Ibtisam Barakat

Palestinian American

Watch the Video

Ibtisam Barakat on The Arab Spring: Revolution Reaches the Alphabet.

about the author

Born in Beit Hanina, near Jerusalem, Ibtisam Barakat’s life was turned upside down at age three, when Israel occupied the West Bank and East Jerusalem following the 1967 war. “I will never know what my life would have been like without having grown up under Israeli occupation,” says the writer, poet and educator. “This influenced me in every way. And it made me sensitive to all the issues of injustice that exist in the world.”

Growing up with war and occupation is the focus of Barakat’s memoir, Tasting the Sky: A Palestinian Childhood. In 2007, Booklist named it one of the top ten biographies for youth and it was listed as an American Library Association Notable, and in 2008 it won the International Reading Association’s Best Non-Fiction Book Award for Children and Young Adults. After earning her bachelor’s degree from Birzeit University in the West Bank, Barakat moved to New York in 1986, where she interned with The Nation. Later, she earned Masters in Journalism and Human Development and Family Studies, both from the University of Missouri-Columbia.

Barakat taught language ethics at Stephens College. She is the founder of the Write Your Life seminars and the author of Balcony on the Moon: Coming of Age in Palestine. 

The Reading from the Author

Resources & Discussion

Use the following readings and prompts to inspire student writing.



Read Alef, from Tasting the Sky, and watch the video above (under “Watch the Video”) describing language and Alef:

“To Alef, the letter
that begins the alphabets
of both Arabic and Hebrew-
two Semitic languages,
sisters for centuries.

May we find the language
that takes us
to the only home there is –
one another’s hearts.

Alef knows
That a thread
Of a story
Stitches together
A wound.”

Then, read “Generous”

Now You Try

There are two possibilities for inspiring student writing using Barakat’s poetry. One poem could be a “loss” poem based on “Generous.” The other could be a “sign” poem based on her work with Alef. See below for more detail.

Writing Idea for “Generous”


  1. Brainstorm a list of the sort of things that can be lost.
    1. For example: car keys, a thought, innocence…Try to make the lost items quite different from each other.
  2. Look at your “lost item” list and make a new list of your thoughts associated with each item. Do this for about three or four items.
    1. For example under car keys you might list:
      1. link with the road
      2. sign of maturity
      3. miniature saw
      4. backseat trouble
      5. responsibility
      6. access to open space
      7. jingle jangle
      8. remote alarm
      9. access your own private space
      10. metal merged with plastic
      11. never tasted
      12. a certain logo
      13. click against dashboard
      14. neighbors of keys to house, bike, cabinet, bank, P.O Box, office
  3. As you do this, think about sensory details (taste, touch, smell hearing, sight). Think about connections with the past, possible connections with the future, and the impact on today.
  4. With each item on this second list, try to create a new and fresh simile or connection. For example:
    1. The tiny saw roused the engine while it rasped at my mother’s nerves. “Seen my car keys”? he said this with the swagger of  “Now where’s my girlfriend got to?”
  5. Think about what was lost in each poem. Is it obvious what was lost? Who lost it? What impact did the loss have on the subject of the poem or the author?
  6. Look again at your list and decide which might make a good poem.
  7. Write the poem. Read the poem. Think about the sound.
    1. Did you include alliteration?
      1. “Fresh flatfish flipped in froth and foam”.
    2. Was there rhyme? (There needn’t be. Often rhyme can constrain your creativity. Leave it out! ).
    3. What about assonance: This is the resemblance of sound, especially of the vowel sounds in words, as in: “that dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea” (William Butler Yeats). It is the repetition of identical or similar vowel sounds. Consider also:
      1. Euphonious sounds: plangent, soft and mellifluous words.
      2. Cacophonous sounds: harsh, disagreeable combinations of sounds; discord.
  8. Watch out for clichés.
  9. Try to exchange new words for common verbs. What might replace “walk” or “talk”?
  10. Punctuation in poems seems to be optional! End your lines at points that help the reader to establish the rhythm of the piece.

Writing idea for “Alef”

From Florence Grossman’s Getting From Here To There

Among the things we might not ordinarily think of as the subjects of poetry are things like letters and numbers, geometric figures and marks of punctuation, which if you look at them, lead lives of their own. Begin by trying a few letters. Go back in your own mind to how you might have seen these strange marks before you learned to read or write. How would a primitive person have seen them? Look at the letter, number, sign. Write down, as fast as you can without stopping, all of the things you can think of about the sign, even if what you write seems disconnected or strange. Choose the lines you like best for your poem. Write a poem about a letter, geometric figure, a part of speech, a number, a mark of punctuation, or any other sign. Think of these questions:

  1. If it had a voice, how would it speak?
  2. Does it whisper or shout?
  3. Does it have patience? A sense of humor?
  4. Who are its friends?
  5. How does it spend its spare time?
  6. What does it dream?
Student Model "A"

Luggage (Based on the “Generous” writing exercise)

