Tasting the Sky: A Palestinian Childhood

Tasting the Sky: A Palestinian Childhood

by Ibtisam Barakat


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Winner, Arab American National Museum Book Award for Children's/YA Literature, among other awards and honors.

"When a war ends it does not go away," my mother says."It hides inside us . . . Just forget!"
But I do not want to do what Mother says . . . I want to remember.

In this groundbreaking memoir set in Ramallah during the aftermath of the 1967 Six-Day War, Ibtisam Barakat captures what it is like to be a child whose world is shattered by war. With candor and courage, she stitches together memories of her childhood: fear and confusion as bombs explode near her home and she is separated from her family; the harshness of life as a Palestinian refugee; her unexpected joy when she discovers Alef, the first letter of the Arabic alphabet. This is the beginning of her passionate connection to words, and as language becomes her refuge, allowing her to piece together the fragments of her world, it becomes her true home.

Transcending the particulars of politics, this illuminating and timely book provides a telling glimpse into a little-known culture that has become an increasingly important part of the puzzle of world peace.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250097187
Publisher: Square Fish
Publication date: 10/25/2016
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 208
Sales rank: 95,422
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.60(d)
Age Range: 11 - 15 Years

About the Author

IBTISAM BARAKAT is a poet and educator who has worked with organizations such as the United Nations to facilitate a dialogue between Palestinians and Israelis. Tasting the Sky is her first book. She currently lives in Columbia, Missouri.

Read an Excerpt


A Letter to No One

1981, Surda, West Bank

Like a bird clawing The bars of a cage And wishing them branches,
But I wish for nothing.

I'm midway from Birzeit to Ramallah, at the Israeli army checkpoint at Surda. No one knows how long our bus will stay here. An army jeep is parked sideways to block the road. Soldiers in another jeep look on with their guns. They are ready to shoot. A barrier that punctures tires stands near the stop sign. I regret that I chose to sit up front.

The window of the bus frames the roadblock like a postcard that I wish I could send to all my faraway pen pals. They ask me to describe a day in my life. But I do not dare. If I told them of the fear that hides under my feet like a land mine, would they write back?

A soldier leaps into the bus. He stands on the top step. His eyes are hidden behind sunglasses, dark like midnight. "To where?" He throws the question like a rock. I pull my head toward my body like a tortoise. If I don't see him, perhaps he won't see me.

He asks again. I stay silent. I don't think a high school girl like me is visible enough, exists enough for a soldier with a rifle, a pistol, a club, a helmet, and high boots to notice. He must be talking to the man sitting behind me.

But he leans closer. His khaki uniform and the back of his rifle touch my knee. My flesh freezes.

"To where?" He bends close to my face. I feel everyone on the bus nudging me with their anxious silence.

"Ramallah," I stutter.

"Ramallah?" he repeats as if astonished. "Khalas. Ma feesh Ramallah. Kullha rahat," he says in broken Arabic. The words sound like they have been beaten up, bruised so blue they can hardly speak their meaning. But I gather them. "There is no Ramallah anymore," he says. "It all should be gone by now."

I search for the soldier's eyes, but his sunglasses are walls that keep me from seeing. I search for anything in his face to tell me more than the words he's just said about Ramallah. What does he mean? Are the homes all bulldozed down? And the people? My father and my family, will I find them? Will they wait for me? Fear is a blizzard inside me. A thousand questions clamor in my mind.

It was less than an hour ago that I took the bus from Ramallah to Birzeit. Now I am returning. How could everything disappear in less than one hour? Something must be wrong with me. Perhaps I do not know how to think, how to understand my world. Today I chose to sit up front when I should have chosen to hide in the back. I should have known a front seat lets one see more of what lies ahead.

I want to open my mouth and let my feelings escape like birds, let them migrate forever. I am waiting for the soldier to step off the bus. But he doesn't.

He counts us, then takes out a radio and speaks. I don't understand, and I am somehow content that I do not. I do not want to know what he says about me or the bus, or what he plans to do.

