How to Be a Teenage Muslim Girl in Post-9/11 America
Aisha Abdel Gawad’s novel "Between Two Moons" asks what does resistance look like for Arab American women
Aisha Abdel Gawad’s debut, Between Two Moons, is a striking novel about being an immigrant and Muslim in post-9/11 America, about battling the blasé of youth with the burdens of womanhood.
It’s June. Muslims in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn are ready to welcome with fervor the holy month of Ramadan. Twins, Amira and Lina, are only half prepared for the hunger and thirst pangs as they are days away from graduating high school, their minds swirling with plans to make this summer count. This will be the summer of freedom, before Amira heads for college in the Fall. This will be the summer of possibilities, where Lina finally kickstarts her modeling career. This is the summer they recreate themselves, away from their parents’ gaze, trying on identities like clothes to see what fits. Life, however, has its own plans.
On the first day of Ramadan, the café across from their apartment is raided. The air buzzes with gossip, speculation, and the all-too-familiar Muslim fear of being under surveillance. There’s uproar in the Arab-American community, and for Amira and Lina, there’s turmoil at home too. Their older brother, Sami, has returned from prison. Early parole, good behaviour, his lawyer said. But nothing about his demeanor seems good. Sami is quieter, more withdrawn. The sense of danger lurking around the corner heightens when Lina becomes entangled with a man who promises to launch her modeling career, and Amira meets Faraj, a Pakistani boy who progressively begins to take more interest in Sami.
Aisha Abdel Gawad has been published in The Kenyon Review, American Short Fiction and has also been awarded the 2015 Pushcart Prize. Currently, she’s a high school English teacher in Connecticut, a fact that seems to have lent her some insights into her teenage protagonists and their complicated relationship with social media.
Aisha tells me her ultimate hope with her work is to make people feel seen. To her, I’d say, mission accomplished. As a Muslim writer, raised in a fairly conservative home much like Aisha’s twin protagonists, watching them fumble their way into semi-adulthood and find their own equation with their faith has been affirming. Likewise, my conversation with Aisha felt restorative—on performing gender, authenticity in the age of social media, the anticipated violence of being a woman and being Muslim in a surveillance state.
Bareerah Ghani: I wanted to start with Amira and Sami and their dynamic. I find that it reflects this imbalance in their parents’ treatment of them. As the son, Sami is often seen being given special attention even when he’s not being volatile and causing trouble. It’s sort of disturbing to watch Amira feel like she has to make herself small in front of him. Can you talk about how you perceive such sibling dynamics in connection with Arab familial values? Do you think it’s a product of how in some Eastern/Middle Eastern cultures sons are given an elevated status in the family?
Aisha Abdel Gawad: So Sami does have this sort of precious status as the son and as a son who was taken. His trauma is something that everyone tiptoes around. And of course this idea of sons being particularly prized is a real part of Arab culture, although I’m not sure it’s entirely exclusive to Arab or more Eastern cultures. I think that actually Western societies do the same thing, but in different ways. I was interested in exploring how I think children learn gender, and how siblings often practice on each other before they go out in the world and perform the gender values they’ve been taught.
BG: Speaking of performing, there’s this idea of inauthenticity that forms the undercurrent of the narrative. Everyone’s maintaining a facade. Sami and Faraj are performing the roles they’ve been assigned by their fates. Even between Amira and Lina, they’re twins and they share everything but there are moments where they try to create a certain persona in front of one another. How do you perceive this idea of authenticity? I’m wondering if you can speak to it in connection to Arab culture, the Muslim identity and its various perceptions, and, of course, the age of social media.
AAG: I think of it on a base level in terms of teenage girls of any faith, background, race. Teenage girls are always performing different versions of themselves, testing out different identities, kind of seeing what sticks and also, what do people like? What gets me attention? What feels affirming or validating? And so we see the two sisters doing that a lot in the book, trying to see what’s going to make them feel valued. And unfortunately, as a lot of young women experience, they don’t often feel valued in the world. But one thing that was important for me to show is that they feel valued when they come back together. They kind of serve as mirrors to one another, and they can let down their masks and really show each other what their real value is. I also think there are moments when their parents and even Sammy, later on in the book—the family unit—gives them that value. But you’re right. They’re not the only characters who are sort of performing. I think Sami performs what he thinks a tough, Muslim man should be. He doesn’t really know how to express his emotions, how to be vulnerable. And in the very rare moments where he can let down his guard, that’s where we see him rebuilding these bonds with his family members.
