It's a stormy summer afternoon in Columbia, Missouri, when the writer Ibtisam Barakat arrives at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute for a book group discussion. She's wearing boots, a colorful skirt, and large hoop ear rings, carrying a large tray of manakish, a Palestinian traditional flatbread.
Barakat invites the 10 or so older, well-traveled readers to try “a taste of Palestine” while group leader Nancy Farber Browning greets visitors and arranges the classroom chairs into a circle.
The author of two memoirs for young adults (and all ages), published by Farrar Straus & Giroux, Barakat is a poem personified – she talks in metaphors, and her presentation involves pulling symbolic items out of a bag: her father’s prayer rug, salt from the Dead Sea.
These are pieces of her story, objects she brandishes at the group like a Palestinian Mary Poppins. A small microphone reminds her, she says, that she has a voice. And a gift box is a symbol that a person's past, a person's story, no matter how difficult, is a gift to be shared.
Her lace-up boots, she says, remind her of what she’s survived.
On a day when child refugees have been in the news, Barakat spends part of the conversation answering emotional questions about her life as a young girl. Barakat was 3 years old in 1967, living with her family in Ramallah, when the Six Day War broke out and Israeli troops annexed Palestinian lands in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Thousands of Palestinians fled their homes.
Barakat’s family joined the exodus on that day, but Barakat was tying her shoes when she was separated from them and spent a night alone in the chaos. She details the story in her first memoir “Tasting the Sky: A Palestinian Childhood.”
Both “Tasting the Sky” and her second memoir, “Balcony On the Moon: Coming of Age in Palestine,” which was recently released in paperback, tell her story of growing up in Israeli-occupied Palestine.
It’s a place that’s hard to return to, she says, even in her imagination.
“It was crushing that I’d have to go to these memories and dwell on them in order to write them, and slow it down, and try to find words for them,” she says. “At the time I lived them, and I didn’t have words. I was so young I didn’t have words. … And the writing was excruciating.”
Though the experiences in the stories are painful, the books are also adventurous and at times even fun. The Ibtisam in “Balcony On the Moon” is tough, at the top of her class, and challenging the patriarchy. The teen-aged Ibtisam asks bold questions, reads and writes voraciously, and defies her family by getting a factory job between school terms – a move that allows her to leap over financial and cultural constraints to achieve an early taste of boundary-crossing independence.
Farber Browning, who is leading the Osher book group, has spent a career teaching higher-ed courses on privilege and prejudice. She says stories such as Barakat’s “flip the script” of reader’s expectations and perceptions about a people and a place.
“We’re older, we’ve been through a lot and we’re still going to cry over a book that is a middle-grade book,” she says. “It brings something to us.”
After signing books in Arabic and English for the Osher readers, Barakat heads to the mall. At the Falafel Café, she settles in with a cup of tea, spreading a pack of colorful cards in front of her: thank-you notes written by refugee children from more than a dozen countries in Africa, Europe and the Middle East, who had Barakat’s Write Your Life workshop in Wisconsin. Barakat spends about half of her time traveling, teaching those workshops on campuses, in schools, on Native American reservations, and to immigrant and refugee groups all over the world.
What she offers them, she says, is something they already possess: the gift of their imagination. The hardships she endured as a child, she says, “opened up my creativity in an immense way.”
“I was given very little freedom. I was given a lot of hunger in my life — hunger for freedom, hunger for exploration, hunger for respect, identity, belonging. All of this was taken away from me as a Palestinian,” Barakat explains.
“No country, no people, no assurance that we will have food tomorrow. No assurance that we’ll have a house this evening. No assurance that my father will come home. Loss was sitting at the door constantly, threatening to take more and more and more from my life,” she says.
Her imagination, she realized, was something that couldn't be taken away.
The Palestinian story, Barakat believes, is a rarely told story largely because of this barrier.
And while imagination can be a passport, Barakat says the trauma arising from war can be a barrier. This is what she tries to help her students, whether they’re a group of international refugee kids, or a class of older Midwesterners, to overcome. She wants to help them unlock – to “activate” – their past, and the story it holds.
“Trauma inhibits the telling,” she says. “It silences people. The trauma silences the human being. It breaks the sense that people care.”
Because humans allowed the trauma to happen in the first place, she says, it’s easy for people who are traumatized to assume no one cares about their stories.
That’s one reason Barakat challenged Columbia’s Unbound Book Festival to include more diverse voices earlier this year, after revealing that in a 2017 festival panel the moderator was asked to keep Barakat clear of references to Palestine.
Barakat says her life work is about transcending these barriers and connecting. Spending time with Barakat reveals a positive – often joyful – disposition. She says she’s always looking for ways of making uniting the pieces, the fragmentation, that come from her early experiences.
It’s no accident that both of her memoirs – “Tasting the Sky” and “Balcony On the Moon” – invoke the heavens.
“Connecting with the largest picture possible – either through the imagination, or with nature, or looking at the sky, or thinking about history and the past – these are all connectednesses that are huge, that transcend, they tears down walls,” says Barakat. “That makes me tremendously happy.”
Barakat is now writing her third memoir, one that covers her college years, leading up to the time she came to New York City to work as an intern at The Nation magazine. Her goal is to write a series of five memoirs about being a Palestinian in the world, a body of work she hopes will contribute to what she calls “the World Library.”
“What I do with my writing is I rebuild a destroyed world – not in concrete, brick,” says Barakat, “but in concrete images and concrete words. When you begin reading the book, when you go to Palestine through my book, you are a different person. You are a person who visited Palestine.”
Janet Saidi is a freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter at @theradiogirl.