A few years ago I read a collection of personal reflections on what it means to be a Palestinian in the diaspora.1 Two entries in particular stayed with me. The first was Reja-e Busailah’s. A professor emeritus of English literature born in Jerusalem and educated, blind, in Hebron, Ramle, and Jaffa, he was expelled from his home in Lydda in a forced march under the scorching July sun in 1948, never to return. His entry was titled “The Tree.”
Like the tongue wrenched out of your mouth, the tree was wrenched out of its native soil with all its roots exposed, dazed, writhing. And the roots were scattered and so were the fragments of the trunk, and so were the branches and the leaves. They were scattered everywhere, each limb or member reaching out for the rest, for the whole; and when it failed in its reachings, it huddled to itself in order to keep what it could keep, a flavor, a memory, a dream.2
The second, called “In Dust,” moves you through the Palestinian condition in a register softened by the passage of two generations. Hala Alyan is a young Palestinian American writer with a family that trails across the shataat (scattering), from a distant grandfather with roots, like my father’s, in Jaffa, to the transplants along the way stations of Palestinian exile: the West Bank towns of Nablus, Ramallah, and Bethlehem; the capitals of Kuwait, Beirut, Paris; and even the unlikely outpost of Wichita, Kansas. She writes,
Diaspora is an endless absence, time-lapse photography in reverse. It is the desire to become an archaeologist or preservationist, to become the keeper of memories belonging to others. … Diaspora is reminding yourself, in the bleakest moments—another war, another smattering of bombs—that as long as you have lungs, and air to fill them, you, and those that come after you, will be the memento, the living memory of place.3
Both, you will not be surprised to hear, are poets. And each has now written a startling and original new book on a subject—the Palestinian story—about which one sometimes thinks no more could be said.
Busailah’s In the Land of My Birth: A Palestinian Boyhood, recently named to the shortlist for the Palestine Books Awards, is a memoir. Densely layered, vivid, and angry, it is several books in one. It is the chronicle of a boy’s unfolding understanding of a troubled world that could easily stand on a shelf beside Jean-Paul Sartre’s The Words or Wole Soyinka’s Aké. It is an unflinching guide for the sighted to some of what it means to be blind that will edge aside Taha Hussein’s classic of Arabic autobiography, The Days. In its compulsive documentation of the social and political history of the final years of Palestine under the British Mandate, it is fit for the witness stand in a future court of historical justice. It is a living archive of the truths of a child who does not lie.
With forensic precision concerning names, places, voices, sentiments, ambitions, and cruelties, Busailah’s compelling memoir is a séance with his determined yet vulnerable younger self as he grows up wide-eyed but blind in a Palestine under the shadow (a metaphor, we are jolted to learn, that has no reference for the blind) of the impending British and Zionist betrayal that will change everything. And leave the tree dismembered and writhing.
Salt Houses is a novel. Affectionate and sprawling, it is a multigenerational family saga that is not angry but wistful and melancholic. Alyan brings into being a complex of characters, many of them women (many more than in Busailah’s world of the educational institutions that were so central to his boyhood and adolescence in the 1930s and 1940s). The small rebellions, aching silences, social concerns, and serial losses travel with these characters along the familiar nodes of the winding aftermath of the Palestinians’ dispossession. Tragedies, some public and historic, some secret and private, haunt its interwoven stories.
As different in mood and mode as these poets’ personal reflections in Being Palestinian would lead you to expect, both books nevertheless manage, almost miraculously, to free the Palestinian story from the tired, seemingly futile repetition of the facts and dates of forsaken histories and the numbers and forms of injustice that continue to the present.
Just this May, on the 70th anniversary of the swift and devastating expulsion of the Palestinians in 1948 that ends Busailah’s memoir (what Palestinians refer to now as the Nakba, or catastrophe), Trump defiantly moved the US Embassy to occupied Jerusalem while Israeli soldiers slaughtered unarmed marchers seeking freedom from besieged Gaza.4 Soon after, Israeli police beat up and arrested respected Palestinian “citizens” of Israel as they protested that violence peacefully on the streets of Haifa.5 No point in reciting the numbers and names; people are numb to them. No point in rehearsing the international laws and conventions violated; they don’t appear to matter.
Both books draw you close to experiencing what it means to be born Palestinian, whether in 1929, when Busailah came into the tumultuous world he relives in this memoir published as he approaches his 90th birthday, or in 1986, when Alyan first enters a family fragmented by successive displacements but still resolutely Palestinian. The books enchant with the scents and tastes of common memory—the jasmine and gardenia, the fig and orange, the watermelon and pomegranate, the olive and wild thyme, and the famed sweets kunaafa and qataayif. They carry the rising voices of political argument and the hushed attention to radios and television. They introduce the neighbors, teachers, and friends who make life livable in richly (and sometimes suffocatingly) sociable communities. They weave you in and out among parents, grandparents, sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, and cousins.