I love that you also asked about social media. I teach high school English, so I watch teenagers all day long. It’s just an element of their coming-of-age that I did not experience—not having social media as a teenager. And there’s this extra layer of almost never being off the clock, like they’re always performing. And then, of course, the social media also adds a layer of surveillance, which is another theme that I was kind of playing with in the book. They sort of surveil and record themselves for the world.
BG: You know, it’s really interesting that you touched upon the girls’ need to try on identities. I found Amira quite relatable in the duality she feels within herself. She wants to be a good daughter, to not “abandon her tribe”. But then there are moments where she’s desperate for room to explore her authentic self outside of, you know, the noise of cultural expectations. I thought this hits home for many young Muslims, particularly women. To what extent do you think it’s possible to reconcile these opposite desires when you’re entrenched in a collectivistic culture?
AAG: So I think there’s two things that Amira can always fall back on—her family unit, and her faith. Those are her safe places. She doesn’t always know that at the beginning. She wonders a lot about what it means to be a good Muslim and if she can be the type of woman she wants to be and be a good Muslim, the way that other people would define it. I think one of the things I was hoping to explore is to take the reader on this journey with her where, even after she does some pretty, self-destructive things she finds safety in her faith, and that it’s always there waiting for her. And so I think this idea of her as a woman in particular, being able to cultivate her own relationship with God that no one else can touch, and that will always be there for her was really important to me. I didn’t want to tell a story about a Muslim woman oppressed by her religion, or has this sort of like, I’m going to rebel against my faith. And I’m going to drink. The girls do drink sometimes, but it’s not so much in rebellion against their religion. It’s more like on their journey to figure out who they are and faith is always there waiting for them to kind of come back on their own terms.
BG: I love that. I was very taken by this idea of the girls trying to balance their faith, but also trying to experiment, and indulge in all these practices that aren’t part of their religious teachings, like alcohol, and premarital sex, and to them this is freedom. And I can understand given that they’re being raised in a fairly conservative Muslim household. I’m wondering how you deconstruct the notion of freedom and agency when it comes to the Muslim experience in a non Muslim state.
AAG: I think at the beginning of the book the girls conflate freedom with things like drinking, dating. At one point Amira has this fantasy of going to Europe and riding on the back of a Vespa with some cute boy, and I think what she discovers is that’s not freedom at all. And, in fact, there are these different cages that she enters as a woman in the world. And that the world is, in fact, a very dangerous place, no matter what your identity is as a woman. Just to be a woman in the world is to be in danger. I think that one of the things she struggles with is redefining what freedom is. And I’m not sure she ever feels free in this book but I think she begins to redirect in thinking about how she can liberate herself by developing her own relationship to God. And how can she develop agency in her own family. And then there’s this sort of wider thread of being a Muslim American at a time when Muslim Americans are facing threats from dominant society. What does resistance to that look like for a young woman?
BG: The novel has a haunting throughline of women of color being violated and exploited. Issues surrounding consent or lack thereof and bodily autonomy surface in different ways. How do you think women of color can assert themselves given that many like Amira are groomed to not take up too much space and how this warped exoticization of women of color can be tackled?
AAG: So these two sisters, as I said, all they want to do is to leave Bay Ridge and discover freedom. But what they discover instead is what I consider the anticipated violence of being a woman. The violence that’s a kind of a threat that’s always out there lurking, like the threat of something that could happen to you that hasn’t yet happened, or the ordinary violence embedded in daily interactions and relationships. The weight of that is something that these two sisters discover.
And you know, you ask, what can women of color do? Well, there’s really no escaping it, right? There’s nowhere they can turn except towards each other. So that’s one of the reasons why I kind of have this movement in the book where the girls kind of go in their separate directions out there in the world, and then sort of collide back into each other. I think the place where they can find some semblance of liberation is in their relationship with each other. So I try to think about how women actually cultivate relationships with each other, and the power of those relationships. And, in fact, there’s even a part in the book where Sami is so isolated. He has no one to share his emotions with. But the girls do. So how can women use the power of their own relationships that I think they forge in a shared trauma? And how can they use that to lift each other up?
BG: This reminds me of that moment in the book where the girls are at a party that’s just for women. That scene is buzzing with this loss of inhibition that I felt occurred because there’s this complete freedom from the male gaze. And at least in my experience and understanding, in this part of the world, there’s almost a cultural necessity for women to be hypersexualized in the public eye, so I was wondering what you think about spaces reserved for just women and feminine energy. Do you think there’s value and sustainability in cultivating in such spaces?
