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There aren't many books on the Palestinian situation available for children, and fewer still that are memoirs. I actually managed to pick up and read Ibtisam Barakat's, "Tasting the Sky: A Palestinian Childhood," without ever realized that it was more than mere historical fiction. As a bilingual author and poet, Ms. Barakat could have written a straight up autobiography, but somehow the memoir is just as moving and intense a portrait as anyone could ask for. It gives her struggles a weight, balance, and arc that wouldn't necessarily belong in a standard series of personal facts. Tracing her life from just before the Six-Day War when she was three to her state as a teenager, Ibtisam remembers her struggles in an occupied Palestine and draws strength from her past.

Facts guide Ms. Barakat's pen, and the horrors of the Six-Day War speak louder than anything else. If dehumanizing occupation is inherently political, then yes, there are politics in this book. More than anything, though, I was struck by Ms. Barakat's ability to write without pointing fingers or blame. Her primary goal is to attain peace in the land of her birth. Mentions of things like bulldozers are only brought up in the beginning. In the past, Barakat will show small beautiful things, like a fig tree with a single early ripe fruit on it. There is no mention of what might happen to that tree in the future.

The prose itself is pretty good too. An Israeli soldier butchering his Arabic pronunciations makes, "the words sound like they have been beaten up, bruised so blue they can hardly speak their meaning." When shouting down a well she says, "We called out one another's names; the echoes returned to us as though our voices had grown older than we were." I liked that the teenaged Ibtisam felt so claustrophobic under her mother's attentions that she wrote, "Mothers and soldiers are enemies of freedom. I am doubly occupied." You learn things too. At one point we learn that the Arabic word for "imagine" is "batkhayyal" which means, "to see the shadow of a thought."

Of course, you want to know more. If we understand that this book is a fictionalization of Ms. Barakat's own life then we want to understand how she came to be a resident of Columbia, Missouri after a childhood as a refugee. The answer to this lies in two parts. In a final note in the book that reads "Giving Back to the World" she writes, "Without the help of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency ... millions of other children and I would not have gone to school or learned to read, write, and use our pencils to clear a tiny path through the wreckage of refugee life..." Later in the backflap of the book we learn too that the author, "grew up in Ramallah and has a degree in English literature from Birzeit University in the West Bank. She came to the United States in 1986 for an internship at The Nation magazine." Considering the number of starred professional reviews (at least three as of this review) "Tasting the Sky" has received already, not to mention its inclusion more than a few Best Books of 2007 lists, Ms. Barakat might wish to consider penning a sequel to her story. Perhaps one that follows her heroine through her tricky years of a teen. Such a novel might make for a lovely companion to Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis, if nothing else.

Given the subject matter, I was intrigued by the suggested reading list at the back of the book. Barakat deals with some difficult issues, and I wanted to know which children and teen books she felt would best complement her own take on the conflict. The list consists of seven selections, both books and films, each one discussing the nature of peace and how to attain it. Each one also gives voice to the Palestinians living in the region, most also offering an Israeli perspective as well.

