Between Two Moons

Aisha Abdel Gawad


Interview by Diane Slocum

Amira and Lina are teen-age twin sisters about to graduate from high school in the Arab American  enclave of Bay Ridge in Brooklyn. Amira is usually the good sister while Lina is breaking all the  rules. Amira struggles through Ramadan trying to protect her sister while figuring out her relationship  with her brother who has just been released from prison. Racial tensions, vandalism and acts of  violence complicate the lives of the family and the neighborhood. Amira meets a young activist, Faraj, who further confuses her life as she tries to figure out what to make of him.

AUTHORLINK: What was your first idea about the book?

GAWAD: Before I even knew I was writing a novel, I was writing stories and snippets of stories  about these two girls in Brooklyn. At first, they were friends and eventually I made them sisters. So, I  was initially interested in exploring the bonds of sisterhood and female friendship, particularly among  Arab-American women from working or lower middle-class backgrounds.

AUTHORLINK: How did it develop from there?

GAWAD: Not long after I started writing about these two Arab-American girls, I started working at  the Arab American Association of New York, a non-profit social services agency in Bay Ridge,  Brooklyn. And that’s how I got the setting for the book. I knew that these two girls who kept popping  up in every story I wrote were from Bay Ridge. This was around 2009-2010, and police surveillance  of Arab and Muslim-American communities was perhaps at an all-time high, especially in  communities like Bay Ridge. The novel really started to come together from there–I figured out that I  wanted to tell the story of these two Arab sisters coming-of-age under the weight and paranoia of  post-9/11 surveillance and Islamophobia.

AUTHORLINK: What did you do for research? Did you use your own experiences?

“I did a lot of research on post-9/11 police surveillance of Arab and Muslim American  communities…”

GAWAD: I did a lot of research on post-9/11 police surveillance of Arab and Muslim American  communities, particularly on the NYPD’s spy program targeting Muslims. In 2012, the Associated  Press published a series of articles on the spy program, including police reports, and those were an  invaluable (albeit chilling!) resource to me as I worked on the book.

The book is firmly fiction, but I borrowed from my own experiences in some very general ways. My  narrator, Amira, works at a community center that is based on my own experience working at the  Arab American Association of New York. And as I was writing the book, I suppose I was also  processing my own coming-of-age as a Muslim and Arab-American woman in a newly post-9/11  America. I can remember a palpable shift in my own teenage years–before 9/11 and after–and the  sort of fear and paranoia that became an everyday part of life for so many Muslims who felt like we  were being targeted, baited, and trapped just for existing.

AUTHORLINK: Almost all the book is in Amira’s point of view, but some chapters feature Abu  Jamal, Imam Ghozzi, the other girl (Lina), the boy (Sami), Aziza, the mother, the father and Faraj.  Some are only featured once and Sami several times. How did this technique help your story? And  why did you refer to them as boy, girl, mother, father?

“I did a lot of research on post-9/11 police surveillance of Arab and Muslim American  communities…”

I included those third-person omniscient sections in order to play with perspective. I wanted to evoke  in the reader a feeling of paranoia, of uncertainty, of questioning who knows what. Amira often feels  like there are things happening around her that she does not know about–some of those moments  are captured in the third-person sections. I referred to the characters as “the boy” or “the mother” or  “the girls” etc. in order to amplify the feeling that those characters are being watched from  somewhere up high. Is the third person narrator God or is it the state or some other sort of all-  knowing, all-seeing entity? Someone who looks down on the characters and reduces them to their  essential roles within the family, and in the process, makes them more universal.

AUTHORLINK: How did you get your title?

GAWAD: The title came late in the process. For many years I worked on this book without having a  title. Then it had a couple placeholder titles. But the final title came together in conversations  between me and my editor. We knew we wanted something that related to Ramadan, and so the two  moons refer to the crescent moons that mark the beginning and end of the holy month. It’s taken  from a line near the end of the book where Amira is talking about how she feels pulled between the  two moons of her siblings.

AUTHORLINK: What was your biggest challenge in writing this story?

“…I would say the biggest  challenge was sorting out the plot.”

GAWAD: Beyond the perpetual challenge of never having enough time to write (between working  full-time as a high school teacher and also being a mom to two kids), I would say the biggest  challenge was sorting out the plot. Plot is not always very interesting to me. I love to establish  characters and atmosphere and mood first. So, the plot was a bit of a mess for a while, and I  overcompensated by cramming it full of too many ideas. It took a lot of editing and cutting to  streamline and focus the action of the story.

AUTHORLINK: How does your story challenge the reader?

GAWAD: I hope that the book challenges readers to question certain labels and definitions that are  handed to us, particularly by the state–labels like “terrorist,” and “extremist” and “radical” and  “enemy”, for example. One of my goals was to reveal how arbitrary and amorphous those labels  really are, and how they shift with the political winds.

AUTHORLINK: What are you working on next?

  GAWAD: I am working on another novel. It’s in the very early stages of research. I don’t want to say  too much because I’m still figuring it out, but I will say that I’m doing a lot of reading about some  pretty badass women and that has been fun!

About the Author: Aisha Abdel Gawad has published in The Kenyon Review, American Short  Fiction and The Muslim World. Her short story “Waking Luna” won a 2015 Pushcart Prize. She  teahes high school English in Connecticut.