AAG: Absolutely. I think in the society that we live in, the idea of a space where women can be, or where women can even just take a momentary break from feeling that threat of violence that’s always lurking, is really essential. I think women have to spend so much energy protecting themselves from these external forces. We can’t always express ourselves, it’s not always safe. We’re not always heard, right? Sometimes the ways that we’re conditioned are to perform what we think men want from us, and of course we do that to an extent among women too. But I do think there’s tremendous power in female friendships and in sisterhoods where women can go inward. So that’s one of the things the girls want—they want to figure out who they are, and they can’t really do that out there in the world, but they can do that sort of inward by kind of reflecting each other back.
BG: I find the novel is powerful in its critique of the US as a surveillance state. Particularly poignant is the depiction of Muslims having to walk on eggshells because we’ve been placed under extreme scrutiny post 9/11. As a writer, how do you contend with this reality where Muslims are always cognizant of being a minority that will most likely not be afforded the same opportunity for justice as we see toward the end of the book?
AAG: It’s one of the reasons why I wanted to write a sort of classic coming-of-age story. I wanted to layer on top of that classic story that we’re all so familiar with, this feeling of surveillance. We talked a little bit about the threats that women face as they go out in the world, as girls become women. But then you layer on top of that the fact that they’re Arab and Muslim women in this post 9/11 America. So there are these dual ways they’re being surveilled and watched. How can you grow under such intense scrutiny? With this feeling that someone’s out there baiting a trap for you, waiting for you to walk into it which is, I think, how a lot of Muslims have felt.
Before 9/11, I think a lot of Brown Muslims in particular wanted to believe they were some sort of model minority, and that dream, which was always a fallacy, has really been punctured by this feeling that the state that we live in, this government, is baiting a series of traps, and we have to try not to fall into them. And that can breed intense paranoia, distrust. It can make you question your own cultural instincts, you know? One of the things I think about is how Arabs and Muslims treat strangers, how they welcome people and my characters question that very impulse, that very value. Can I do this? Is this safe? Who is an enemy?
I wanted to play with the construction of the enemy itself. Muslims have been painted as the worldwide boogey-man for two decades now. And I wanted these Muslim characters to be sort of grappling with, who is our enemy? We can’t see it. We can’t identify it. It’s sort of a specter that lurks in their lives.
BG: Yeah, like a phantom. And it’s ever pressing. I feel like that fear, that anticipation of what’s around the corner has shaped a lot of Muslim lives now, especially Muslims growing up here. It’s made them into a certain kind of person that they wouldn’t be if there wasn’t that fear where you have to think two steps ahead.
AAG: Yeah, exactly. I think about that too. How fearful it has made so many generations of Muslims in America. Sometimes I wish Muslims were more active in solidarity. I think part of what’s successful about the state surveillance project is that it has really made us very afraid. So many of us just sort of try to keep our heads down and accept the treatment that we’ve been dealt, and are also too afraid to stand up for anyone else.
BG: Yeah, because you’re consistently fearful of the consequences.
AAG: Yes, definitely. And there’s also too many examples of people whose lives have been obliterated in these last two decades that sort of serve as this stark warning to Muslims not to fight back
BG: Absolutely. In the book too we reach a point where the three siblings come face to face with this fear and the consequences of having thrown caution to the wind, especially with what happens to Lina in that motel. After that, they impose a self quarantine, and we watch the siblings come toward their faith. Given that we were just talking about how Muslims can contend with our reality, I am curious about your thoughts on faith as a source of healing.
AAG: Yeah, that’s also part of the reason why I wanted to set the book during Ramadan. At the beginning of the book, Amira sees religion, and she sees Ramadan as just a thing she and her family does, a thing people in her neighborhood do. She doesn’t really think too hard about it. One thing I wanted to play with is the fact that Ramadan is an intense time of self-reflection. Of course, there’s an aspect of deprivation, of physical hardship to the fast. But really, it’s about this idea of purifying your mind-body relationship to God. And I wanted to have moments where Amira is seeing that aspect of her faith in a new way, where she’s actually able to feel clarified and cleansed through her own religious practice and through watching her siblings be on their own, parallel journeys with their faith and healing. They’re supporting each other in that healing too. Sami will wander away to the window and the girls will coax him back, and they pray together. And so it’s this idea of creating space for each one of them to heal within their own religious practice.