He switches back to Arabic, takes the driver's ID, tells the driver to transport us all — the old passengers, the young, the mothers, students, everyone — to the Military Rule Center. He means the prison-court military compound on the way to Ramallah. I know where that is. It sits on the ground like a curse: large, grim, shrouded in mystery. In ten minutes our bus will be there.

New soldiers wait for us at the entrance to the compound. One walks to our driver's window, tells him to let all the passengers off, then turn around and leave. The driver apologizes to us. He says if it weren't for the order, he would wait for us no matter how long it took. I wonder if he is afraid to continue on to Ramallah, to be alone when he finds out whether it's really in ruins.

"Wait a moment," he says. "I will return your fare."

But no one can wait. "Yallah! Yallah!" a soldier goads. "Hurry!"

After a second head count, at gunpoint, we form a line and walk to a waiting area. We stand against a wall that faces the main door. The compound feels like the carcass of a giant animal that died a long time ago. Its exterior is drab, bonelike, and hostile.

We take out our IDs. Two soldiers collect them to determine if any of us had been caught in previous confrontations with the army. Our IDs inform on us. The orange-colored plastic covers, indicating that we all are Palestinian, pile up on the table like orange peels.

Two college students, with thick books in their hands, are quickly separated from the group. For a moment, my dream of going to college feels frightening.

"Hands up!" someone says, and one of the two soldiers now chooses the people he wants and inspects their bags, pockets, bodies. He skips the girls and women. All is quiet until he raises his hand to search a teenage boy standing next to me.

Even before the soldier touches him, the boy starts to giggle. The sound breaking the anxious silence is shocking. At first, the giggles are faint, then they grow so loud that soldiers from outside the yard hear and come to see. The boy's laughter is dry and trembling. Worried. I know what he feels. He wants to cry, but in spite of himself, in spite of the soldiers and the guns, all he can do is giggle.

Angered, the search soldier punches the boy, but like a broken cup that cannot hold its contents, the boy continues to laugh. The soldier punches him again. The boy's laughter now zigzags up and down like a mouse trying to flee and not knowing which way to turn. But a kick on the knee from the soldier's boot finally makes the boy cry. He folds down in pain and then is led inside the building.

We stand still like trees — no talking, no looking at one another, no asking questions, no requesting water or trips to the bathroom, no sitting or squatting. We do not know what we are waiting for or why we are waiting.

The hours stretch like rubber bands that break and snap against our skins, measured by the ticking of boots, going and coming across the yard, in and out of the building.

I keep my eyes on our main guard, who now sits by the door. Lighting a cigarette from the dying ember of the one he has just finished and filling his chest with the flavor of fire, he makes frog cheeks and blows smoke rings that widen like binoculars as he glances at us through the smoky panel. He looks at us as though we are only suitcases in his custody

I want to ask him if I can take out a pen and paper. If he lets me, I will empty myself of what I feel. I will distract myself from my hunger, for I have not eaten all day. And I will record details to give to my mother in order to avoid her wrath — if Ramallah is not really gone.

But something in my mind wags a warning finger not to ask, not to do the wrong thing. It's a finger like Mother's, telling me to get home in a hurry, not ever to be late. But I am already many hours late.

Mother tells me not to speak about politics. She is always afraid that something bad could happen suddenly. "Khalas, insay, insay," she demands impatiently. "Forget, just forget." And I do. I know less about politics than do most of my classmates. I never even learned how the colors of the Palestinian flag are arranged. Sometimes I glance at the outlawed flag during street demonstrations. I see it for seconds only, before the hand that holds it is shot at by Israeli soldiers. At times, I see the flag drawn in graffiti on walls. Someone does it at night and leaves it for us to discover in the morning. The soldiers spray over it during the day. Anyone caught with the Palestinian flag is punished.

Mother does not want me or any of my siblings to do anything that could cause us even the slightest trouble with the army. "Imshy el-hayt el-hayt wu qool yallah el steereh," she says. Walk by the wall. Do not draw attention to yourself. Be invisible if you can, is her guiding proverb.

If I see Mother again, I will tell her what happened to the bus at the checkpoint. "Why go to Birzeit?" She will slice at the air with her hands, half wanting to hear my answer, half wanting to hit me.

