Growing Up Amid Unrest in Palestinian Writer Ibtisam Barakat’s ‘Balcony on the Moon’ by Kate Hannigan
One of the most endearing images in Ibtisam Barakat’s beautifully written memoir Balcony on the Moon: Coming of Age in Palestine (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) is when 13-year-old Ibtisam and her little sister, Mona, watch Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci win gold medals at the 1976 Olympics.
“On the inside of our closet, Mona and I have taped pictures of girls and women we admire. We add Nadia’s picture to remind us it is good for a girl to be daring. We put her next to a drawing of my favorite scientist, Marie Curie, and of Mona’s hero, Florence Nightingale.”
Like so many young girls around the world, I watched that same mesmerizing gymnastics display with my sister and felt similar stirrings. Throughout Balcony on the Moon, Barakat taps that universality while at the same time powerfully highlighting the very unique differences of growing up Palestinian in the Israeli occupied West Bank.
The book is laid out in five parts that correspond to the family’s moves to five different homes and picks up where her debut memoir, the award-winning Tasting the Sky: A Palestinian Childhood, left off. Balcony on the Moon follows Ibtisam’s adolescence in Palestine from 1972-1981 and chronicles her impressive drive to be a writer while exploring themes of equal rights and education for girls.
Few authors other than Naomi Shihab Nye (Habibi, 19 Varieties of Gazelle) chronicle this tumultuous part of the world. For teachers and librarians seeking multicultural voices and embracing the #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement, Barakat’s titles are a must. Her writing is both poetic and clear-eyed, and often quite humorous. Her family’s despair over Palestinian life is presented in a matter-of-fact way, but many lines reveal Barakat’s keen sense of humor: “Being the first to do something is one of Mother’s special pleasures in life. The Presto pressure cooker sitting in our kitchen is one example.”
Educated at schools run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, young Ibtisam memorizes the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and invokes any of the 30 rights whenever she feels her parents are encroaching on her dreams. As her mother makes the shocking revelation that she intends to return to school to try to complete her education, Ibtisam personalizes it for her: “The Palestinian woman named Mirriam who is married to the man named Suleiman has the right to an education.”
Her little sister tells her “being Palestinian teaches you to be ready for any destiny.” Ibtisam’s embrace of education and drive to connect with other writers—whether penpals or magazine editors—prepares her for this destiny, opening doors to a future beyond the bleak streets of the West Bank.
After reading Balcony on the Moon, I wanted to learn more about Barakat’s life and journey. What follows is a brief Q&A. If your classroom is interested in reading Balcony on the Moon, comment below for a chance to win one of three copies! And if you’d like a school or Skype visit, message Ibtisam Barakat here.
Question: Your love of language and poetry is clear in every word in your books. What things did you do as a child that cultivated this love of words and their many shapes and forms?
Ibtisam Barakat: As a young person, my love for language kept my mind focused on exploring what I loved—words. I adopted the alphabet as my family, each letter became a family member. I memorized words and was excited to take them to new experiences in new sentences and paragraphs. I pulled out small words from big words. I asked questions such as: Why does the word “believe” have a lie at its center? In the absence of safe home at times of conflict, language became my forever safe and greatly loving home that I took with me everywhere.
Question: Books open windows into worlds we wouldn’t otherwise know. Would you agree that they are more important now than ever?
Ibtisam Barakat: Yes; we need books now more than ever because the book is a peace-maker between peoples and nations, often introducing them peacefully to each other and taking them to each other’s homes, hearts, and minds. They also answer questions about everyone. And books change people. On the inside, the person who begins a book is not the same person who finishes that book. The person who finishes reading a book is changed a bit or a lot. If we had passports with visas for our inner worlds, one would see how greatly more diverse the reader’s inner world is compared to the person who does not take journeys through books. I love libraries because they are like airports. Each reader is a passenger, each book a plane. Each reading journey and is a going somewhere outside of our familiar ways of being. Reading is a beautiful journey of constant becoming.
Question: Your desire to make connections with other people through your art of writing seems to drive you. What advice do you have for young people who have that same drive?
Ibtisam Barakat: My writing is my path that helps me to know and connect to myself honestly, and also to connect to humanity in meaningful ways. For all ages, not only for the young people, I would say: Please pay attention to what genuinely moves, drives, and inspires you to explore in courageous and constructive ways. Do that and never ever lose the joy of answering your calling. Remember how it was when you were a child and you drew your first picture and ran to show that to everyone with great joy? This thread of creating courageously and freely and sharing with others in great joy, can continue throughout our lives. It continues for me as the creative words I write set me free and hope to do so for the reader who experiences my words.
Kate Hannigan writes fiction and non-fiction and loves researching people forgotten by history. Her middle-grade history-mystery The Detective’s Assistant, inspired by America’s first woman detective and the Pinkerton Detective Agency, received a coveted Nerdie Award. Visit her online at KateHannigan.com.