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Aisha Abdel Gawad's debut novel is a 'love letter' to Arab Americans

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Aisha Abdel Gawad's debut novel is a coming-of-age story about two teenage girls. They're twins living in Brooklyn. Their older brother is getting out of prison. Their parents are immigrants from Egypt. And the book's title, "Between Two Moons," refers to the time period when the book is set. The entire novel takes place during one month of Ramadan. I asked Aisha Abdel Gawad where she got the idea to use the holiday as a frame.

AISHA ABDEL GAWAD: I think part of it is that I just really love Ramadan. I look forward to it every year. It's such a special time of year. And then, also, I was interested in the fact that Ramadan is a sort of intense time of year for Muslims. There's this added pressure. It's not necessarily negative pressure, but there's this idea that you don't want to squander this time you've been given to kind of cleanse yourself, right? And it's a time of intense self-reflection. You're supposed to make yourself closer to God and figure out why you do the things that you do. And, you know, teenage girls - my two protagonists are teenage girls - they already do that all the time, kind of hyperaware of everything they do and everything they say and sort of - I was interested in layering Ramadan on top of that and sort of heightening that pressure.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. Can you describe what Ramadan is like in the community where this is set, which is also a place that you worked - Bay Ridge, Brooklyn?

GAWAD: Sure. Bay Ridge has one of the largest communities of Arab Americans in the country. Many of them are Muslim. And there's lots of different ways, of course, of being Muslim. But it's the type of place where you really feel Ramadan happening. The community sort of shifts its practices according to Ramadan. So you'll see the streets sort of be, like, dead quiet in the middle of the day when the fast is kind of, maybe, at its hardest point. You'll see things really start to come to life right after the fast has ended, and people are coming out of their apartments, and they're gathering. And I think it's a feeling of being in it together, and that's not really an experience that a lot of American Muslims have. To fast in this country can be a very alienating experience. But in Bay Ridge, there's this real sense of solidarity. And there's also, maybe, sometimes a little feeling of judgment, too. Like, your aunties and your grandmothers are watching you and, you know, you kind of want to be on your best behavior.

SHAPIRO: There's one moment where your narrator, Amira, is working as a receptionist at the Arab American Community Center, and she sees a woman sitting in the waiting room just eating sunflower seeds and throwing the shells on the floor. And she's like, right in front of everyone on Ramadan? Like, it's one thing if you're not going too fast, it's another thing to do it in the waiting room of the community center in front of everyone.

GAWAD: Exactly. And that moment actually is based on something I saw, except it was some strawberries instead of sunflower seeds.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

GAWAD: And it was this, you know, pile of the strawberry tops - the green tops.

SHAPIRO: Just on the floor?

GAWAD: And I thought, wow, bold move, lady.

SHAPIRO: Bold move, lady. So you had the same job or a similar job to the one that your narrator has. Were there other details from your work experience that made its way into this story?

GAWAD: Yes. You know, the fictional center in my book is based on the Arab American Association of New York, which is a terrific nonprofit that's really a lifeline for a lot of people, especially recent immigrants in Bay Ridge. People will go there for everything from help to sorting out the most complicated immigration procedures, but also things like, I can't read my mail. I just got it - is this junk or is this important? And then really thinking about it also as a site of surveillance - right? - at the time, a place where the community members felt themselves sort of watched - and this community center was a focus of law enforcement surveillance, as were many other places in the neighborhood.

SHAPIRO: I want to talk about that surveillance. There's a shadow that hangs over everything that happens in this community. And you took some of the plot details from investigative reporting that the Associated Press did about the NYPD surveillance of Muslim communities. When you first read those news articles, do you remember what you thought?

GAWAD: You know, I thought - as horrifying as it was, I think I felt almost a sense of relief. Like, I'm not crazy.

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

GAWAD: Like, we weren't crazy. We are not paranoid. This feeling that has been plaguing us for years is real.

SHAPIRO: Do you remember a moment you had that feeling and thought - am I paranoid; am I crazy; is this really going on?

GAWAD: Yes. I remember feeling sometimes people getting uneasy. If you were - let's say you were at the community center or you were at the mosque, and there was a newcomer. And the newcomer was particularly chatty, let's say. I remember people sort of getting on edge. And the sad thing about that, that is totally opposite to what Arabs want to do naturally. Arabs are the most overwhelmingly hospitable people.

SHAPIRO: Right. There's a strong culture of welcoming the stranger, inviting people over. Yeah.

GAWAD: Exactly. So I think, you know, that fear of police surveillance made people suppress this sort of very natural part of their cultural instincts to welcome strangers, which is, of course, a sad sort of byproduct of that surveillance.

SHAPIRO: In the book, people actually joke about it. They say like, what, are you with the FBI? Did people do that...

GAWAD: Oh, all the time.

SHAPIRO: ...To sort of defuse the tension of this fear?

GAWAD: All the time. I mean, my friends and I still do that sometimes if we're talking on the phone or on text and someone makes a joke - just kidding - you know, just to kind of cover our bases. And it's a joke, but it's also very real. You know, this feeling that we might be watched, listened to, and that we have to sort of really be very careful about what we say and what we do.

SHAPIRO: Throughout the book, you sprinkle Arabic phrases through the dialogue, and some will be recognizable to most English speakers, Habibi and so on. Others might not. Why did you want to keep these words and phrases untranslated through the narrative?

GAWAD: I struggled with that. But in the end, I really didn't want this book to feel like it was a book that was explaining Arabs and Muslims to white Americans. I wanted any reader to be OK with a moment of maybe not 100% understanding. And I think that that's OK sometimes in a book, right? If you think, all right, I'm a little bit on the outside of this and that's all right - right? - because that's an experience that immigrants have in this country all the time.

SHAPIRO: You know, in any coming-of-age story, characters are going to make bad decisions. And I think members of any marginalized group often fear they have to present a perfect face to the world. So as you wrote some of these episodes involving drugs, casual sex and other more harrowing scenes, did you have any fear or did anyone else express a fear to you that it would make the community look bad?

GAWAD: I did have that thought, and I just kind of had to push it away. I hope that Arabs and Muslims will read this and see it as a - not a criticism of our communities - although, of course, there are criticisms to be made, as there are of any community - but as really a love letter. And I think the best sort of love letters are complicated.

SHAPIRO: Aisha Abdel Gawad's debut novel is "Between Two Moons." Thank you for talking to us about it.

GAWAD: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF DJ KABOO'S "ARAB TRAP: MADE IN EGYPT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Linah Mohammad
Prior to joining NPR in 2022, Mohammad was a producer on The Washington Post's daily flagship podcast Post Reports, where her work was recognized by multiple awards. She was honored with a Peabody award for her work on an episode on the life of George Floyd.
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Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.
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