For many kids, the conflict in Palestine is a difficult topic to grasp. That probably goes for teens and adults as well, I'd wager. What Barakat's book offers is a modest introduction to the history behind some of the troubles via her own personal history. People who would like to include this in a unit for teenagers could consider pairing it with Joe Sacco's graphic novel Palestine for a more recent look at the problem. We may or may not see an answer to the hostilities in an occupied Palestine in our lifetimes, but at the very least we can know that there are voices out there like Ibtisam Barakat who are striving for a peaceful solution. As she says at the beginning, "Many countries have an intense involvement with the Israelis and Palestinians. But the approach of siding with one group or the other, caring about only one rather than both, seems to add to the strife." Let's hope she has more stories in her to tell.
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on March 12, 2007
"Tasting the Sky: A Palestinian Childhood" is splendid. Like Annie Dillard's "An American Childhood," the writer travels back to that vantage point of childhood that we all are hungry to remember. The young girl in "Tasting the Sky" has a quiet eye that takes in the world with poetic intensity. And although she starts her story with a wrenching episode of abandonment, this girlchild of war does not react with despair or hate. Instead, like children everywhere, she finds fountains of strength in the tiniest of corners, in the friendship with a goat, even by making an imaginary friend of a piece of chalk. Like this piece of chalk, this little girl is so short and easy to overlook. And, like the piece of chalk, she can be huge as she seeks to create and save a world through her writing, so beautifully employed in the service of memory, healing and peace.
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on April 17, 2007
Ibtisam Barakat's "Tasting the Sky," is written with both a backward glance toward lost innocence, and an eye toward the future, as she offers her hope, extended without reservation, for a just and lasting peace for all people in Palestine/Israel. Her words describe what she saw with her eyes and felt with her skin as her childhood erupted in the violence of war. Despite the shattering of any remaining innocence by being hauled into a detention center during her high school years, Ibtisam responds without malice or hatred. She became determined to succeed in obtaining her education, and she has triumphed with her bittersweet memoir. She has somehow recaptured the elusive innocence of her youth , nurturing her memories, fond and stark alike, into letters, (like alef, the first letter of the Arabic alphabet) and then forming the letters into words that are coaxed onto the page. Barakat's yearning to tell her story was formed at a very young age and has become a reality in "Tasting the Sky," despite all the obstacles and hardships she faced growing up under illegal military occupation. Her memories are rather like the wild, red poppies that push their way up through the thin, rocky soil of the olive groves in the hills surrounding Ramallah....they are beautiful and delicate, with odds against their surivival, yet they are indomitable! Having recently journeyed to Ramallah and surrounding villages, the images conveyed in Barakat's gently-woven tapestry of language were all the more vivid and compelling. What a pleasure to read it and to see hope and future possibilities for her homeland through the author's eyes.
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on March 9, 2007
Tasting the Sky is an unforgettable story of love, hope and hardship. It is a spectacular testimony to the power of the human spirit. This book is written with an inspiring sense of empathy and humanity. Although there are many heartbreaking moments in this story, due to war and loss, this is a book that is written without a hint of blame. The narration is so incredibly beautiful that it took my breath away. And the girl in Tasting the Sky finds the place within herself that so many of us spend a life time searching for. I did not want this book to end. I look forward to hearing more from this brilliant author!
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on April 25, 2007
A truly exquisite book. The words weave together experiences and feelings in amazingly beautiful ways. Hearing her story of humanity in the midst of harshness is very hopeful. She doesn't pull any punches, yet shares her story without blaming.
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on June 27, 2011
I just finished reading this exquisite book by a writer I met 10 years ago at a writing retreat for women. Ibtisam struck me then as an exceptionally vibrant and talented young writer who gave me her favorite book of poems by Hafiz. She had just begun writing her memoir, Tasting the Sky, at the time so it was with delight I read that it had been published. The stars must have been dancing around this young woman as she wrote because her words sing across the pages, even while narrating the traumatic experience of fleeing her home at the age of 3 1/2 during the Six Day 1967 Arab-Israeli War, when she was separated from her parents and walked for days in bleeding bare feet before finding them. This is a story of a closely knit family who manage to gather every joy to be found as they struggle to rebuild their lives and make a home. Two loving brothers, a doting and dedicated father, the lively young girl herself and her strict but caring mother share a generosity of spirit and hopefulness that lifts what could be a story of victimization into one of ongoing hopefulness, and yes, forgiveness.
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on March 11, 2007
This book is wonderful, sad, heartening, and just plain lovely. I was so moved by it, I bought 4 copies to pass on to friends. My best friend picked it up today and couldn't put it down. I want everyone to read it.
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on March 25, 2007
Tasting the Sky is absolutely marvelous! Rarely have I read anything so compelling in its grace, beauty, poetry alongside such depth of human experience. I will share this book with friends as widely as I can."
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on April 28, 2007
Barakat, Ibtisam, Tasting the sky: A Palestinian Childhood, FSG, 2007

In this very touching memoir, the author describes the hardships her family endured during the six-day war with Israel in 1967 and then her subsequent existence growing up as a refugee in an occupied homeland. The story is gripping as it presents both the difficult and the hopeful aspects of her life; she remembers the fears and turmoil but also the joy of learning to read and write and the promise these skills held for her to navigate her way out of Ramallah to a future of possibilities. She corresponds with pen pals from other countries, "Paper and ink, poems and my postbox are medicines that heal the wounds of a life without freedom." She describes poignantly her relationship with her parents: how her father recognizes that Israeli soldiers rather than he are truly in charge of their family life, and that his authority over her is diminished. "My love for language and words seems to come between us" as books become her "references" and her world begins to encompass so much more than his. She describes how her mother copes with their situation by being harsh with her. They only seem able to communicate in writing. Her mother says, "When a war ends, it does not go away...It hides inside us...Just forget!" Itbitisam chooses not to forget but instead to remember. In one of her poems, she writes, "I reach for the raft of remembering. Where the small girl I once was stands alone...and awaits the day when she will find her home by asking her heart to take her there". We are invited to share in her memories, and by so doing, acquire insight into the tragedy of the forcibly evicted Palestinian People from their homelands. This book is a quick read that holds a powerful punch. Every library should have at least one copy.
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on March 23, 2007
This book was written by a genius. Her prose is poetry. My husband and I are reading Tastng the Sky outloud to each other. This is our second reading. I gave this book to many of my friends, and plan to do more. A must read. I want to thank Farrar, Straus and Giroux for publishing this wonderful book.
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