Ibtisam Barakat’s house in Ramallah is made of memories, not stone, she tells us. It is made of birds migrating in the sky, of her mother and father, of the skateboards her brother made from wooden vegetable boxes and of musical instruments shaped from rubber bands. It is these memories which fill the pages of her memoir, “Balcony on the Moon: Coming of Age in Palestine”, which was published in October 2016 and has been shortlisted for MEMO’s Palestine Book Awards.
“Balcony on the Moon” charts Ibtisam’s extraordinary journey from childhood towards adulthood in extraordinary circumstances – the occupation. At the heart of the book is the juxtaposition between them and how Ibtisam navigates the challenges of both.
One year Ibtisam and her family break their fast to the sound of cannons as Egypt attempts to regain control of the Sinai Desert and the Suez Canal. Later, her mother hums victory songs as she cleans the house. What should be normal events in her life – observing a religious festival and cleaning the house – are peppered with the daily realities of living under occupation in the seventies.
Ibtisam’s life continues like this. As she sits her Tawjihi exams – the equivalent to the UK’s A-Levels – a fellow student is crying because she has not been able to study enough. Some high school students known for their activism are arrested by the Israeli army the night or morning before their exams, Ibtisam the narrator tells us, so they cannot complete that school year.
In addition to this the students are sitting an exam prepared by a testing organisation in Jordan and using Jordanian textbooks to study from. However, due to political tension between Jordan and Israel (who determine which textbooks are used) the books are not updated and some sections have been deleted by the Israeli military supervisor.
Weaved between these daily confrontations with an outside force are a number of internal challenges that throw up moral questions for the young Palestinian. Ibtisam’s parents want her to marry but she wants to work; she eventually finds a summer job but must decide whether to continue and earn money or leave and make a stand about the humiliating circumstances they must work under. Her mother, who dropped out of school early to marry, wants to return to her studies but her father is not so keen, worried that it will create an imbalance in their relationship.
Ibtisam confronts universal struggles, such her pursuit of her dream career – writing – mediating between her family members when they fight, as well as her desire for equal rights for women. These cross cultural divides allow the reader to identify with her. At the same time, her desperation to connect with the outside world through pen pals and the lengths she must go to to send a letter to a famous journalist in Kuwait remind us that even the most mundane tasks that we take for granted – licking a stamp and putting a letter in a post box – are a long, arduous and cruel process for Palestinians.