Poems of a Palestinian Boyhood

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.

Sample Poems

After the Long March

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.

At the Village

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.

The Beam

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?

When the Assault was Intended to Lydda

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 Slice of Palestine

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.

Ali of Lydda

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.

Remembering after Forty Years in the Wilderness

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.

Mothers of Jerusalem

Day is receding
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.

The Wedding

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