In his ninetieth year, Reja-e Busailah looks back on growing up in a small Palestinian town in the 1930s until the turbulent upheaval of 1948, when over 700,000 Palestinians were expelled from their homes by the Israelis, and the author was forced to join the Death March from Lydda. Although blind since infancy, Busailah recalls with stunning detail a boyhood shaped by disability, education, family and friends, British soldiers and Zionist settlers. Poems of a Palestinian Boyhood is an extraordinary book: unapologetic, unflinching, raw and beautiful.
for Mutih Hand in hand they stand at the corner his crisp and dewy hers wrinkled like a ringed bark they stand at the last crossing after the long march they see the yet unseen and hear the unheard at the corner it is cold but exceptionally quiet and clear abruptly his hand shakes loose from hers the lights across beckon the sounds of rejoicing urge he skips like the shunnar of the land rolling up time and distance in order to gain the other side achieve another age she follows slowly, determined the hallowed oak on her back and the primeval evergreen he looks back for her for the last time her eyes after him before him beyond him on the rainbow decorating him white, black, red, green suddenly the flash the din and the dimness through the eye at the birth of dawn instantly the fall in the dizzy drains of darkness at the very threshold of the new state, root and bough torn apart on the verge of bloom torn with the spite of an age losing out it was said the mother of that dawn could no longer make sense since his fall fall of leaves on their own turf kneaded in blood and earth they enshrine the sacrifices of the generations they raise and make fecund the sunrise.
During the Palestine uprising against the British Winter’s free winds and its naked limbs touch and make merciless moan, yet they give the lull to every mother’s sleep; In spring the neighbour’s dog howls, gloom spreads intimate in the night, and haze lies still, suspended between earth and sky; The dog howls all night long again, it rocks the sleep of bird and beast; in time of spring a poor dog knows more than he should: The engines growl low as they glide into the third night, the boom and rattle silence the prattling throat, they sail away roaring a song of shattered hearts; Through apple blossoms, the mercy machine wails in; before the dew dies, it wails away to bring them back neither to winter nor to spring.
On the hanging by the British of Sheikh Farhan al-Sa’di Did they embrace in the breath of the bedewed jasmine and virgin coffee, the dim-eyed woman and the four-score man before he gasped his last, thirsty in his holy fast, his name already flickering in the memory, hers hushed from the start? Did they whisper their vows once more as they had done long ago, before wrong came of age and the sea overflowed with murk and blood and the land choked with smoke of unholy flames, vows made in the intimacy of young henna and fresh thyme? Did they, now that he had crossed the zone of fear and wrath and sorrow and was all but ready to walk head high, smiling, impatient to meet his maker, to hang upon a beam made all the more grim by wrath-infected aliens who make it their holy business to hound the earth with their infection leaving behind them numberless trails of blood and tears? Did the supplications of church bells and of the calls from the minaret fail to move those powers reigning supreme over there? Were the pleadings of mother and tender child powerless to awaken mercy from her slumber? Did the tongue, after he had instructed his eldest son to remember mother, brothers and sisters, did the tongue then come out white in the musty room shaded from the budding beams, from the hills bowed low, from the brooks drying up, from the fire winding down, winding down? Did he inspect for the last time with the apprehension of final vision the long processes of the years, years passed and years yet to come slouching with their deliveries of self-perpetuating cruelty? Did he swing heavy upon the beam, denied the basil-scented lilac-scented air, denied the sight and voice of light-hearted children beaming from their swings?
