This memoir may qualify as non fiction, but the majority of this 176 page book is told from the perspective of the author when she was three years old, so much of it reads to me as somewhere between historical fiction and autobiography. No matter how you categorize it though, this AR 5.8 book is better suited for middle school and up. I love that this is is a Palestinian perspective of the Six-Day War and the immediate aftermath, but after reading it, I’m not haunted by the atrocities of the Israeli occupation so much as, some of the choices her family made. I got my copy through Scholastic and in excitement, purchased multiple copies that I sadly think will sit in a box as I doubt I’ll find many students that will enjoy this book.
The book is divided into three parts with the first and third being short letters written in 1981, and the second part being the majority of the story taking place between 1967-1971.
The first part is a high school Ibtisam getting detained at a checkpoint after heading out to check a PO Box that she uses to keep in touch with her pen pals from around the world. She reveals what life is like and shares the joy of learning about the outside world from her correspondence, but that she rarely talks about her childhood and her life during the war. Part two is her sharing that.
The Barakat family lives removed from neighbors and a city, but Ibtisam loves her two older brothers and younger sister and at three years old is happy. When war comes, the family decides to run, in the process Ibtisam doesn’t have time to find a shoe, and then she gets separated from her family and swept up with the people running for the caves to escape the bombings. Once reunited with her family, they along with numerous other Palestinians make their way to Jordan and some safety. Safety comes at a cost though and the family is separated as her father leaves to find work. When the war ends, the family moves from the shelter and finds a small room to rent until they can return home.
Once the family returns home, things do not return to normal as the Israeli army begins training near their house causing Ibtisam’s mom to worry constantly in her attempts to keep the children inside and away from the windows. Eventually, the mom takes the children and herself to an orphanage in Jerusalem saying that their father cannot keep them safe. Ibtisam is close to her father and this dramatic change does not sit well with her.
In the orphanage, the boys get separated from the girls and eventually their father promises the mother to build a wall and make repairs to the home and purchase a goat if they come home. They do, and the kids are grateful to be together again. The boys then start school and the goat has a baby and life carries on. Ibtisam grows close to the baby goat and their father promises that he will remain the children’s pet and will not be slaughtered. But, when the boys are 8 and 9 they get circumcised and the feast involves the goat.
The next major event in young Ibtisam’s life is when she finally gets to go to school. Incredibly smart, her mother essentially equates her love for her daughter with her success in school and with that motivation and predisposition to learn and excel, she does very well. One day on the way home, she is sexually assaulted by an older boy, and makes arrangements to always have her brothers with her when walking. Her parents are not made aware of the offense, and don’t seem to investigate Ibtisam’s change in attitude toward school. When an Israeli soldier attempts to assault her mother, the family moves once again and part three is a teenage Ibtisam quarreling with her parents and once again excelling at school.
WHY I LIKE IT:
I like that tidbits of memories are woven together to give an overall impression of the author’s childhood. The book is a quick read and is compelling enough to hold one’s attention. The family is culturally religious, but the book makes a point that the father prays, not indicating that the rest of them do or even know how. I love how the freedom and hope that Ibtisam has comes from learning the first letter of the Arabic alphabet, alef. The love of language and the power found in reading and writing, is celebrated in its reverence to the learning of the letters.
I don’t get the mother, and while I get that war is a horrific time, and she is 24 when Ibtisam is 3 and has like four kids, so her life is definitely not easy, I still find it disturbing to me that she would lose a one shoe-ed daughter, take her kids to an orphanage to live while both parents are alive and well, and be so cold to her daughter. The father seems to be loving to the kids, but he still slaughtered their pet, and I’m guessing culturally circumcisions are done at that age, because that seems incredibly cruel.
War, loss, sexual assault, details about the circumcisions.
TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
I won’t do the book as a book club selection and while I know the book is in many libraries and classrooms I doubt many kids would be compelled to pick it up and read it based on the cover and synopsis on the back. I have a few Palestinian friends that I will ask to read the book to see if they find it an accurate representative of life during the six-day war and even today as it could definitely be used to teach about the region, the conflict, and writing a biography about life for others to learn from.