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Sorry to be a party pooper
on July 14, 2010
Sorry to be a party pooper and bring down the ratings for this book. In truth, I wish I could give it three and a half stars, or maybe even three and three-quarters, but I can't quite go to four stars.
The book is very important in many ways. It is beautifully written and very moving. And it helps to fill a knowledge gap that I'm sure I share with most of the world, or at least most of the Western world - understanding of the situation in Palestine and how it affects ordinary people. For those reasons alone, I highly recommend the book.
But yet I have some concerns that keep me from giving it a higher rating. First is that the book implies (if not outright states) that it is an account of Barakat's childhood as impacted by the 6-Day War and resulting life as a refugee. Which it is, to a large extent. But several of the most formative experiences Barakat describes in her early life are only tangentially, if at all, related to the war and the occupation. Most of her life is formed - as is most everyone's life - by the influence of her family and the events within the nuclear structure and the local community. While the war and its aftermath are certainly a large reason for the loss of young Ibtisam's innocence, probably the biggest single factor in that loss (at least as described in the book) is the events surrounding the circumcision of her older brothers (that chapter, frankly, left me feeling more nauseated than even the chapter about fleeing from the Israelis and getting separated from her family). While the book is no less interesting or important when it simply reflects ordinary Palestinian life, I do think there is a bit of misrepresentation in tying everything to the war and the occupation.
My other concern is structural, but I'm not sure there was a better way that Barakat could have written the book. The flight from the Israelis and separation from her family is in many ways the climax of the book - certainly the most riveting part. Having that portion come so early left a rather flattened feeling in the rest of the book. The rest of the book is simply the story of a refugee girl who overcomes a challenging situation through her love of learning. Again, not that that story is any less interesting, but it's simply not the story we started with. Obviously, given the actual chronological events, it would be difficult to have the flight scene come at the end of the book without unreasonable contrivances, but nevertheless, I ended the book feeling somewhat disappointed.
As many other reviewers have pointed out, one of the most important aspects of the book is the lack of politics or blaming. It is simply an account through the eyes of a young girl recounting her experiences growing up in Palestine. Barakat's focus is on peace and understanding. She recognizes that both sides have valid views, but that both sides are harmed by the occupation. In that context, her book in invaluable as one of a growing number of voices - both Israeli and Palestinian - speaking out about their experiences and striving for mutual understanding. I especially appreciate her suggested reading/viewing list at the end of the book, and have already ordered two of those titles.