Palestinian author shares story of struggles and inspiration

Friday, December 5, 2008 | 2:29 p.m. CST
Columbia author Ibtisam Barakat gave a lecture and read from her new book "Tasting the Sky: A Palestinian Childhood" at MU on Oct. 2. The book describes Barakat's childhood memories from Palestine and her family's struggles during the Six-Day War.

COLUMBIA — Ibtisam Barakat's life changed when she was 3. The Six-Day War ripped apart the Palestinian West Bank in 1967 and shattered her community. She lived in Ramallah, a Palestinian city on the West Bank that after the war became occupied by Israel. From that point on, her childhood was filled with struggles and conflict. Barakat, now 45, decided to tell her story.

Her first book, "Tasting the Sky: A Palestinian Childhood," was published last year. The International Reading Association named it one of the best nonfiction books and a Book for a Global Society; the Middle East Outreach Council put it on their Best Literature for Young Readers list; and the American Library Association named it a notable book. Since then, Barakat has traveled widely to share her experiences, reading from her book and speaking about the effects of war.

Six-Day War timeline

Day 1, June 5, 1967: Israel attacks and destroys most of the Egyptian Air Force on the ground. Jordan, Syria and Iraq attack Israel.

Barakat and her family flee their home and run toward the caves. Barakat is separated from her family.

Day 2, June 6, 1967:  Fighting continues on all fronts.

When the second day of the war dawns, Barakat finds her family. They join another family and escape into Jordan.

Barakat, her mother and siblings find shelter. Her father leaves to find a more permanent place for them in Jordan until they can return to Ramallah. They remain in the shelter until the fighting is over.

Day 3, June 7, 1967: Jerusalem is taken. Blockade of Straits of Tiran is broken.

Day 4, June 8, 1967: Israel consolidates its hold on the West Bank.

Day 5, June 9, 1967: Israel and Syria are in heavy fighting on the Golan Heights.

Day 6, June 10, 1967: Israel gains control of the Golan Heights.

October 18, 1967: Four months and 13 days after the Six-Day War began, Barakat and her family are able to return home to Ramallah through the efforts and intervention of the International Red Cross.

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"People use my story to feel their own losses," Barakat said at a reading in Columbia on Oct. 2. "If you do not feel, you do not learn. Period."

Columbia earned a spot on her book's dedication page because she has found peace and friendship while living here.

"And a special thank you to the quiet city of Columbia, Mo., where it is possible to gently face oneself — long enough to become friends, a crucial element for world peace," the page reads.

In an e-mail interview, Barakat shared some of her thoughts on Columbia, writing and telling the Palestinian story.

On Columbia

Barakat came to the United States in 1986. She has previously lived and worked in New York City and Washington, D.C. For now, Columbia is her home.

"When I first came to Columbia, all I wanted to do was finish school and leave. I had been living on the East Coast before that. But I discovered that with all the technology to help, I practically can do whatever I wanted to do from anywhere. I don’t have to go anywhere but to (the) KBIA station for a national NPR interview, for example.

"Also, after a while, I began to see Columbia not in comparison to New York and Washington, D.C., for what it does not have, but for what it does have and what people who live here can bring to it. I think that Columbia is a beautiful, alive and vibrant place that is continually growing. It has the wonderful spirit of a progressive and active and engaged community. And I travel on (a) regular basis to do public speaking nationally and internationally and lead Write Your Life workshops to encourage writers and non-writers alike to explore the personal narrative and experience the power, healing, creativity and health unleashed by speaking and writing life stories. That keeps me in the world at large rather than just in this city or that city."

On writing

"Writing is an expression of freedom for me. I don't set time for writing. I write, and I set time to do other things!

"There are at least two kinds of writing: The first is a tool to explore and discover my feelings and thoughts and the layers beneath the silences of my life. It's focused on giving voice to my inner and external experiences and it's a wonderful journey of self-understanding. And the second is writing in order to be read. Here, I select from my discoveries and share that with the world, get them published. I love to write. But at times, it's extremely difficult to turn a feeling that once felt unbearable, unspeakable, into words.

"In writing 'Tasting the Sky,' the parts that required that I slow down and fully feel the moments that I had run through as quickly as I could in the past each time I thought about them (were the most difficult to write). Loss moments, unbearable loss moments, for example, challenged me to almost stopping. In the writing, I had to slow down, see and feel my losses vividly, sit with them, panic, weep in frustration, but continue to look, listen, feel and write."

In the second chapter of her book, Barakat and her family must flee from their home in Ramallah because war has broken out. Unable to tie her shoes quickly enough, 3-year-old Barakat is lost in the shuffle and separated from her family for a night.

"The moment of separation from my family during the war, for example, formed quite a lasting rift in my psyche. Each time I got to it to describe that moment in writing, I got tripped terribly. Sometimes it took days to get myself out emotionally and convince myself to go back to it again and keep on looking, feeling and writing. But the reward of doing that work is immense. It integrated many moments that had remained hidden and broken until I reached them through the writing, and my inner world became more mine. It is astonishing how little we know about our inner worlds. I think writers, artists and other self-understanding seekers discover that fact, and the journey outside becomes only half of the story. The journey of discovery inside is the other half. And together life has beautiful magic and richness."

On her education

"I did two MA degrees. I was attracted to the tools of journalism and its scope of interest in the world at large, giving attention to the stories of others. Ideally, in journalism one must be aware of what is going on in the society, learn to gather information, do critical and courageous thinking and ponder issues of ethics, do interviews, speak with strangers, express ideas concisely. All of that appealed to me.

"With human development, I wanted to know what a 'normal or healthy human development' was, since it was clear to me that growing up in war and under occupation was far from normal or healthy. I loved the combination of journalism and human development. Journalism concerned itself mainly with external stories. Human development focused on the inner terrain of development."

On finding a voice

"I think women's lives, in general, were silenced in major ways for a long time. And also children, in general, are often shut down about issues that parents, teachers, the society, are unable to address. Many groups continue to be voiceless on various issues. The more people, from all groups, contribute to the larger conversation, the better. 'Tasting the Sky' is a book that honors the voice of the young person to speak to her heart’s content. During the writing, I had to continually get the voice of the adult out of the way. I like to talk because it’s a powerful way of being in community with other people and contributing to the big conversation.

"With all the traveling, it takes time to get into writing then leave it and come back again, but I can't think of anything more timely and important work for me to do toward helping the healing in the world, on both sides of the Atlantic."

On sharing the Palestinian story

Barakat is working on her second book, a continuation of "Tasting the Sky," which will focus on her years as an adolescent in Ramallah.

"The Palestinian collective voice and narrative are missing pieces that are crucial for understanding the situation of the Middle East and creating a more inclusive world for all. I very much want to help in that area. "


For Barakat, life is about sharing, discovering and growing. At her reading, she explained why she wore a jacket in her favorite color, red. It reminds her of the poppy flower, which she feels represents her.

"Poppies are crushed, eaten by animals and bowed down by the wind. Yet, in spring, they come back.

"So many things grow back," Barakat added.

She ended her reading with a quotation, which also ends her book, from 12th-century philosopher Philo of Alexandria. The quotation rang true with Barakat's personal experience.

"Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle."

Barakat doesn't choose to focus on the fight. Instead, she believes her work is an invitation for people to contribute in healing the world.

"When people have a voice, it helps them feel more respected and have more peace at heart first, and a lot of good can come out of people feeling respected, heard and included."

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