Birzeit is where students go to college after finishing high school in Ramallah. Some also come from Gaza, Nablus, and other cities, towns, and refugee camps. In Birzeit, many students become active in politics and have fights with the Israeli army. They chant on the streets that they want freedom from the occupation. But I did not go there to chant for freedom. I have my freedom. It is hidden in Post Office Box 34. This is what takes me from Ramallah to Birzeit.

Post Office Box 34 is the only place in the world that belongs to me. It belonged to my brother Basel first. He left Ramallah and did not want to give up the box, so he passed it on to me. On the days I don't go to Birzeit, I bury the key in the dirt under a lemon tree near our house. If I die, the key for the box will be under the ground with me.

Having this box is like having a country, the size of a tiny square, all to myself. I love to go there, dig the key out of my pocket, turn its neck around, open the door, then slowly let my hand nestle in and linger, even if the box is empty. I wish I could open my postbox every day. I feel that my hand, when deep inside it, reaches out to anyone on the other side of the world who wants to be my friend.

Some postal worker in Birzeit must like me, perhaps because I put "Thank you to the postman" on all my envelopes. When many days go by without my coming for letters, I sometimes find a stick of chewing gum in my box. Someone has opened it first, written a line of cheerful poetry, then wrapped it again. Smiling, I skip out of the post office. I chew the line, taste its meaning. Paper and ink, poems and my postbox are medicines that heal the wounds of a life without freedom.

On some days, I wish I could stay inside my postbox, with a tiny pillow made from a stamp with a flower on it. At the end of the day, I could cover myself up with one pink enveloped letter and sleep on a futonlike stack of letters from my pen pals:

Dimitri from Greece. He writes of a Greek holiday called No. I reply that all teenagers in the world should celebrate this day. Dimitri and I argue about baklava. He insists it's Greek. I assure him it is Arabic. Perhaps it is both, we finally decide to agree, since both our peoples love it.

Luis from Spain. He is unhappy for reasons I do not understand. His country is not occupied, and he does not have a strict mother like mine. But I like it that he always writes something about basketball. He says when he gets out on the court he forgets all his worries.

Hannah from Great Britain. What if I wrote "Great" next to "Ramallah" when I send my letter? From Great Ramallah to Great Britain. We would be equals then. Hannah's letters are always egg white, with the queen stamp, which I stare at for a long time. The crowned queen is beautiful. Hannah writes about the trips she takes with her family and the books she reads. She loves Gulliver's Travels and Emil and the Detectives, books that I, too, love, because Gulliver and Emil remind me of myself. Gulliver knows exactly what it is not to be free. And both Gulliver and Emil form fond friendships with strangers.

Sally, a grandmother from America, speaks about eating turkey on Thanksgiving. "Eating a country?" I write back. She explains. And I laugh because Mother dislikes the "Roman rooster," our name for turkey. She would never let one in our house, much less cook it for a celebration.

I have many pen pals: tourists, Holy Land pilgrims, and students who join pen pal programs to see the world through other people's words. Some write only once in a long while. Others write often. But all of them send me scraps of their lives translated into English, which I have been studying for six years, ever since I turned eleven.

In return, I tell my pen pals about my school, friends, teachers, studies. I describe the seasons, the land, the wheat and olive harvests, and the Eid celebrations. Looking into a hand mirror, I describe myself if I don't have a picture to send. Translating many words and sentences, I also write about the Arabic language. I explain that verbs in Arabic form roots that create trees of nouns and word structures. An yaktub means to write. Maktoob means a written letter. Katebah is a female writer. Ala-katebah is a typewriter. Kitab is a book. Maktab is a desk for writing. Maktabah is a library, the place where one finds books. All these words grow from the root verb kataba. Making words in Arabic is like planting a field with seeds, growing an orchard — words hang on the vines like grape clusters, leaves throw shadows of meanings to the ground.

I am eager to answer all my pen pals' questions about language. But when they ask me about my childhood, suddenly I have nothing to say. It's like a curtain comes down and hides my memories. I do not dare part it and look. So I skip all childhood questions and reply only about the day.

