Q&A: Ibtisam Barakat

Ibtisam Barakat is the author of Tasting The Sky: A Palestenion Childhood. In her moving and lyrical memoir, Barakat shares with readers her life as a child whose life is completely turned upside down due to war. With candor and courage, she stitches together memories of her childhood: fear and confusion as bombs explode near her home and she is separated from her family and the harshness of life as a Palestinian refugee and the difficulties upon returning home to Palestine amidst Israeli soldiers, poverty, and the freedom that comes with learning language and the beauty of expressing oneself.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Ibtisam. Below, she shares insights into her book and advice for aspiring writers.

~ Aisha

AS: Your beautiful, lyrical memoir Tasting The Sky handles some difficult subject matter as you recount the harsh difficulties of growing up in a conflict-ridden region where you craved freedom but never truly felt free. Given that you are writing about Palestine, a hot-button topic in the United States, was the reaction to your memoir different from adult readers versus young readers? 

IB: I think it is impossible to generalize about readers. Each is unique and therefore brings a unique reading experience and perspective. However, judging by the general reception of the memoir, I can say that the response in the United States has been excellent. TASTING THE SKY is now on its eighth printing. I am thankful to my editors and to my publisher, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, for adopting a book about a Palestinian childhood and offering it to readers in the US and worldwide.

From many letters that I have received (coming from the US and also numerous countries around the world) and from in-person interactions during author activities, I can say that the main response to TASTING THE SKY from young readers in general is enthusiastic and moving. Some call it their favorite book.

Regarding adult readers, the range is wide because the book is being taught at colleges and universities in various curricula, read at book clubs, and referred to in many contexts. But I always love it when adult readers mention that it takes them to their own childhoods.

There is often the question about politics as well. In my opinion, a child’s life is greatly affected by politics, but a child’s perspective is not political. From a humanistic perspective, politics appear to be much smaller than the generous heart of a child and all that heart embraces. The difference between childhood and politics is that a child cares without borders and most politics hope to teach children that people across the border are “them” and therefore they are different from “us” and caring should be done accordingly! A child would rightfully question all politics.

AS: Having an inside look at your mother’s struggles from the daily threat of violence, to having to live in an orphanage separated from her husband, I was amazed at the unwavering trust both she and other adults in the memoir placed in their faith in God. Many people in such difficult moments find themselves questioning justice in general and God in particular. How did you as a child, and now as an adult, reconcile faith with the difficulties you encountered?

IB: I think that faith is essential to survival — faith in something more beautiful and more just and more loving than the reality of war, military occupation, and daily assaults by people with guns. But the very definition of faith changes at difficult times. I think it gets adjusted like a lens of a camera, to see more clearly.

At times of hardship one becomes sensitive to every morsel of hope and meaning.

For example, when I first fell in love with reading, then discovered that the first work in the Qur’an is Iqra’, meaning read, I felt that reading, any reading, is then elevated to the level of prayer and constitutes a connection to the Supreme Being, in addition to all the great minds that filled the books with the timeless magic of knowledge. Reading every word began to feel as an act of freedom and strength.

When living in Ramallah also, anytime I heard the Athan, the Muslim call for prayer, announcing five times every day: Allahu Akbar, meaning that God is greatest, at some point I began to feel that it is specifically saying to me that God is greater than soldiers and domineering people and wars and politics and fears. God is greater than despair and losses.  And that became a beautiful reminder, five times a day, that hope is on the way because God is greatest, and God’s norm for life is change. So, one cannot despair when remembering that change is the divine inevitable.

AS: In your book you capture with painful clarity the dreams your parents had and their inability, due to their circumstances, to realize many of them. In one passage you eloquently describe your father’s limitations:

We are not free to be a family the way [my father] wants, with him a lion in our lives. He is like a lion in the 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.

Now that you are fulfilling dreams they could not, how have they responded both to the success of your book and to all you have accomplished?

IB: They are proud that all the hardships could not stop me from desiring freedom, and therefore carrying the story of our survival across the ocean and to readers on the global level.

Every nation, sovereign or otherwise, needs its would-be-writers; children, who see, hear, feel, struggle, and remember deeply, and then at some point find a voice and a way to tell the world so that larger healing and inclusion may have a chance to happen.

I also believe that any dream one fulfills is not entirely personal. My dream of writing this book and giving voice to a huge group of people, especially the generation that lived the circumstances of Tasting the Sky, is not completely personal. Many wonderful people helped my voice along the way.

It is true that bringing this book to light took absolutely everything and a lifetime of work toward it. But it all belongs to the collective – the people who continue to struggle, the readers who find meaning in the book, and humanity as it fights daily and in every way to become more humane.

AS: What advice would you give to aspiring writers of Muslim or non-majority narratives?

IB: I would say: the fact that you are aspiring to write is a cause for celebration. And if you have doubts that others will care, or that you will reach your dreams, please remember that women in the world are the actual majority. Children and young people are a majority too. People of color are the largest group of the world. And one person with much dedication and passion can be a majority. From prophets to philosophers to poets to mothers to scientists, the world is changed by individuals as much as by groups.

So let us delete the word “minority” from our minds, accept our struggles to change the society for everyone, and take a new step toward justice with every passing day until we reach what we want, and all people, everywhere, have full rights.

I would also say: be certain to treat other “minority” people with the kind of appreciation you desire for yourself. Most “minority” groups have great struggles amongst the group members. So treat yourself well and treat other “minority” people well and with great respect as an act of leadership.

And here is a whisper: excel and contribute great quality works! No one else has the stories you have — even your family members do not. No one else has the voice and view point that you have. So do not compete with others. Just do the work you are put on Earth to do. Do it with all your heart, and at your own pace, and that will make you shine! A mind’s light is as needed as a sun’s light for humanity to go on.

AS: What is next for Ibtisam Barakat?

IB: Next is the sequel for TASTING THE SKY. The title is BALCONY ON THE MOON. There is also a poetry collection, and I have other writing projects in Arabic. It is to Arabic and its genius, that I owe my huge love for language and literature. Without having been deeply inspired by Arabic I do not know that I would have survived great hardships. Every letter of the alphabet for me is a complete miracle.

To hear a short book excerpt of the author reading from TASTING THE SKY please click here.

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Ibtisam Barakat is Palestinian-American author, poet, translator, artist and educator. Her memoir, TASTING THE SKY: A Palestinian Childhood, (FSG, 2007) won more than 20 awards and honors and is currentlyavailable in six languages. Al Ta’ Al-Marbouta Tateer (TheLetter Ta Escapes), her book in Arabic about one letter of the Arabic alphabet who refuses to do what it is supposed to do in a word, won the Anna Lindh Foundation prize for best Arabic literature for young readers, 2011. She is the founder of Write Your Life seminars. Ibtisam represented Palestine in the World Poetry Conference in Venezuela, 2009; was the poet of Women Speak International Gathering 2010, and was a delegate to the 3rd UN conference on ending Racism in South Africa. She is one of the 15 international authors who contributed to Amnesty International’s Young Adult Anthology, celebrating the 60th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  For two years, 2010 and 2011, she was also one of the judges in the national finals of Poetry Out Loud, the poetry recitation contest for all of high schools in the US and the Islands, run by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation. About 235 thousand students participated in Poetry Out Loud in 2010. A selection of Ibtisam’s poetry has been put to music and has become a permanent addition to the repertoire of the Boston Children’s Chorus. In 2013 she completed the manuscript of Balcony on the Moon, the sequel for Tasting the Sky, and another book in Arabic.

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