Raja-e Busailah, In the Land of My Birth: A Palestinian Boyhood (Washington, DC: Institute for Palestine Studies, 2017).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Raja-e Busailah (RB): I was, along with my people, forcibly driven out of my country in 1948. That was a painful experience, one which has haunted me ever since. It really wrenched me out of my dwelling and left me rootless. In that country there was much to love and cherish. Perhaps I have written this book to put into words my feelings of happiness, pain, and longing. Certainly, too, exposing what the invaders did was another objective, though the book is much more than their violence.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
RB: The book addresses a number of issues. There are three that pervade it from beginning to end, you might say. One is blindness, naturally with many of its aspects and ramifications. The second is the education of a blind child from school to school. The third is the vacillation between two moods: certainty of victory over the British occupiers and the Jewish threat, and apprehension that we might lose our country and be left homeless. This vacillation continues until the second mood becomes a fact, a reality in 1948.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
RB: I am a poet and have been writing poetry all my life, though I write more than I publish. Much, though not all of my poetry is about Palestine—the Palestine of my childhood and Palestine of the present. A great deal of my Palestine experience is in poems I have written. They deal with much that is in the book—personal and general, events and anecdotes, people, situations, and other things.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
RB: I would like all people to read my book because there is something for everybody, or almost so. I would like the Western readers to learn about my culture, for I believe there is much of that in this book; and, of course, I would like them to know what the West has done to me and to my people. I would like my people to learn about at least some aspects of life in Palestine during a time long gone by. Also, of course, I would like all people to learn about the phenomenon of blindness.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
RB: I am about to complete a book of poems (seventy to eighty of them), which I call Glimpses: Poems of a Palestinian Boyhood. Here I am not sure which is the cause of which—the memoir the cause of the poems or the poems of the memoir. Suffice it to say that the poems in this book all are related to people, events, and situations in the memoir. Needless to say, the relationship is sometimes direct and sometimes oblique. I am also working on what might turn into an essay about Winston Churchill.
J: What do you think is particularly special about this memoir?
RB: As I write in the preface, I have tried, with a measure of success, to write this book using the style and language of a child and allowing these to develop and grow as the child does into boyhood. I have done so in the hope of bringing as close as possible past experiences to the present.
Excerpt from Chapter 8: The Fall of Lydda
It was Tuesday, July 13, between 8:00 and 8:30 a.m. The air was tumultuous. Loudspeakers and voices in the streets increased in number and volume. However, it was nothing but confusion, an anarchy of sound. Our leader, the university graduate, went out of the house and came back shortly. He was bubbling with joy. Salvation had come. They were going to let us go. And we should go, else they would kill us all, as they had done at Dahmash Mosque, in the open air on the road between Lydda and Ramleh, and at the Square. Let us go now to safety, he told us, and we shall return. They can’t take over forever. We should return very shortly. It will not take the Arab armies long before they drive them out of Lydda and Ramleh, out of Yafa and beyond. In a matter of weeks, if not days, we should be back. Most believed this, even in the face of the new reality.
Before we started, our leader called to me from the other room, his voice lively, vigorous, almost jovial. What a metamorphosis from his wailing Sunday evening! But I was too excited to dwell on contrasts now. Near him, I heard the sound of coins. Coins have their unmistakable sound. Coins for what, I could not yet tell. Then he came to me and said, “Here,” placing something in my hands. It was a long, long, rather narrow sock filled with coins. It was heavy. “You don’t mind having this around you on the way, do you?” I did not, and the sock went around me several times. I felt heavy immediately with gold, but I never suspected how the weight would soon grow with maddening acceleration. I was also to carry a suitcase full of clothes, none of which were mine. I had taken nothing with me when I left my house with Haider on Sunday. Haider also deposited his watch in the outside breast pocket of my jacket. All of us were now ready for the march already underway.
We were in the street in no time, by about 9:00 a.m. A crowd was milling outside, and the noise was like a grand hive magnified hundreds, thousands of times. By now everyone wanted out. But this unanimity was achieved individually, person by person. It was spontaneous, unconscious. We were leaderless. Each had to fend for himself and herself. Each, as it were, was his own negotiator with the enemy. The mayor, the sheikh, the priest, the policeman, the soldier, the governor, the general—we had none of these. Each individual became the compression of all of these, a complete entity, as it were. The only thing that seemed to tie us together, this mass of over 60,000 of us, was a fear that fattened itself upon tradition and experience, real and imaginary. I have often wondered since how much our expectation to return was a mechanism of self-deception, an unconscious justification for a behavior that was not guided, and which ran out of control.