Today, I wish I could tell my pen pals that I was going to Birzeit to open my postbox, to meet their words. There were no letters from anyone. Maybe they were on their way, but the postal trucks were unable to get to Birzeit. The roads and mail system here are like our country, broken. Letters are like prayers; they take a long time to be answered. What would my pen pals say if I told them that I am standing at a detention center because I went to open my postbox for their letters?

Now, gazing at the ground under my feet, I remember that I need to make up something ingenious to convince Mother that I did not go to Birzeit to talk to college boys or do anything related to Palestine or politics. I usually cannot convince her of anything. She is cleverer than I am. She is cleverer than anyone I know. Perhaps ten mothers in Ramallah are not clever at all because she has gotten their share of cleverness.

When unsatisfied, she pokes my chest and curses me. To answer her, I write poems about the cruelty of mothers. "What difference is there between a mother and a soldier? None." I underline my answer. "Mothers and soldiers are enemies of freedom. I am doubly occupied."

I post the poems on the wall like freedom graffiti or tuck them in "her journal," a journal that I keep only for my mother. She reads it when I am gone.

Often, however, I write good words in her journal, hoping that when she sees them she will know that I care about her and be gentler with me. "God, I feel terrible for Mother because she works so hard. And I don't know what it is to be a mother in a land filled with soldiers and war. Please make her happy. Take from my happiness if that's the only way to help."

"Liar," she pencils next to my words, then erases it. The faint traces remain. I see them. We never speak about her journal, but we meet there to say the things we cannot say out loud.

My true journal is written with no pen or paper, but in my mind, with an invisible hand in the air. No one will ever find it. When Mother says to come home, I write in my mind that I feel at home nowhere. I want to wander the streets after school, walk forever, walk away from a world I do not understand, a world that tells me daily there is no place in it for me.

And it is not just Mother who is afraid and watches over me. Father does, too. My parents, Suleiman and Mirriam, whom I call Yaba and Yamma, often disagree on things, but when it comes to me, they act as though they never disagree. My father copies his feelings from Mother the way one copies homework. On some mornings, they whisper a few words, then my father pretends to go to work early. But he waits outside until I walk to school, and follows me.

He must want to see how I behave on the streets when I am alone. He does not know that I read him the way I read a street sign, and that I watch for him every day the way I watch for the snipers on top of the large buildings in Ramallah. They, too, watch how we walk and what we do. Without looking at them, we know exactly where they are. When my father walks behind me, as if he thinks he can outwit me, I feel sad. How little he knows me.

"Yaba, why not wait outside until I leave?" I said one morning.

"What for?" he asked.

"So that you can follow me," I fumed. He became outraged and charged after me. I bolted into a room and locked the door.

"Why do you challenge me?" he shouted. I opened the door and walked right up to him. He only shook his head, blamed my defiance on my schooling, and blamed himself for sending me to school.

"You dig your head into your Nakleezi books like a sheep, grazing all day," he said, and sighed, perhaps wishing he, too, could read English books.

I know that my father does not really want to put down my schooling, especially because of the way he treats the word chair, the only word in English he knows. He says it with pride, moves it around in his speech as though to gain a better view of things. He sits on it like it's a throne. Yet it is a lonely chair. My love for language and words seems to come between us. It takes away his authority over me. The books, not he, are my references.

The soldiers are another force that separates us. Father knows that they, not he, are the ones who control every one of us. We are not free to be a family the way he wants, with him a lion in our lives. He is like a lion in the zoo. Any of us can be taken away any day. No one can stop that, no matter how hard he roars from the fenced space allotted to him.


