IN THE LAND OF MY BIRTH: A PALESTINIAN BOYHOOD
By Reja-e Busailah
Institute for Palestine Studies. 2017, $24.95
“In The Land of My Birth: A Palestinian Boyhood,” the new autobiography by Palestinian writer Reja-e Busailah, relates a remarkable story about overcoming the challenges of growing up blind in pre-Nakba Palestine.
Published by the Institute of Palestine Studies, the book emphasizes the power of education in breaking down society’s barriers to the visually impaired as Busailah, through sheer determination, exceeded expectations of him.
Alongside this coming-of-age story, the book depicts ever-increasing British and Zionist threats to the author’s homeland, culminating with the events of May 1948 and his subsequent displacement.
Most of the book is told from the perspective of a young blind boy. Simply written, the book takes the reader through the author’s daily life, underlining the everyday challenges of the visually impaired.
Unable to give visual descriptions, Busailah effectively describes his home in terms of how it sounded, tasted, smelt and felt, slowly and subtly painting an intricate image of Palestine pre-1948.
Most striking in the book’s first chapters is young Busailah’s growth from a blind boy, pitied by many, to a highly intelligent and capable young man, a development achieved through his love of education which shines through the narrative.
From being read Taha Hussein’s “Ala Hamish al-Seerah,” to reciting the poetry from “Al-Aghani,” and discovering Walter Scott’s “Lochinvar,” the book is rich with references to the religious and literary texts that inspired and motivated Busailah to continue studying, despite having to work twice as hard as his sighted peers.
Most touching in the book is the author’s relationship with his father, who in the end is willing to give up everything to send Busailah to university. Beneath the moving interactions and humorous anecdotes is the looming threat at which point Busailah’s entire life came to a halt. The story is imbued with metaphors referring to the Zionist threat, as if anticipating what was to come.
Busailah describes being terrorized by the slaughter of a lamb for Eid as a boy, which he soon associates with the fall of Palestine.
“Fear not the water that makes noise,” he writes, repeating an aphorism his mother was fond of saying. “It is shallow, but beware the quiet water. It is deep.”
A reference to the silent threat of the Zionist settlers on the edge of his hometown of Lydda, Busailah often uses the proverb to allude to the Zionist state that would soon occupy his land.
The endless naming of people, places and events that characterizes the early chapters of the book, can, at times, be trying. Busailah’s insistence on recording them is explained in the final two chapters and the epilogue, which document the period immediately before May 1948 and the subsequent fall of Palestine.
Here it becomes clear that the names, places and details of Busailah’s daily life pre-1948 are a kind of personal testimony, a record of a life that existed and thrived in Palestine before the Nakba.
The epilogue quotes a statement from the Peel Commission, in which Winston Churchill refers to the Palestinian community as a “dog in a manger,” worthy of being replaced by a “higher grade race, a more worldly-wise race.”
It’s here that Busailah’s intensions clarify. In defiance of Churchill and all others who viewed the Palestinian people as inferior, the author documents the people he met throughout his life, highlighting their intelligence, drive and determination which not only allowed them to achieve great things in their own lives, but helped Busailah realize his own as well.
In the light of U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to move of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem on May 14, a day before the 70th anniversary of the Nakba, it seems that Busailah’s documentation of Palestinian life before 1948 has never been more important.
“In The Land of My Birth” is published by the Institute of Palestine Studies and will be available in all major bookstores in Lebanon.