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.
I used to think that the whole world was against the Palestinians, every last person. That was the image that was presented to us: You are isolated, you are alone and the whole world is against you. You do not deserve to be free, and human rights do not apply to you.
But when I came to the US, I saw that not everybody was against the Palestinians. Life proved textured, though there was a big political direction that the US was taking and it was mainly disrespectful and unkind to the Palestinians. But still, the whole picture was far more colorful, more hopeful. I felt that if the Palestinians knew that there are at least a few people who cared about us with all their hearts, there would be a better conversation.
And that’s what I’m aiming to create with this book.
What was it like working at The Nation?
I liked it that those who worked at The Nation were thinking about larger issues and were concerned with what was happening in other countries. So I felt at home, because people seemed to know about Palestine, Israel, Nicaragua, which was big in the news then.
I fell in love with the practice of fact-checking that all interns had to do–that someone can make a phone call and get accurate information, then cross-check that information as well, was so shocking and entertaining to me.
It’s the total opposite of the situation of Palestinians living under occupation. There, people would be taken into detention for months and one could not get any information about them. Some Israelis said about Palestine, “This is a land without a people,” and I would have loved for someone to have fact-checked that! Growing up, sometimes I felt that we lived on rumors, and that even our very existence was turned into a rumor. But I am putting my life into written words. I can fact-check my very existence.
Though I did not have a comparative sense of journalism in America, I sensed that The Nation was a place of leadership, moving forward with openness and curiosity, and my fellow writers were challenging the blind spots, their own and also the country’s.
Have you been back to the West Bank?
Yes, I went back first in 1997 to co-teach a journalism course at Birzeit University, and then in 2005 to moderate at a conference with the Faculty For Israel/Palestine Peace. It’s difficult for me to go back to the West Bank because I come back to America traumatized with the level of dehumanization I see. Palestinians’ most basic human rights are violated, and I come home to America where people are so removed from the reality of living under occupation and possibly cannot imagine it.
It is sad how the world lives on misinformation until great violence is carried out extensively. The Holocaust was played down and the Jews were blamed until 6 million people perished. And with Palestine, as well as with many other places too, the world stands silent, or settles for not knowing, or just blames this or that group, until big, indelible wounds are done. There is really no one to blame since everyone has suffered greatly one way or another. But I think we can find ways to prevent the destruction of human beings. First it’s necessary to claim everyone as our people.
How has the landscape changed since you left in the mid-1980s?
It has changed. Sometimes I feel it’s like seeing somebody who has gotten so beaten up that you can’t even recognize them. Many things have happened. There are huge numbers of settlements on tops of hills, and roads that the Palestinians can’t cross even though these roads are on their own lands. Only the settlers can cross. And there’s the wall, twice as high as the Berlin wall used to be, and in some areas of the wall the sun disappears one hour before actual sunset. It’s almost like one hour of the light is lost daily. There is a recent study by Dr. Eyad El-Sarraj of Teenagers in Gaza, which said that many of the teenagers think that they don’t have any reason to live.
As far as you can tell from your visits, how has daily life changed for the average Palestinian since you were growing up there?
I grew up before the first intifada, and so the society was tightly controlled. It was illegal to have a Palestinian flag or to draw it anywhere, to have a book on Palestine or anything that was remotely political. The Palestinian economy depended on the Israeli economy and many Palestinians worked as laborers in Israel, even building Israeli settlements on Palestinian lands. The educational system was largely an imitation of the Jordanian system, but with Israeli censorship for books and what could be taught or not taught. There was a strong sense of isolation from the world.
Now, daily life is much harder than before. The Oslo Accords failed, and that led to the outbreak of the second intifada and then the building of the wall. President Bush required the Palestinians to have elections, which they did. But Europe and the US were not pleased with the outcome of the elections that put Hamas in a leadership position, and so they then placed sanctions on the entire Palestinian population in the West Bank and Gaza. So daily life now is a much harsher experience.
What are your feelings on the various political solutions proposed to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
I think a genuine solution must be humanistic as well as political–an ethical solution rooted in the desire to create caring reconciliation. Both Palestinians and Israelis have suffered greatly and need a home, freedom and safety. I think that countries that support Israeli occupation are not true allies of Israel. The long-term survival of the Jewish people in Israel as well as the Palestinians requires the cultivation of goodwill and a just peace that acknowledges the history of both peoples and respectfully addresses their needs, aspirations as well as their fears.