Working Tirelessly to heal social injustice Palestinian Author brings tales of war to Hill
Paper and ink, poems and my postbox are medicines that heal the wounds of a life without freedom. On some days, I wish I could stay inside my postbox, with a tiny pillow made from a stamp with a flower on it. At the end of my day, I could cover myself up with one pink-enveloped letter and sleep on a futon-like stack of letters from my pen pals.——from Tasting the Sky, A Palestinian Childhood, by Ibtisam Barakat
I doubt if many people in Chestnut Hill know it, but for the last eight years Springside School in Chestnut Hill has played host to the Al-Bustan Camp, a summertime camp that teaches Arabic language and culture in classes and workshops. This year the camp ran from July 6 to 24, providing cultural arts programming for children and teenagers from 6 to 17.
This year’s program included daily instruction in Arabic language and folk dance as well as lessons from seasoned professionals. For example, nationally renowned violinist Hanna Khoury explored Arabic musical traditions with the children. Mr. Khoury, musical director for the Arabesque Music Ensemble, has performed on tours with musicians such as Yo-Yo Ma and recorded with artists such as Shakira and Beyonce.
Experts in drama, art and filmmaking also shared their expertise with the children, but the most compelling visitor had to be Palestinian poet/author Ibtisam Barakat, whose memoir, Tasting the Sky, garnered national and international praise when it was released in 2007. Barakat, 45, has long, dark hair, penetrating black eyes and a prominent nose and eyebrows that bespeak a regal presence. (In Arabic, Ibtisam means “a smile,” and Barakat means “blessings.”)
Barakat, who spent two days with students at Springside last week, is on a peripatetic mission of peace and justice. Born in Beit Hanina, East Jerusalem, she spent most of her formative years in Ramallah, Palestine (generally referred to in news stories as the West Bank). After earning a degree in English literature from Birzeit University on the West Bank, she came to the U.S. in 1986 for an internship with The Nation magazine. She later earned two M.A. degrees — in journalism and in human development and family studies – at the University of Missouri-Columbia.
Just before coming to Springside, Barakat had attended a world poetry conference in Caracas, Venezuela, as the Palestinian representative. Prior to that, she was in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Oman for one month as “author in residence” working with middle school and high school students. Her memoir, Tasting the Sky; a Palestinian Childhood, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, was named by Booklist as one of the top 10 biographies for youth and in 2008 won the International Reading Association’s Best Non-Fiction Book Award for Children and Young Adults.
The book, strongly reminiscent of The Kite Runner, the worldwide best-seller (made into a movie) about a boy in war-torn Afghanistan, is a heartbreaking story about a precocious young girl forced to grow up in the midst of war, cruelty and military occupation. Now in its 6th printing, the book has been translated into French, Dutch and Spanish. It secretes humanity the way bees secrete honey. It is probably the only book among the thousands about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that has been told through the prism of a young child.
Contrary to my expectations when I began to read it, Tasting the Sky is not an anti-Israeli polemic. It is certainly poignant and compelling but in an understated way. The unpretentious writing is as pure as a cliff of crystal. It could almost be the story of any child caught up in a war anywhere in the world. The daily cruelties are simply unfathomable to a child (and to many adults). You might say it goes behind the headlines about bombings and “big news” to tell the small, personal, everyday episodes of humiliation, deprivation and inhumanity (as well as pleasant moments) that do not make it into the news stories.
For example, Barakat writes: “The soldiers are another force that separates us. Father knows that they, not he, are the ones who control every one of us. We are not free to be a family the way he wants, with him a lion in our lives. He is like a lion in a zoo. Any of us can be taken away any day. No one can stop that, no matter how hard he roars from the fenced space allotted to him.
“I compare my father with the father of other girls. He is poorer than many, and war lives inside him. Every night he wakes up shouting that someone is going to kill him, kill us all. He punches at the air, kicks with his feet to free himself and cries for someone to help him. Mother sleeps on the farthest edge of the bed to avoid getting hit. She pretends she does not hear his cries.”
“I deliberately chose to stay away from politics,” Barakat said in an interview with the Local last Wednesday. “That is why I chose a child’s voice. A child would not go into the politics. People are polarized by that. I did keep it to the sensibility of Arab culture, though. I meant for this to introduce the existence of Palestinians as cultural creatures, not as political cartoons.
“The book is meant to bring in the layers of the culture. And also to show that some beautiful moments can exist, even in spite of war. There is still tasty food to be cooked. Tomatoes will still ripen. That story is not usually told in stories about war … War breaks people’s hearts and bones, but it can also break up the limits to the imagination and the limitations on language.”
Because of Barakat’s sensitive, touching and empathetic depiction of the children in Tasting the Sky and her treatment of the shimmering rainbow of human relationships, I was surprised to find out that the author has made a conscious decision not to have children of her own. “We have too many children in this world already who need to be looked after,” she explained.
“Millions of children have no adults to parent them. All adults should take care of all the children in the world. We desperately need a continuity of humanity. That is just as important as taking care of your own children. It is just as enjoyable and inspiring, if not more.”
Regarding the lack of personal invective in the book against Jews or Israelis, Barakat explained, “I have no problem with any individual Israeli. I do have a problem with a military occupation that denies an entire population its rights. I have a problem with a structure that crushes the rights of a people. Any individual can keep their views, no matter how extreme, but all people must be equal under the law.”
Interestingly, Barakat’s book has been ordered by many libraries, even those in Jewish schools. She reports that she has received emails and letters from a wide variety of people but that none of the feedback has been negative. “Jewish people have written to me about how they were moved by the book,” she said. “I’ve received notes from so many people from many ethnic groups saying, ‘That’s my story you told.’ If people can relate to that, then they cannot be the enemy … Literature has the power to turn strangers into friends who know each other on the inside. If you can have a glimpse into someone’s heart, then you will care about them.”
I think it was William Faulkner who once wrote, “Writing is easy; all you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until the drops of blood form on your forehead.” In Barakat’s case, “It took all of my life to put together my voice and three years to actually write the book.” Remarkably, the first publisher Barakat contacted, Farrar, Straus and Giroux in New York, accepted the book immediately, even though she had no agent, a highly unusual phenomenon these days. (The price is $16.)
Currently Barakat is working on a sequel to Tasting the Sky as well as a collection of her poems. “Sometimes a line of poetry can save a person’s life just as much as a surgeon’s knife,” she insists.
For more information about Tasting the Sky, visit http://us.macmillan.com/tastingthesky, or you can reach Barakat at www.ibtisambarakat.com. For information about Al-Bustan Camp, visit www.albustanseeds.org