There aren’t many books on the Palestinian situation available for children, and fewer still that are memoirs. I actually managed to pick up and read Ibtisam Barakat’s, "Tasting the Sky: A Palestinian Childhood," without ever realized that it was more than mere historical fiction. As a bilingual author and poet, Ms. Barakat could have written a straight up autobiography, but somehow the memoir is just as moving and intense a portrait as anyone could ask for. It gives her struggles a weight, balance, and arc that wouldn’t necessarily belong in a standard series of personal facts. Tracing her life from just before the Six-Day War when she was three to her state as a teenager, we watch as our heroine loses shoes in raids, finds and loses a donkey as a friend, and sees her parents suffer the weight of protecting their children in an impossible time. In the end, Ibtisam remembers her struggles in an occupied Palestine and draws strength from her own ability to write.
Facts guide Ms. Barakat’s pen, and the horrors of the Six-Day War speak louder than anything else. If dehumanizing occupation is inherently political, then yes, there are politics in this book. More than anything, though, I was struck by Ms. Barakat’s ability to write without pointing fingers or blame. Her primary goal is to attain peace in the land of her birth. Mentions of things like bulldozers are only brought up in the beginning. In the past, Barakat will show small beautiful things, like a fig tree with a single early ripe fruit on it. There is no mention of what might happen to that tree in the future.
The prose itself is pretty good too. An Israeli soldier butchering his Arabic pronunciations makes, "the words sound like they have been beaten up, bruised so blue they can hardly speak their meaning." When shouting down a well she says, "We called out one another’s names; the echoes returned to us as though our voices had grown older than we were." I liked that the teenaged Ibtisam felt so claustrophobic under her mother’s attentions that she wrote, "Mothers and soldiers are enemies of freedom. I am doubly occupied." You learn things too. At one point we learn that the Arabic word for "imagine" is "batkhayyal" which means, "to see the shadow of a thought."
Of course, you want to know more. If we understand that this book is a fictionalization of Ms. Barakat’s own life then we want to understand how she came to be a resident of Columbia, Missouri after a childhood as a refugee. The answer to this lies in two parts. In a final note in the book that reads "Giving Back to the World" she writes, "Without the help of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency … millions of other children and I would not have gone to school or learned to read, write, and use our pencils to clear a tiny path through the wreckage of refugee life…" Later in the backflap of the book we learn too that the author, "grew up in Ramallah and has a degree in English literature from Birzeit University in the West Bank. She came to the United States in 1986 for an internship at The Nation magazine." Considering the number of starred professional reviews (at least three as of this review) "Tasting the Sky" has received already, not to mention its inclusion more than a few Best Books of 2007 lists, Ms. Barakat might wish to consider penning a sequel to her story. Perhaps one that follows her heroine through her tricky years of a teen. Such a novel might make for a lovely companion to Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, if nothing else.
Given the subject matter, I was intrigued by the suggested reading list at the back of the book. Barakat deals with some difficult issues, and I wanted to know which children and teen books she felt would best complement her own take on the conflict. The list consists of seven selections, both books and films, each one discussing the nature of peace and how to attain it. Each one also gives voice to the Palestinians living in the region, most also offering an Israeli perspective as well.
(CONTINUED IN PART TWO)