Author Ibtisam Barakat Unites English Language, Palestinian Memory

By Hirschfield, Robert | Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, July 2007 | Go to article overview

Author Ibtisam Barakat Unites English Language, Palestinian Memory


Hirschfield, Robert, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs


IBTISAM BARAKAT ends her newly published memoir, Tasting The Sky: A Palestinian Childhood, with the words of Philo of Alexandria: "Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle."

Barakat is a woman with an aura of kindness-a kindness born somehow of the cruelties of displacement and occupation.

In the first scene in her book (available from the AET Book Club), we meet the author at age 17, traveling home from Birzeit, where she has a postal box. Her bus stops at an Israeli roadblock, and a soldier boards the bus and asks her where she is going. She tells him: Ramallah.

"There is no Ramallah anymore," he says. "It all should be gone by now."

An astonishing assertion, as Barakat was there only an hour earlier. But coming from an Israeli soldier, even in bad Arabic, an assertion not to be easily dismissed.

Over coffee, having just given a talk at The Nation magazine in Manhattan, the now 42-year-old resident of Columbia, Missouri inadvertently slips into the present tense as she recalls that moment: "A soldier with a gun has complete control over my life. He is in charge of whether I have a life or not, whether my whole city has a life or not."

Sitting in Starbucks, with her suitcase beside her, about to leave for the next leg of her book tour for Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Barakat's lower lip tensed, trembling slightly, as it might have that day on the road to Ramallah.

"Ever since the Six-Day War," she explained, "I have had a huge amount of fear that separated me from my mind and my memory, from all sorts of things in me. Fear is another level of occupation. You become occupied by fear. It is the invisible army in your mind you must negotiate with. It holds your life energy hostage. My life's goal is to create bridges across the fear to new possibilities."

Except for the first and last chapters, Barakat's book is about the 1967 Six-Day War and its aftermath-her flight with her family, as a girl of 3, from their home in Ramallah to Jordan, then back again, after the war, to a life under Israeli occupation. She recalls her life as a child navigating the deep waters of fear across the shaky bridge of an overtaxed family.

After graduation from Birzeit in 1986, Barakat came to New York to work as an intern at The Nation. The magazine's then-editor, Victor Navasky, had met Barakat at Birzeit when she was a freshman and invited her to join him at The Nation.

Coming to America meant meeting, for the first time in her life, Jews who were not soldiers, and finding out about the Holocaust. Studying history as a journalism student at the University of Missouri-Columbia, she read about the calamitous past of her occupiers.

"When I studied about the Holocaust," she said, "I was also working on my own healing, trying to repair some of the wounds of a life without freedom. …

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