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Where Are They Now? With Irene Ghattas

The Between the Lines (BTL) program brings young writers, ages 16-19, to the University of Iowa for creative writing study and cultural exchange. As young people from the U.S., Russia, and 17 Arabic-speaking countries prepare to apply for BTL 2013, we are profiling past BTL alumni in a blog series, Where Are They Now? 

This week, we feature Irene Ghattas of Bethlehem, Palestine. A university graduate and mother, Irene participated in BTL Arabic 2009, when she was 19-years-old and in her second year of university.

IWP: What was your BTL experience like?

Irene: The BTL experience was a unique one. I loved the way the instructors taught their students; it’s completely different from our ways of teaching. For example, my style of writing wasn’t accepted by many teachers in my country because I write what my heart tells me to write, I hold the pen in my hand and start writing without thinking about whether it’s true or not true.  For me writing is about feelings, emotions, passion; it’s not about rules or strike-through lines in red marker. In BTL, I was accepted as I am without rules or restrictions. The best memory I have of the experience is getting to know my friend Laura; she was my roommate. I will never forget meeting my best friend outside my country.

IWP: Had you visited the United States before?

Irene: The BTL experience was my first trip to the United States. I was shocked (in a good way) by the people I met. They were all good readers and they read everywhere. For me it’s different. In our society most people don’t read books, only newspapers. My favorite activity was walking in the street, observing the culture, people, and even nature: trees and squirrels.

IWP: How would you describe your BTL cohort?

I met some of my best friends at BTL.  I still stay in touch with Laura and with Hussein; we all share the same mentality and ideas about the meaning of life. Hussein is from Lebanon, but he is studying in Italy and his continuing his life in a great way. Unfortunately, Laura, who is from Syria, because of the war is now in Jordan searching for a job. I call her from time to time and I tell her to come to my house but she can’t because she is a Syrian and can’t enter Israel. We share the same grief and  the same difficulties in life.

IWP: How have your goals/your writing/your writing life changed since BTL?

My goal when I joined the BTL program was to find a fulfilling way to express my feelings, because every time I write I feel the emptiness of words, no word can voice my own sense of life, which I feel in my heart. After BTL I began to read more than before and now I have my own library in the house where I collect my favorite books. I used to write more, but I don’t have much time now with the baby and housework. I finished university two years ago and am searching for a job, but the economic situation in Bethlehem is poor. I want to work for many reasons: to help my husband and to develop my personality. Sometimes I feel that my dream of life is no more than a lie, all my life I dreamt of being a successful woman in every way, and I was raised to be one. But because of the economic and political situation, and all the pressure on us from the Israeli occupation, our dreams melt a little more every day.

IWP: What advice would you offer to other young people applying to BTL?

I advise the BTL students, once admitted, to invest every minute they have in the program to improving their writing by listening to the instructors’ advice. And I encourage every young student to apply to BTL. It is a great experience that can change your views of life.

This summer, IWP hosts BTL Arabic and BTL Russia. Click here to learn more. BTL is now on Facebook. Visit us!


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