Translated by Nouha Gorani-Homad
BookLand Press, 2022
Reviewed by Joyce Smith
Abdo Wazen—a Lebanese author of more than a dozen books of fiction, poetry, and literary criticism—dedicates this middle-grade novella “to the blind who defied their blindness and shone the light of their insight upon us.”
The Boy Who Saw the Colour of Air was first published in 2011 in Arabic. The first English translation arrived 11 years later, with a French version forthcoming this year in 2023. The book immerses the reader in a Middle Eastern culture and the culture of the blind.
The protagonist, Bassem, is a boy of 13 who is the first-born child in a Sunni Muslim family living in a small Lebanese village. When the family first learns that Bassem was born blind, they are devastated, but they support him with their love and comfort in his early years.
His older cousin, Zeinab, encourages Bassem by reading to him and helping him with his education: “She would often tell him the stories she had heard from her mother and grandmother…stories about magic lamps, giants, flying carpets, imprisoned princesses, golden birds, and speaking trees.”
Bassem gives readers a nocturnal tour of his village: “He dreamt that night of his brothers and cousins playing in the yard, walking in the fields, picking sweet smelling flowers. He could not forget sitting by the burbling river, or the chirping birds in the fields, or the earth, pebbles, and stones they played with, or rolling in the grass and sitting in the shade of the oaks and poplars.”
Here, Bassem has few opportunities to advance. The mayor of the village suggests to the family that they send him to the Institute for the Blind in Beirut to advance his education. There, he develops a friendship with Yusuf and a strong bond with George, a Christian. He listens to audiobooks and learns to read Braille.
When Bassem learns of the wonderful art of writing, his world explodes with opportunities. He enters a country-wide writing competition sponsored by the Ministry of Education, “including those from prestigious schools.” Bassem “wrote and wrote, pouring out his heart. Words flowed like the river in his village.”
Bassem finds inspiration for his story through his love for his village, school, and family—including Zeinab.
Wazen was born in 1957 in Beirut, Lebanon. His first collection of poems, The Locked Forest, was published in 1982. The Lebanese Ministry of Interior seized copies of his 1993 book, The Garden of Sensation, on accusations of licentiousness. However, he persisted; Wazen received the Culture Journalism Award from the Dubai Press Club in 2005.
Since then, Wazen has published several other poetry collections. After he had major heart surgery in 2010, he published his memoir An Open Heart. Wazen has been Editor-in-Chief of the cultural pages of Al-Hayat for many years. He is also well known as a French to Arabic poetry translator. In 2012, he won “the most important and prestigious literary prize in the Arabic world” for The Boy Who Saw the Colour of Air, his first young adult novel.