Reja-e Busailah has lost two dear parts of himself over the course of his lifetime: his sight and his homeland.
In his autobiography, “In the land of my birth: A Palestinian boyhood”, Busailah documents his childhood in the lead up to the loss of Palestine in the 1948 Nakba and at the same time offers the reader an insight into what it is like to be a young boy who often feels different to his friends because they can see and he can't. His memoir is a moving window onto the struggles of boyhood, his relationship with his family and the fight against foreign occupation.
The most vivid memories recounted in “A Palestinian boyhood” are Busailah’s descriptions of everyday objects that the sighted might take for granted, or miss, because we are too focused on the visual world. A newspaper smells much stronger than a book, he tells us, and it is possible to tell the size of a room by its echo. Busailah enjoys the smell after the rain and of bread and olive leaves burning on the fire when Uncle Muhammed bakes bread.
When his mother uses the analogy of a peeled, hard-boiled egg to describe a face that is not quite right Busailah notes how at odds he is with the sighted. For Busailah this doesn’t make sense because a peeled egg feels soft, smooth and ultimately pleasant.
These observations are often tempered by Busailah’s awareness of the difference between the sighted and the blind. As he puts it, hearing and touching are “inadequate substitutions for vision. Often, if not always, they seemed not to tell the whole story. Sometimes they even told a different story from what vision told”; “my mother’s eyes proved smarter than my ears,” he says one day when she stops him crossing the road in front of oncoming traffic.
This sometimes turns to resignation or longing, for example that he shall only ever hear about the sky, the moon and the stars. Busailah prays to God to make him less blind.
In the background of the autobiography, like the crackle of an intermittent radio, is the British occupation of Palestine and the effect it has on Busailah’s life, the intersection of the personal and the political. His mother goes into labour with his youngest sister Laila and his father is not able to go out and fetch the midwife because they are under curfew.
The British uproot crops, blow up people’s home with dynamite and torture and hang prisoners. Their school curriculum dominates the education system, with a bias against Arab culture and Islam, and Busailah learns more about British geography than that of any other Arab country.
They continue to try to humiliate the Palestinians, for example his father is forced to rent their house to the British, and yet the rebellion against them grows. On their execution day three Palestinian prisoners argue amongst themselves over who will walk to the gallows first – this is a moment of collective strength and one which mirrors Busailah’s character as it is portrayed throughout his autobiography.