Aisha Abdel Gawad was in her first year of high school in northern Virginia when 9/11 happened and changed everything – including how she was perceived by others. The writer, born of Egyptian and Scottish parents, acutely remembers feeling a palpable shift in her relationships with classmates and neighbours.
“Suddenly, it was as if Arabs and Muslims had to prove they were ‘good’ or ‘moderate,’” she tells The National. “Growing up under that kind of suspicion had a profound influence on me and is something I grapple with in my novel.”
Between Two Moons has just been published to considerable acclaim from readers and critics, with a current Goodreads score of 4.1 out of 5. Set over the course of Ramadan, the book is both a moving coming-of-age story and a powerful tale about faith, family and the hardships faced by young Muslims in America.
The novel revolves around two teenage twin sisters in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. Amira and Lina have just graduated from high school and are keen to push their luck, test their boundaries and try out new identities. But their summer is quickly ruined by two events: the police raid on a local Arab business and the news that their older brother, Sami, is being released early from prison. As family members try to overcome their differences and reconnect, their close-knit neighbourhood comes close to unravelling amid mounting anti-Arab tension.
“Ultimately, my novel is a story about what it’s like to grow up Muslim and Arab in a post-9/11 America under the spectre of Islamophobia,” explains Gawad.
That spectre rears its ugly head in the book in a number of ways, with the arrest of a Libyan cafe owner, the brutal assault of an 86-year-old imam and the vandalism of a mosque. The authorities keep a watchful, all-seeing eye on the community, and soon the fear of deportation casts an ominous shadow.
Gawad brilliantly – and chillingly – conveys this monitoring by way of a section made up of a police “progress report”.
“I based this fictional report on real NYPD documents that were published by the Associated Press in 2010 as part of their Pulitzer Prize-winning reporting on the NYPD’s illegal surveillance of Muslims,” she says. “They are astonishing documents that to me really prove that every Arab and Muslim in this country was, and probably still is, viewed as a potential threat.”
Gawad says she wanted to explore two intersecting themes relating to surveillance. “The first is the surveillance post-9/11 of Arabs and Muslims in America. I wanted to capture the feeling of being watched, and I wanted to play with the relationship between the watcher and the watched, and with readers’ expectations of who the enemy is.
“The second major theme is exploring how sisterhood and female friendship develops under the threat of surveillance. I’m interested in how, in a society that constantly polices, controls and silences women, women serve as mirrors and mouthpieces for one another. We see the sisters often gazing into one another, reflecting each other back. Women have such deep inner lives because we don’t always have the external outlets that we need, so we go inward. The sisters create their own inner lives together that almost no one else can access or violate, despite all that swirls around them.”
Some aspects of the book are sourced from episodes in Gawad’s own life. She used to live in Bay Ridge, a place which, she says, has one of the largest Arab-American communities in the country. However, despite its diversity, Gawad didn’t find Brooklyn a melting pot where people of different faiths and origins co-exist happily.
“Like most American cities, it is incredibly segregated along racial, ethnic and economic lines,” she says. “I think the last two decades of the ‘War on Terror’ have cemented a dehumanising image of Muslims in the American consciousness. And then, of course, there’s the post-9/11 gutting of civil liberties and the remarkable expansion of surveillance of ordinary citizens. Anti-Muslim rhetoric was used to justify these policies, but these practices have not just been used against Muslims but against black Americans, climate change activists, leftists – you name it.”
Gawad drew upon another autobiographical element. The “fictional centre” of her novel is modelled on her former workplace: the Arab American Association of New York, a non-profit that helps a great number of immigrants.
Gawad found working for the association rewarding, and has huge respect for what it manages to achieve. “They’re really a lifeline for so many people, especially people who are new to the US, undocumented and/or have limited financial resources,” she says. “They provide essential services, but they also create a home away from home for people.”
Gawad’s parents are immigrants to the US but both had more opportunities – more education, better-paying jobs, fewer language barriers – than the parents in her novel. Her Egyptian father differs sharply from her fictional father – a character given to harking back to “the old days in the old country”.
“My dad is definitely less nostalgic than the baba in my book,” Gawad says. “He loves going back to visit Egypt, but he’s also really proud of the life he built in America.”
Gawad’s parents ensured she grew up with a mix of cultures, languages and traditions. They also instilled in her a love of books.
“According to my parents, I’ve been talking about becoming a writer since I was a little girl,” she says. “I’ve always loved to write, but I didn’t necessarily take myself seriously until I graduated from college and my now-husband suggested I apply to MFA programmes. I started my novel in graduate school but it took me 11 years to finally finish it and get a book deal.”
Patience has paid dividends. Between Two Moons is the work of an exceptional new talent. Gawad says she hasn’t started work on a follow-up but she has found inspiration from a book she is reading.
“I have a current obsession with the biographies of Egyptian singers and dancers from the 1920s to the 1950s, inspired by Raphael Cormack’s book Midnight in Cairo: The Divas of Egypt’s Roaring Twenties,” she reveals. “I don’t know if it will turn into anything. All I can say is that I’m very excited to start something new after so many years of working on this novel.”