The sun was hot already. The street was full of sound and bustle, more of relief than of loss, of disaster, of the misery lying in wait on the road, of the new era being ushered in. First let me go, let me out, and then in safety I will think. There was a long, interminable stream of people. The road was almost bursting with them. Jews were stationed here and there with loudspeakers and guns, loaded and ready. One loudspeaker repeated that we better leave in order to avoid what happened in the mosque. We believed! Another blared that we would come back within a short period. So many believed! Even then, it sounded hollow to me, but at the time I didn’t care.
The mammoth beast raved on, awkward and clumsy as it moved forward. We were a host of atoms in a rising heat, united by discord and trauma. I began to hear of new things. I would pass people lying on the ground, resting in the heat without shade. I would hear them talking of the old father or grandfather left behind because he was unable to continue, and they could not wait. Farther upward, eastward, people said they would pass bodies that might have been without life. Some would throw a cover on a woman’s body. We would pass dead babies and live babies, all the same, abandoned on the side or in ditches. I was made aware, slowly, piecemeal, through exclamations or incoherent phrases, that some who lay dead had their tongues sticking out, covered with dust. I did not see. And that perhaps frightened me the more. Would I make it? I wondered. Later—I think when we reached what turned out to be our destination, the village of Ni’leen—someone talked of having seen a baby still alive on the bosom of a dead woman, apparently the mother. I thought to myself that if I had known, I would have carried the baby instead of the gold. Later, I heard about a Deir Yasin mother seen in Jerusalem with her killed baby on her bosom.
Something had been nagging me dully but persistently throughout the journey, and finally I knew what it was. I was getting heavier as I moved forward. The skin beneath and about my waist was hurting. It was the coins. Why had I undertaken to carry them? If only I could get rid of them. But how could I do such a thing? There were so many of them, hundreds of them, perhaps more, each coin worth five pounds, they said. If I were to throw them away, would they believe me when I told them? But I was getting more tired with each step, until I gave in and sat down on a hot rock, listening to the steps and the voices passing me, the way you listen to one of those interminable freight trains that used to leave or enter the station, moving heavy and slow. I got up, heavier with doubts than even with money, and covered my head with the jacket I had many times been tempted to throw away. If only the sun would go away, if only the thirst, if only the gold. “A flood of gold will be reaching you soon!”
Farther up I lay down again to rest. This time I lay on my back. A woman passed and uttered words of pity, as though over someone already dead. I got up, ashamed and afraid, and was determined this time not to go down voluntarily. Then an idea occurred to me: Why not take the belt off and put it in my pocket? I was afraid that someone might see me do it. But then, what did I care? It turned out to be a good idea for a while, though I had to keep moving the sock from one pocket into the other, left and right. My sides took turns until both were saturated with fatigue. The sock was getting heavier and heavier.
Others, it seems, were less tormented by the burden of gold. I later learned that Imm Su’oodi, an old woman between eighty and ninety years old, had insisted on leaving the city with the rest. Her sixty-year-old nephew, Yousuf Alami, volunteered to accompany her. Before they had covered a mile, however, she was too weak to walk. The nephew took the gold off her waist and moved on, heedless of her calls for help. This was witnessed by Imm Su’oodi’s washerwoman, who told the story. I often wonder if he still had the gold on him when he reached Ni’leen later that night.
I trudged along. The human stream would narrow and widen, narrow and widen. I could not tell whether this was due more to the whim of the road or to the whim of the marchers. At one point the stream of people widened, opening up as though onto a square full of people. A woman lay on the ground kicking and screaming with gruesome hysteria, and the people muttered and wondered. A man led me around her, saying that she had gone mad. She was making improper gestures, and foam was coming out of her mouth. I moved on, but the sound and her voice haunted me for many years afterward.
The sun would not go away. My resistance broke down again, and again I went down, thinking to myself that I might not rise again. While I was in that state, I heard him calling me. He had been ahead of me. It was like being brought back from somewhere horrible. I was not dead. “Do you have them with you?” he asked. I would have loved to say no. I handed the sock to him. He told me to stay where I was until he came back. He wanted to see if he could find any of the Alamis. Ni‘leen, he said, was not far, just one hour’s walk. For me, this was as good as murder. I did not see him again until Ni’leen.