Living conflict, writing peace

By Ibtisam Barakat

My story with art started when I met Alef, the first letter of the Arabic alphabet. That was in the aftermath of the Six-Day War. I was at a school-turned-shelter, and there was a chalkboard.

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Chalk and dust from which Alef was born gave me a lasting link to the creative process. And the messy nature of dust that Alef lived in mirrored my own untidy and dusty life. I found a friend, who was like me—small, playful, a refugee from paper to paper, having no home. But Alef would never leave me and would always listen.

As a grown up, writing became the center of my life. It gave me my voice, and helped bridge my inner world to the larger one around me. I see two kinds of writing: one with pen on paper, and one with actions on life. Both are tools for leadership through understanding. Both reveal to me the contents of my mind and heart—what I should learn or unlearn.

Last spring, my book Tasting the Sky: A Palestinian Childhood, was published. The war and growing up under occupation had broken my world. I used writing this book to pull many pieces of my childhood together.

The response to Tasting the Sky has been as gratifying as the experience of writing it. Readers from a wide variety of backgrounds, including Palestinian and Jewish, expressed their appreciation for a story that kept its gaze on humanity. I spent last year traveling and speaking to audiences.

Among the many questions audiences asked was the recurring: what can people do to solve the conflict in the Middle East?

My thinking about this issue is highly informed by the art of writing and story, a discipline that requires the presence of a clear narrative, dialogue, voice, realistic characters and careful word choice. It’s an art that encourages respect for and empathy with all members of the story, in order to make room for their voices, narratives and personalities. If our story for the Middle East is to arrive at peace, the plot must cultivate peace in the lives and hearts of all its characters.

I hope that Tasting the Sky contributes to the Palestinian narrative, which has been glaringly absent from America’s story about the Middle East. The majority of books on Palestine are rather political and do not emphasize culture, art, creativity, beauty and education. They are devoid of the rich humanity of the Palestinian. This absence has led to an imbalance of perspective, and a muddled understanding of what it actually takes to affect healing and positive change in Israel and Palestine. It has therefore created a climate of hopelessness, and limited the possibility of a constructive discourse.

Ending the occupation is a key step toward ending the conflict. Palestinians need freedom from being occupied, and the Israelis need freedom from being occupiers. But alone, ending the occupation will not bring long-term peace. What’s needed is a broad perspective that regards – with complete respect and equal measure – the humanity of both Palestinians and Israelis. We must offer our stories to one another without blame or attack, but with a desire to understand that the pain of our harsh histories has made it difficult to see the possibilities. We’ve been unable to see that kindness is the shortest path to both peoples’ dreams.

In exchanging stories, Palestinians will see what the Holocaust meant to the Jews, and the Israelis will see what the Nakba meant to the Palestinians. We will discover that we have similar feelings and struggles, that there is nothing wrong with either the Palestinian or Jewish peoples. What is wrong is the oppression, be that of the Holocaust, the occupation, or any violation of humanity. And together we can work to repair our world by sharing our truths like we share food—nurturing trust and friendship in our communities.

Above all, stories build empathy, which is at the heart of all ethics: do unto others as we would have them do unto us. Perhaps Alef, the first letter of both Arabic and Hebrew, can lead the way to our hearing one another, and healing one another. Perhaps together we can master more and more the art of humanity, as we tell our stories of waiting and hoping, of doing our best, of despairing, and then of working together to restore trust—writing on paper and on life with an alphabet of kindness and long-term peace.


* Ibtisam Barakat is an author, poet and educator. She grew up in Ramallah, West Bank, and came to the US to intern at The Nation magazine. She has taught language ethics at Stephens College, and is the founder of Write Your Life seminars. Ibtisam can be reached at This article is written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at

This article is part of a special series on Art and Conflict, which surveys the work of art in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and examines the political dimensions of art in general.