear, love, loss, and violence both in small bursts and manic proportions. Cultural experiences are felt internally through self-reflection and externally through crude assumption, prejudice, and blatant racism. The characters throughout each story present a unique, yet universal, perspective that leaves the reader enchanted and absorbed by the very basis of human nature.
This collection starts with its title story, Code of the West, which packs a punch with the investigation of a local woman’s murder. Riyad is lonely in wide-open North Dakota as he jumps from one job site to the next. His Palestinian background is frustratingly a note of interest for investigators, which leads to bullying, threats, and vicious attacks from drunken co-workers. Mustafah makes the intricate balance between Riyad’s connection to the murder victim, his past in Chicago, and his hollow days working in the middle of nowhere an effortless reading experience. It is rare and impressive to find a short story that hooks you in so deeply that you would be delighted to read more and more after it has finished. Personally, this praise can translate to every single piece in this collection.
The character-work is where Mustafah’s brilliance shines. Men, women, and children lead these stories with the depth and focus often achieved throughout an entire novel, but here, only within a few pages. Where Riyad struggles against social pressures and feeling lost in his adulthood, Masculine Verbs is a coming of age piece following young Emad in a very confusing and stressful time. He is beginning his rebellion phase by skipping school with the other boys but is thrown for a loop when they discover a spot used by a couple for their weekly trysts. Witnessing intimate and sexual interactions is intriguing yet shameful as he sees the concern and discomfort of the disguised woman.
This story early on sets an unfortunate but very real theme of how women are treated based on social status, looks, ethnicity, whether or not they wear a hijab, and where they fit in a traditional world based on family beliefs, modern standards, or religious expectations.
Widow is perhaps the best portrait of this very conflict as Mariam sees the progression of Aisha’s grief over her husband’s death. Sadly most her information comes from the gossipy buzz from her sister, other family members, friends, and acquaintances. Aisha is pitied while morning, looked down upon with rumors of her affairs, and judged by getting engaged again. Unlike most women in their circle, Mariam decides not to avoid Aisha at the many gatherings or showers thrown and she finds a quality more powerful than gossip in their conversations.
Communication and the lack thereof is also deeply present in many stories, most notably the finale of the collection, Life Springs from the Dead Sea. This for me is the most relatable piece regarding insecurities, behavior, and expectations. Madeeha is visiting relatives in Israel after the death of her mother—family that she barely knows by name. The trip is a difficult one as she feels a severed connection to this part of her life, especially with her father, a man she has refused to have contact with for years. Seeing him with his new wife sounds like an awful way to spend the short trip, but as this story will show, sometimes reunions don’t have to end as happily as everyone expects them to. Madeeha is a strong character that is guarded within herself. Communication relieves an inner itch, whether it be bad or good. This father-daughter dynamic is refreshing compared to the neat and tidy endings I have read time and time again. It also pushes our lead to examine the amount of energy she spends dwelling on the past and what is truly important to her, even if forgiveness is not on the table.
Code of the West is written with purpose and passion. I have always been a lover of short story collections and anthologies which means I have grown accustomed to a common format of bold beginnings, intriguing centerpieces, filler stories, and many forgotten titles. Mustafah’s collection is a beautiful and compelling reintroduction to short stories as a craft. The biggest mistake a short can make is leaving me without any connection to the characters or feeling no emotional rise. These stories made me mad, sad, disappointed, upset in a way that compiles all of these things, but even more impressive is that they also made me feel intimate moments of joy, hope, and familiarity with surprise bouts of laughter.
I cannot recommend this collection enough and I look forward to picking up a hard copy for a second, third, and many reads to come.
Code of the West