By Natalie

My Grandma’s bag was full like a packrat’s.
She had her presents, photos, and those tiny little shoes
All neatly tucked away in the casual black bag.
It was her luggage.
A bright bow
To make it recognizable.
With her name Anastasia securely attached,
Not knowing that it would be the last time she would see it,
As if it were a banana in a grocery cart
Or a small painting,
The smell of dusty dimes.
The loved, lily scented luggage.
She liked it more when it was lost,
Gone in the Egyptian dust storm
Where the snakes make their nests.
If she could see it again,
It would be a treasure.
The feeling of fresh lip gloss on your lips,
The scent of an orange grove in California.
But no,
It was my Grandma’s luggage
That was lost
Part of the Egyptian sand      

Student Model "B"

Gone (Based on the “Generous” writing exercise)

By Marlena

No more

pills, dentures, catheters, oxygen tanks


piles of unopened mail, cut-out coupons, three-year old TV guides

Never again

the smell of Finnish Braid in the oven, ham cooking that no one will eat anyway


funeral services, sympathy cards, wills

All that’s left are

a few dirty dishes in the sink, a little water in the birdbath, and me


Student Model "C"

Untitled (Based on the “Generous” writing exercise)

By Stephen

Like the waking of the day, it repeats and repeats and repeats,
“If you put things in the same place you will never lose them”
Over and over and over again like the ominous ringing of the phone.
“If you put things in the same place you will never lose them”
I have lost more watches putting them in the same place then putting them in a different place every time. Superman Watches
Batman Watches
The Sponge Bob Square Pants pocket watch I got from Burger King.
An Egg Timer
My Radio
Watches too large to fit my wrist
My mom’s watch
And every time I lose a watch
I spend more time looking for it.
Under the Bed,
In my closet
In my drawers
In the car
My pockets
My sister’s room
In the kitchen
“If you put things in the same place you will never lose them”

Student Model "D"

Untitled (Based on the “Alef” writing exercise)


A seagull skimming the horizon,
struck sideways by a flock of geese.
Hercule Poirot’s moustache,
whisked away by the wily wind.
A chocolate kiss flattened underfoot,
Where did the wrapper go?

The clown’s bow tie,
jaunty and curved.
The pretzel dough tossed and twisted,
caught by floured hands and formed.
The mask of Junior Birdman,
flying upside down.
The blue dyna-band, too taut for its user,
accidentally sprung free.


After he drowned
in the rolling seas
all you could see
was his toupee.


A satellite dish
A half moon
A twisted point of view
Dodging the truth
Bending around the corner to “see”


Two semis racing down the road
On the double yellow line,
Or maybe it was
The railroad’s split tracks.
A child, running up the steep steps
Over the log, across the river,
Two new pencils in hand,
Trying to get to the bunk bed
To sketch the new spring
Blades of grass.


The apple of her eye
The ear of her lover
The reddest rose in the garden
The curl of a vine
The bliss of love
Her scared eye
The eye of the storm
A shocked face viewing
A hole in the ground
The lock on the door, already open
An already turned doorknob
A car wheel in the bedroom
The broken strings of a formally resonating guitar
A broken lamp
Memories of spiraling and dancing across the floors
The final spiral of the falling sparrow
The last clock twirling away the time.


The French man was fixing his mustache in the mirror
Making it curl just above his lips the way he liked it.
He then heard a strange noise from outside
He pulled open his window curtains
And saw a pair of storks kissing.
He quickly grabbed his toupee and stepped outside
But they were gone.
He did however see a bear trap lying on the ground so he picked it up
And put it in the trash
With the metal springs he had found earlier.


“It was the pointy-nosed cashier from the drug store!”
“With the ridiculous bulging chin?”
“And a protruding forehead?”
“Yes, yes, definitely that one.”
“No, no, definitely not.”
“Then who?
“It was the mysterious man with the mustache!”
“That curls down around his mouth?”
“And peaks up below his nose?”
“Of course, of course, him.”
“No, no, certainly not.”
“Then who?”
>“It was the yoga instructor from down the street!”
“Who curves her arms above her head?”
“And points her fingertips towards the sky?”
“Certainly, certainly, her.”
“No, no, surely not.”
Yet none of them noticed
The confused black pigeon
That gave a peck
At the ruckus he’d caused
And calmly flew away.

Student Model "E"


By Tim

A star fallen from above.
Not quite good enough to perch atop this world’s purple-black night sky.
Never again will it shine its light down from the darkened heavens giving an unearthly glow to the slush in the gutters
on a night when steam rises from the manhole covers in the streets
when the only audible sound is a single far-off car driving toward
somewhere else,
and one by one, the lofty skyscraper deities close their illuminated eyes.
It has been banned from the mellow life of a star.
No more can it protect our atmosphere from possible invaders.
No more can it help guide a cold, tired traveler.
It has been assigned to the worldly task of punctuation.
Its sole job to remind us that there is a catch.
Something else we must consider
one last fact.
Yet it still sits just a little bit higher than the other letters,
Waiting for the day when the message will be delivered
That it can return to its life as a star
And calmly sit on top of it all
And watch the world go to sleep.

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