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A boyhood shadowed by the impending fall of Palestine

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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.

Image of the cover of Reja-e Busailah’s memoir. The author is the tall boy at the back. The photograph is the only one of his childhood that his family was able to save when they were expelled by Zionist militias from their home in Lydda, 1948.

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.

This article was originally published by the Daily Star, Lebanon last month. This site has also reviewed Busailah’s book here

Georgia Beeston
About Georgia Beeston

Georgia Beeston is a Beirut-based journalist and works on the Culture Desk at the Daily Star, Lebanon.

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3 Responses

  1. annie
    annie
    June 19, 2018, 4:13 pm

    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.

    this book sounds really fascinating. thank you so much Georgia Beeston. phil has also written about this book a few times, called the book was astonishing, the most recent here http://mondoweiss.net/2018/05/busailahs-palestinian-literary/ i have to read it.

  2. Citizen
    Citizen
    June 20, 2018, 5:56 am

    That photo says so much.

  3. Sibiriak
    Sibiriak
    June 21, 2018, 1:22 am

    Determined to Return

    by Robert Fisk

    […]Few camps could be more vile than the slums of Chatila, where Mohamed Issi Khatib runs his equally shabby “Museum of Memory” in a hovel adorned with ancient Palestinian farm scythes, photocopies of British and Ottoman land deeds, old 1940s radio sets and brass coffee pots – and keys. Just three of them. One, without even a proper bit, was probably used for an animal shed.

    The Khatib family lost their own key (the one I held belonged to the grandfather of a refugee called Kamel Hassan). Mohamed was born in Lebanon, just after his parents fled al-Khalisa, and a few days before the independence of the new state of Israel was declared.

    * * *

    […]The documents and brown passports are familiar to me. Over the years, I’ve read through similar papers, land deeds and passports, usually surmounted by the crest of Mandate Palestine’s British “protectors”, that familiar crown, lion and unicorn, and the imprecation honi soit qui mal y pense – “may he be shamed who thinks badly of it”.

    But shamed we Brits were by all this nonsense. Khatib blames us for the Palestinian disaster, and points to the keys. “You did this,” he says, smiling in complicity because we all know the history of the 101-year old Balfour Declaration, which declared Britain’s support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine, but referred to the majority Arab population as “existing non-Jewish communities”.

    But when I ask Khatib if he will ever return to his “Palestine” – a consummation which many Palestinians have in reality abandoned – he insists that he will, and explains his belief with a long and disturbing and quite chilling argument: that Israel is a “foreign body” in the region which cannot survive, which was implanted from outside.

    He sounds, I tell him, like the former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmedinejad – a crackpot of Trump-like proportions in my view – and I conclude it must be goodbye to the two-state solution if this is how Arabs plan to regard their future neighbours. But Khatib says – rightly, I fear – that the early Palestinian desire for such a solution has long ago been abandoned in the face of Israeli violence.

    So what, I ask, did the Palestinians do wrong in all these years? Didn’t they make any mistakes? “They did,” he says. “Their mistake was to leave, to go out of Palestine. They should have stayed [in 1947 and 1948]. Our fathers and grandfathers should have stayed, even if they felt themselves in danger, they should have stayed on their land even if they died. My mother said to me once: “Why did we leave? I should have kept you with me and stayed with you there.”

    What a bitter conclusion. Many Palestinians did stay. But many others stayed and died – think Deir Yassin – at a time, just after the Second World War, when the West’s sensitivities were blunted by conflict and did not care if a few hundred thousand more refugees were put out of their homes. I understand Mohamed because parents do not always make wise decisions but, if I was in their shoes – holding my front door key – I’m not sure I would have stayed. Anyway, I would have thought I was only going away for a few days…

    I’ve gone back to his parents’ “Palestine” many times, taken some old keys with me to Israel – the locks had been changed, of course – and knocked on the front doors of those Arab houses that remain, and talked to the Israeli Jews who now live in them. One expressed his sorrow for the former Palestinian owner and asked me to pass on his feelings to him, which I did.

    Another, an old Jewish man originally from a city in southern Poland, a Holocaust survivor who had been driven from his home by the Nazis, his mother murdered in Auschwitz, drew me a map of where he and his parents once lived. I even travelled to Poland and found his old house and knocked on the front door, and a Polish woman answered and asked – as Israelis might ask if they thought the Arabs were going to reclaim their property: “Are they coming back?” Polish law gives former Jewish citizens the right to take back Nazi-confiscated property.

    I acknowledge Mohamed Khatib’s need to remind the world what actually happened to the Palestinians. He asks me why I am “pro-Palestinian” and I reply that I am “pro-truth – but I am not pro-Palestinian”. I’m not sure if he understood the point. His parents’ house had three rooms with a stream beside it, he says. His father was a policeman for the British mandate. I Ieave him, though, with the feeling that history stretches out into the future as well as the past, that he will never return and that his little museum and its keys are a symbol of regret rather than hope.

    https://zcomm.org/znetarticle/determined-to-return/

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