Excerpted from "Tasting the Sky"
by .
Copyright © 2007 Ibtisam Barakat.
Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Title Page,
PART I - A Letter to No One,
PART II - The Postal Box of Memory 1967-1971,
PART III - A Letter to Everyone,
About the Author,
Copyright Page,

Reading Group Guide

Discussion Questions
1. Consider the author's dedication. How does it set the tone for the book?
2. What is your understanding of the conflict in the Middle East? Referring to the Historical Note and resources listed in To Learn More, as well as other Web sites such as The History Channel's "Middle East" site (http://www.history.com/encyclopedia.do?articleId=216411), draft a time line of significant events.
3. Research the Six-Day War. What were the ramifications of the war?
4. Read the quotes the author uses to frame the book: at the start, the translation from the Arabic song "Ya Dara Douri Fina," and at the end, the quote attributed to Philo of Alexandria. What meaning do the quotes have for you before reading the book? After? Why might the author have selected them?
5. The book begins with "A Letter to No One" and ends with "A Letter to Everyone." Discuss why the author addressed them as such and what purpose the letters serve.
6. What does Alef represent to Ibtisam?
7. Why are poetry, letters, and writing so important to Ibtisam?
8. Do you think Abdel Nasser's statement, which Ibtisam's mother repeats, "Freedom of the word is the first prelude to democracy" (p.162), influenced Ibtisam? Do you agree or disagree with the statement?
9. Ibtisam's mother urges her to "Forget, just forget" the war and occupation. What do you think you would do in Ibtisam's place?