July 1948 Um Ramadan is dead now long dead perhaps but not in the living consciousness, when barely more than a hulk of bones she stood before her door and faced the east that summer morning in contemplation Ramadan was needlessly poised on the edge of town, chatting in crow, the black birds had penetrated the town’s airspace, Um Ramadan’s chickens clucked as they scattered about in the heat each certain the world was his and his alone with sense of neither fear nor faith and she crooning as if in trance more to the sun than to her chicks an old rose cowering under the blazing hills. Her thought was startled into subdued sounds, slivers of a voice which once had frightened the block into trembling with the chatter of an indignant squirrel, or burst the block’s sides with laughter, voice that now slivered into plaintive strains of a bassoon drained of its native humour. The wind bore fresh chicken leavings and traces of burnings of olive leaves from yesterday’s bakers but the henna which scented the hair of brides and graced their hands with its purple blood which graced and scented them again after the final bath before passing into another way of being blushed and henceforth was to go unused. Still she faced the sun like a plant she sniffed the decomposed days down the road she saw the hackings of live limbs and their scatterings so that they might forfeit their birthright she heard, compressing links of cause and particular, the rattle of dry blood down countless generations she seemed to have stars for food, and when she had her fill she came back to chick and low-pitched crow, back to the great ‘Emathian Conqueror’ poised to strike she was her brittle hulk of bones again.
A human slice so massive, it had its special gravity suddenly cut loose from place and history as we drifted and he still in the centre to hold us together in orbit; he kept his head up when so many were falling about him; neither the enemy’s fire nor the heat of the sun when enraged could melt either his fat or his tough skin. But he had not the humour to strike roots in new times and strange places; he had much weight; instead he ruminated with fire burning inward with an appetite that turned upon itself as we splintered out of sphere and took in the new air: that melted him fast a candle on a blind road, the camel of his tribe.
Before the conqueror shot him dead from the top of our roof, Ali had on his head, as he walked homeward in the morning sun, a tray made of straw, of circles, none vicious though: Each circle flowed into the next from small to large to larger rounds: The first bore the transformation of the dream of wheat, its ears still close to the ground, into loaves of exciting breath; the second of a humble communion of young and old breaking bread into lasting bond under the sanctity of one roof; the third of modest hopes which rose and tossed like one vast field shedding green in the wind and the ripening sun; the fourth of a dream beyond, half formed, half grasped – After he shot Ali dead, and the tray fell in manner undignified and the bread tumbled and scattered on hot, hard stone in shapes of heads rolling about a sanctuary, I heard the conqueror on the high roof under the naked sky, I heard him snort, I heard him clear his throat, I heard him spit on the ground, I heard him piss through the eye of light.
Over Europe there hung a strange mist, America was still feigning innocence, and God was ordering that there be light and when there was there was paraded on the road to Ni’leen as the wind played possum a pair of dead breasts and a baby his face buried between them waiting to be nursed the July sun was pitiless then citing and reciting the incident when God that spring went merciful and ordered that there be light and when there was there was paraded from Deir Yaseen in the breath of the orange blossom in the view of God’s City a baby lying on his tummy dead between two breasts that yearned to nurse.
Day is receding autumnally over the silent hills, like the Mediterranean as it ebbs down yonder, away from its olive belt. the vanguard of the twilight, itself vanguard to pre-lapsarian dark carries a mass of sound, waving on the wane, the air infiltrated to the core by the breath of some evening cooking, cauliflower being prepared the way only the mothers of Jerusalem know or by the spirit of select coal yielded up affectionately that they may iron for the morrow of spouse and child: it swells to the limit a heart three-scores and ten thousand miles away.
They skipped to the time of the rope, and the rope kept faith with their voice, like crafting into one the river’s rhythm and the melody of the lake; They sang as they skipped of the still-forbidden to them, of coffee dark and so beloved whose wedding takes place in young dainty cups perfumed with the spirit of cardamom in a home warm and fruitful, they served but could not drink: their dawn of knowing was at hand; Their time and voice governed all about them and far beyond: the summer afternoon wind toned down to listen, and in amazement the sun opened wide his eyes: they panted as they skipped and sang: ‘Anal mahboobatussamra wa-ujla fil fanajeeni wa ‘oudul Hindi lee ‘itrun wa thikree sha’a fisseeni.’ Time grew big and space swelled wide: all was heart there, beating ever so loud, skipping wild; They danced on the threshold of day and sang of sipping the scented drink, of the wedding of bliss and grace.
‘The poems are remarkably restrained, granted the violence done to the Palestinians with the connivance of the “international community”.’
Mistress Quickly’s Bed