But then they assault you: with dread, confusion, courage, humiliation, uncertainty, waiting, and terror. An unnerving theme runs like a razor through both books. Betrayal. Insistent and persistent in Busailah’s memoir, it coils quietly at the hurt core of Salt Houses.
Notwithstanding Busailah’s generous acknowledgment by first and last names, some 70 years after the events, of every person who made a difference to him—every teacher who challenged, undermined, or believed in him; every friend and classmate who held his hand as he took a bus, hiked to an orchard to climb a fruit tree, or paced a schoolyard; every girl, boy, and man who read to him, whether newspapers or the Communist Manifesto, pre-Islamic Arab poetry or Shakespeare; and especially his high school friend Haider Alami, who came to fetch him as he cowered alone behind a rolled-up rug, uncomprehending and trembling at the explosions and gunshots and foreign tongues, and dragged him along the pitiless stony trail on which the other petrified inhabitants of Lydda streamed when given permission to leave by the Zionist soldiers who had taken the town and now guarded their march into exile—Busailah feels the stings of betrayal.
Busailah’s “In the Land of My Birth” is fit for the witness stand in a future court of historical justice.
Busailah is betrayed as a boy when his companions suddenly run away, cruelly daring him to find his way home alone or, in a beach game on the Mediterranean, to free himself from the sand when he hears waves approaching. He is betrayed by God, who ignores his earnest prayer to be cured of his blindness on Laylat al-Qadr, that special night in Ramadan that marks the revelation of the Qur’an to the prophet Muhammad, when it is said that the heavens open and God hears the prayers of believers.
He is betrayed by a father concerned about his future who drops him off at the age of six at the Islamic Vocational House for Orphans in Jerusalem’s Old City, to learn the arts of brush-making and Qur’anic recitation. What other future in 1935 could be imagined for a blind boy? The beatings, the bedwetting on an iron cot, the daily foot scrubs, the worm-infested olives, and the stone corridors of this cruel institution are truly Dickensian, even if the adventures, stories, and new friends open up his world. He is betrayed by an insensitive family friend who gifts him a frustrating jigsaw puzzle of a cow and horse that he can neither feel nor see. He prefers to spin tops, fly kites, climb trees, and use a slingshot. How? We are left humbly to wonder. He doesn’t tell us.
His brilliance and his ear for poetry are recognized when his father finds an educational alternative: a newly opened and enlightened School for the Blind in Hebron. Here Busailah learns braille, not brush-making; history, Arabic, and English poetry and prose. He excels in geography, even though most of the students’ time is spent on the British Isles. Even the difficult subject of mathematics, and the constant thorn in his side—the Qur’an—cannot dampen his enthusiasm.
Years later, Busailah’s father, in a gesture of respect that takes his defensive son aback, assures him that, if the teenager passes his high school matriculation exam, he will sell everything to make it possible for him to go to university. The British authorities, in anticipation of their abandonment of Palestine to the Zionist forces, and the violence they knew would follow, move the exams forward by a few months, to March 1948. Busailah will hear on the radio that he has passed, just like his classmates, my father and Shafiq al-Hout, after they have lost their country and the futures they dreamed of have crashed.6 There is nothing for his father to sell. Betrayal, again.
The adolescent Busailah rages at the British government’s betrayal of the Palestinians: did it not deny them their own political rights with Balfour’s pledge to help make a homeland for the Jews in Palestine? The ultimate betrayal is the crushing exodus that carries Busailah to the end of the world he knew. The final chapter of his memoir is called “The Fall of Lydda.” There has never been such a harrowing account of the sounds, the stench, and the human desperation of the traumatic expulsion the Palestinians endured in 1948 at the hands of the Zionist fighters. Operation Dani, this one was called.
Repeated across the plains, hills, and seaside ports of historic Palestine, such events turned the people into a mass of wounded refugees, some of whose grandchildren now march toward the high barbed fences that pen them inside Gaza. But the residents were shocked then; Lydda, like Ramle and Jaffa, was supposed to have been spared the expulsions because it lay clearly within the borders designated for the Arab state of Palestine recommended by the UN plan of 1947.
The incredulous adult who writes the epilogue of In the Land of My Birth is adamant that he must confront the lies that are told in Zionist narratives of what happened in Palestine. He does so with the child’s vivid memories of an eagerly pursued education, small triumphs, false hopes, railroad tracks, Jaffa oranges, Turks, Germans, Jews, and, of course, the British, against whom nationalist students struck to refuse the imposition of Latin in the high school curriculum but from whose Royal National Institute for the Blind Busaillah bought his prized possession: his braillewriter. (He did find it odd, though, that he had trouble getting it through customs, given that the British also controlled the entry of goods.) Such memories are balanced with stories of earthy rootedness in kin and place.
