EDITOR’S NOTE: Ibtisam Barakat, who lives in Columbia, Missouri, is the author of the memoir Tasting the Sky: A Palestinian Childhood, recently published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Barakat first came to the United States in 1986 to work as an intern at The Nation. Molly Bennet conducted the following interview with her.
What prompted you to write this book?
I grew up in a world that ached for freedom but could not touch it. So I wrote Tasting the Sky as an exercise in freedom and as an expression of it. When I lived in Ramallah, there was the sense that anything I loved or owned could be taken away from me in an instant. In writing this book, I finally could own a piece of my childhood, which itself felt like a piece of Ramallah, in the form of story.
Aside from a brief historical note, there is little discussion of history or politics in the narrative–was this a deliberate decision?
Palestinian life under Israeli occupation is drenched in politics to a suffocating level. So as much as I could in Tasting the Sky, I took the narrative focus off the occupation. I wanted to write from the personal experience and not have the story be a political argument in order to blame this side or that side, or to justify anything.
I consider the occupation a dehumanizing fact of Palestinian as well as Israeli lives. Part of the dehumanization of the Palestinians is the obsession with the occupation, because the basic survival of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza depends to a large degree on what the Israeli army does or does not do. So for people living there, minimal attention is paid to one’s own inner life, dreams, culture, relationships and personhood. Such conditions stunt the mind and starve it. This happens not only to individuals but also to the culture at large too. I chose to aim the gaze in Tasting the Sky on what is humanizing and healing in order to break the chains that had made me live in so much fear while I was growing up.
You write that you were largely apolitical in your late teens, yet you came to New York five years later to intern at The Nation–what changed?
I was apolitical because I didn’t have information. Whatever was available was pretty much one-sided. I saw the Israelis as soldiers, and I heard from Palestinians, not from books, just from oral histories, and I knew that the situation was larger than us. I’d hear about the British and their role in Palestine. I’d see tear gas canisters that are made in Pennsylvania and used by the Israeli army against Palestinians. But I really didn’t understand the larger picture. The world wars, the Holocaust–I just didn’t understand what happened. The picture was fragmented.
When I came to America, I realized that there was a big picture, and I needed to study it, so I studied journalism and focused on the Middle East. I kept reading until I finally could see things from a much larger perspective. That was so freeing, and suddenly things started to make sense. A more whole and meaningful picture emerged about the situation of the Palestinians and what was happening to us. And then I could see what had happened to the Jews and how that led to the situation in Palestine.