Book Review: ‘Between Two Moons,’ by Aisha Abdel Gawad

BETWEEN TWO MOONS, by Aisha Abdel Gawad

In the opening scene of Aisha Abdel Gawad’s multifaceted and moving debut novel, “Between Two Moons,” a high school senior, Amira, is awakened by her father on the first day of Ramadan to watch a Libyan cafe owner’s sudden arrest. While her twin sister, Lina, tries to sleep through the incident, Amira joins Baba on the fire escape to observe the action: “The approaching dawn spread like a great purple bruise over New York, but the cafe was illuminated by a streetlight as if by an interrogator’s lamp. The men with their dogs were milling in and out, talking into radios, and taking photographs.”

Thus, Gawad introduces much of the structure and thematic foundation of “Between Two Moons”: We’ll see the world primarily through the eyes of Amira, the dutiful twin, the one who cares enough to look; we’ll witness post-9/11 Muslim lives under relentless scrutiny; we’ll measure time by sunset and sundown and the long stretches of hunger and thirst in between; and all of it will feel like a bruise, painful and tender and sometimes beautiful.

As Ramadan wears on, Amira and Lina flirt with visions of their future selves. Lina, the more obviously beautiful twin, stumbles into drugs and sex, nightclubs and older men, falling prey to sexual assault and exploitation in her ill-fated pursuit to become a model. In contrast, Amira craves to be “unrecognizable, untrackable, untraceable” as she becomes tangled in a fraught romance of her own. The conflicting desires to be seen and to be invisible are well traversed in literature of female coming of age, and for good reason. Who among us hasn’t wanted the best parts of ourselves to be recognized? And who, at times, hasn’t wanted to hide from the relentless gaze of others?

For Amira and Lina, these impulses are intensified by feeling hated outside of their tight-knit neighborhood in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, but controlled and confined within it. Traumatized by growing up under the New York Police Department’s surveillance of the city’s Arab community, they’ve been taught that no one can be trusted, not even themselves. The tension of being a teenage Muslim girl in a post-9/11 New York intensifies in the wake of a mysterious act of violence and the defacing of the community’s mosque, and it becomes especially pronounced whenever Sami, Lina and Amira’s older brother, is on the page. Sami has just been released after a six-year prison stint, and upon his return, Amira explains, “I tried ignoring him. This strange roommate. This foreign-exchange student. This intruder in the living room. But I couldn’t stop watching him.” He’s watching her as well, the two of them engaged in a delicate, heart-wrenching dance of secret-keeping and yearning for connection.

Despite Sami’s unsettling presence, the family’s apartment is a haven for Amira and Lina, a place where forgiveness and understanding come easily, love is palpable, and there is room for nuance. Their devoutly religious Mama tells the girls about a sexual relationship she had before she married their father, and Baba gleefully names his halal butcher shop after the writer Abu Nuwas, whom he calls “the worst” of the Arab poets, who’s “always singing about boys’ pretty bottoms and the sweet taste of wine.” From their perch on the fire escape, Amira and Lina watch as an old woman lifts “a berry to her mouth decadently, like some sort of Greek god.” In another scene, they dab Mama’s rose water on their wrists and imagine “that this is what Cleopatra or Nefertiti must have smelled like.” Such references to gods and queens and prophets swirl through the pages, uplifting characters whose humanity is systematically reduced and denied. Amira’s triumph at the close of this breathtaking, elegantly structured novel is in experiencing how fully and desperately human she can be.

Nina LaCour is an award-winning author of literature for children, teenagers and adults. Her latest novel is “Yerba Buena.”

BETWEEN TWO MOONS | By Aisha Abdel Gawad | 321 pp. | Doubleday | $28

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