He is galled, especially, by cover-ups of what he knows first-hand. The dead Palestinian bodies he passed in the street in Lydda in 1948 and the terror the town’s population experienced are dismissed, in Yitzhak Rabin’s diary, with vague accusations about a nonexistent armed resistance by hostile groups; no mention is made of the massacre of men in nearby Dahmash Mosque. An account that reduces the fateful day’s events in July to some indiscriminate firing by Zionist forces that smashed windowpanes and killed chickens makes him indignant. “To this day,” Busailah quotes a disingenuous 1989 article in the Nation by Amos Kenan, “no one has counted how many chickens, cows, donkeys, camels, sheep, and goats were killed in the war.” Chickens? Cows?
There has never been such a harrowing account of the sounds, the stench, and the human desperation of the traumatic expulsion the Palestinians endured in 1948.
He is incensed by Winston Churchill’s statement on the Palestinians, deleted from the 1937 Peel Commission’s minutes but recently uncovered.7 Churchill said, “I do not agree that the dog in a manger has the final right to the manger even though he may have lain there for a very long time. … I do not admit, for instance, that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America or the black people of Australia.” Why? Because they have been replaced by “a stronger race, a higher grade race, a more worldly-wise race.”
Busailah’s anger lingers on the world’s willingness to let the Zionists trample the conditional clause that had qualified Lord Balfour’s pledge to his friend Lord Rothschild—“it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.”
Alyan’s novel opens 15 years after Busailah’s memoir ends. People have been displaced from homes, cities, factories, and farms. They have begun, tentatively, to rebuild their lives and plant small gardens to distract from the pain. A dying grandfather might call out, “They took my home, they took my lungs,” fiercely believing that “his illness was tied to the occupation of Jaffa, the city with the peach-colored house they’d left behind.” But the mood is subdued, like the people, the intrusion of political violence only intermittent.
In sadness more than in anger, and with the distance of time, Alyan narrates the petty cruelties between mothers and daughters, the uneasy touch of husband and wife, and the trivial betrayals of promises to children about trips to the zoo or birthday dresses. Flirtations among the ostentatiously radical end sourly in Paris bars. The main character, Alia, living in Kuwait in the 1980s along with so many other exiled Palestinians, feels isolated. One evening, she seeks escape from the heat, her children, and the apparition of a husband with scabs bleeding in the bath, begging her South Asian driver to take her to the sea. The engine stops. It is night. High heels trip her up on the rocks. She wants to feel the icy water on her toes.
“Nostalgia is an affliction,” writes Alyan here. “Someone said that once in front of Alia, and the words reach her now, years later. Like a fever or a cancer, the longing for what had vanished wasting a person away. Not just the unbearable losses, but the small things as well.” Although the chapters mostly carry feminine names—Salma, Alia, Riham, Linah, and Manar (which means lighthouse)—the betrayal that lurks in the heart of the story is masculine. It is political. To say more would give too much away.
Alyan is indeed a keeper of memories. In the novel, a bundle of letters falls into the hands of a new generation, passing quietly among them. These letters must be protected from the grasp of a security officer at one of those Ben Gurion Airport interrogations that are the regular stuff of Palestinians’ nervous stories of visits “home.” The inquisition stops suddenly with morning sickness vomit, notice of yet another generation of unsettled Palestinians who will not forget.
These are the moods of betrayal in the story of Palestine.
This article was commissioned by Matthew Engelke.
- Yasir Suleiman, ed. Being Palestinian: Personal Reflections on Palestinian Identity in the Diaspora (Edinburgh University Press, 2016). ↩
- Ibid., p. 115. ↩
- Ibid., p. 65. ↩
- BBC News, “Israel’s Gaza Response ‘Wholly disproportionate’—UN Rights Chief,” May 18, 2018. ↩
- Ruth Eglash, “Israeli Police Accused of Brutality in Crackdown on Demonstrating Israeli Arabs,” Washington Post, May 21, 2018. ↩
- For Busailah’s classmates, see Hisham Ahmed-Fararjeh, Ibrahim Abu-Lughod: Resistance, Exile and Return (Ibrahim Abu-Lughod Institute of International Studies, Birzeit University, 2003), p. 52; Shafiq al-Hout, My Life in the PLO: The Inside Story of the Palestinian Struggle, translated from the Arabic by Hader al-Hout and Laila Othman (Pluto, 2011), p. 20. ↩
- Busailah finds the quote in Martin Gilbert, Churchill and the Jews: A Lifelong Friendship (Henry Holt, 2008), p. 120. ↩