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Tasting the Sky: A Palestinian Childhood 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 16 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is an excellent book that I highly recommend, not only to my friends, but to teenagers. I personally think that this book is written so well that the reader is better able to appreciate what is happening to the innocent who are part of the war, through no fault of their own. This book should be put on the MUST READ list in schools.
ctmsjadi on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
In this action packed and depressing biography, a Palestinian girl, Ibtisam Barakat, fights her way through a war she could not control.This starts off as the reader meets a girl named Ibtisam, who is coming home from her postal box, where she writes to her pen-pals, on a bus that is traveling to a Palestinian city called Ramallah. She soon finds herself in an Israeli roadblock, and is sent, with the other passengers, to a military compound. During this time, Palestine was under Israeli influence. When she is at the compound, some soldiers had the chance to search the passengers. Only one went to choose, and he chose a boy. When the soldier was searching him, the boy started laughing hysterically. The soldier then beat the boy very badly in front of everyone and allowed them to go home. When Ibtisam got home you got introduced to her family. Her Father was named Suleiman, her Mother¿s name was Miriam. She also had two brothers named Basel and Muhammad. Her Mother in particular throughout her memory accounts, wasn¿t the nicest person in the world. Her Mother beat her too just like her Father if she had done something wrong. Ibtisam soon apologized for going on that bus to begin with and suddenly remembers the hard times of going through war at age six.Her memory starts out at the beginning of the war. Her Mother was making dinner and they waited for her Father to come home from work. When her Father came home he was running towards the house. He said that the war had started and for Ibtisam to turn back. They soon gathered their supplies and ran into the garden and made a trench. Soon the sirens began to wail, her sister was crying from the loud noises, and they heard many explosions and planes above them. Ibtisam Mother realized that she did not have enough food for all of them, so she gunned it back to the house. Shots buzzed everywhere near her Mother and then she fell down. Her Father came to her and said that the shots had missed. They soon found other groups running away in the woods so they decided to go with them because they knew they weren¿t safe in the trench anymore. When they rushed to get out, Ibtisam was still putting on her shoes and didn¿t realize they had left. She soon ran into the woods after them, but she had left her shoe behind so her foot was getting cut and bruised from the objects on the ground. She soon found her parents and they tried to find refuge elsewhere. From that point on she had loads of adventures.In the book Ibtisam also had a lot of adventures. When she and her family were looking for refuge, her father hijacked a passerby¿s car and banded together with other refuges to force the driver to obey. Ibtisam Mother soon started having a great friendship with the driver¿s wife, Hamameh. They soon found themselves in a safe house for refuges, and stayed there for a week while her father left with the other men to help more refuges. By that point, Ibtisam foot had swelled as big as a melon, so when they left they took her to the hospital.When they were at the hospital, the Doctor helped Ibtisam. He treated her foot by injecting a syringe in her foot and put it into a cast. When the cast finally came off she danced and played in the streets out of joy. Soon after, her parents decided to move to a large school complex for a safer refuge.When the time was right, they all went back to their original home. They noticed that their home was damaged by the war, and bullet holes ravaged the inside. A part of the house that was affected was the roof, which had been blown to pieces, but her father fixed it. Later that afternoon soldiers set up a training camp in front of their home. This made Ibtisam Mother very angry and told Ibtisam Father that they should place them in an orphanage. Out of worry, her father agreed and drove them to the Dar El-Tifl¿s orphanage in Jericho.At the orphanage, Ibtisam¿s brothers were transferred to a boy¿s school called Jalazone Boys School. This made Ibtisam very ang
ctmsjani on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The book Tasting the the sky was a not so interesting read. I found myself blankly read as I went on and when I wasn't blankly reading it still seemed dull. The author did not use words that she could have. If she did she could have really brought the book to life and it would have made it much more tolerable. I would strongly recommend not reading this book In the book Tasting the Sky by Ibtisam Barakat is about a Palestinian child growing up in a country infected with violence, death, and war. In the book the main character of the story is trying to learn and write as much as she can in order to have a bright future. She does this by writing letters to those all around the world and learning about the countries that they live in. In conclusion the book tasting the sky is a book that lacks the enjoyable read experience. It is also not easy to follow and may render the reader confused. the book tasting the sky is a not so good biology about a Palestinian girl.
debnance on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I never considered what would be like for Palestinians to have their land taken away and given to Israel. This book is a memoir of a girl who experienced the war between the Palestinians and Israel. The author writes beautifully and honestly of what it was like to live through the conflict. It's not a diatribe against Israel; it is just the story of a child living through turmoil in her world. I decided to get the book for my school library, though it may be a little too much for all but the upper grades.
mcrotti on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Tasting the Sky, an Arab American Book Award winner for children and young adults, gives insight into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the eyes of a child. The author, Ibtisam Barakat, was just three years old when the Six Days War began, and the book follows her from childhood into adolescence. She recounts being separated from her family and seeing soldiers occupy her neighborhood, among other things, from the perspective of a very young child.This book would be useful for older children (probably middle school age) to learn basic facts about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Libraries could use it in a book club for older children if information on Arab culture is desired. The book is a moving first-hand nonfiction account, and would provide an interesting perspective for young learners.
emgalford on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Barakat, I. (2007). Tasting the Sky: A Palestinian Childhood. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.In Ibtisam Barakat¿s Tasting the Sky: A Palestinian Childhood, the author shares the story of her childhood experiences during the Six Day War. Detained by Israeli soldiers at a checkpoint in the West Bank, Barakat shares her memory of her war-torn childhood. Only three-years-old during the war, she talks about the fear she experienced as she is separated from her family at the beginning of the war. Barakat does an excellent job recalling the feelings and experiences of the war. She also gives a first-hand view of the Palestinian culture. Readers of different times and places can appreciate Barakat¿s story. She gives a first-hand view of a historical event. Her experiences will stand as a testament to the war for years to come. This book is a Arab American Book Award winner for children and young adults.In a school library, this book could be used with a fifth or sixth grade class when teaching about biographies and memoirs. This is a compelling memoir that students will find very interesting. You could also use other types of biographies for examples. This book can also be used as a tool for teaching about the Palestinian culture. The story conveys the author¿s love of her country. Reading this book could give students a new appreciation for the Arab culture.
moonbridge on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Good book for middle schoolers, this is an apolitical story of the displacement of a close-knit Palestinian family during the time around the 6-Day War. Several events are a bit rough for sensitive readers. Adults will wish for a more indepth look at the Palestinian experience.
abbylibrarian on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This beautifully written memoir gives us a glimpse into the childhood of Ibtisam Barakat, a Palestinian refugee. Although Ibtisam grew up in a country ravaged by war, not all of her memories are unhappy ones. She held on to a strong sense of home and family and her love for writing helped her deal with some of the scary things that happened to her. Although a lot of things about her childhood were very different from an American child's, many things were the same. I think this book is a great starting point for introducing the Israel-Palestine conflict and for showing kids that they can have something in common with kids halfway around the world.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Very good book. Talks about the bad wars that most people can't experiece.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
It's a good book but I wouldn't of read it if a class I'm taking hadn't required it.
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This is so awesome i thought in the only one whos last name is barakat!oh ya i didnt read the book i want to tho it sounds pretty intresting