There is an increasing trend when reviewing fiction to consider the biography of the writer, as well as the work in question. It should be the case that the reader completes the text rather than the writer (or their life) being drawn upon to explain it. But when writing about a conflict as contentious as the Israel-Palestine one, it becomes more likely that the ethnicity, political and religious affiliations of the writer are considered relevant.
Michelle Cohen Corasanti is a Jewish American and has written a book that many may consider to be inappropriate for her to write, for her book’s central character, Ichmad [sic], is a Palestinian, and not just any Palestinian, but a boy genius whose intelligence far outstrips almost all of the other characters in this book: Israeli, Jewish or otherwise.
The transliteration of the central character’s name as Ichmad rather than Ahmed is an indication of who Cohen Corasanti writes for, as well as where she writes from, as this is the spelling of an Arab name in the way most commonly associated with Hebrew speakers.
As opposed to the multidirectional outlook of the writers in Seeking Palestine, which I recently reviewed for The Electronic Intifada, who appear to write outwardly to an audience unfamiliar with Palestine as well inwardly to other Palestinians, Cohen Corasanti has a clear audience in mind — namely those people who are not aware the realities that she has become painfully aware of and to, it could be safely said, her own kind, i.e. Jewish readers. This is reflected both in the author’s note, where Cohen Corasanti states her desire to “make the world a better place,” and in the quotation at the beginning of The Almond Tree, which is from Rabbi Hillel (30BC-10AD): “That which is hateful to you, do not do unto another … That is the whole Torah, the rest is commentary.”
The novel’s main character, Ichmad, is born during the year of the ethnic cleansing of Palestine in a village that would find itself within the boundaries of the new State of Israel. The book is divided into four sections that trace different stages of Ichmad’s life, from 1955, 1966, 1974 and ending in 2009 when Ichmad and his wife travel to Gaza from New York and witness the devastating aftermath of the Israeli bombardment.
The Almond Tree is not a book for those with a taste for gritty realism and the Palestinian characters are portrayed with sweetness and affection that is reminiscent of Ruth Prawdha Jahbwala’s depictions of India. It is also not a novel that seeks to challenge the form of the novel and it seems to have few aspirations for creating a work of subtle beauty or stylistic innovation (such as, for example, Ibrahim Nasrallah’s A Land of White Horses), but as a work of fiction, it works.
The story may be a familiar one to many readers of The Electronic Intifada, but it is one that has been suppressed. The characters, despite being somewhat one-dimensional, hold the reader’s sympathy and interest; the novel connects emotionally and it compels the turning of pages. The writing is clear, unforced and uncluttered. It is told in a straightforward linear fashion, with no flashbacks or alternative narratives, and keeps a steady, easy pace. It is frequently moving, despite being occasionally rather sappy, with some of the Israeli characters’ transformation from bigotry to understanding, as well the adaptability of Palestinian virgin-from-the-village brides to New York, bordering on the incredible.
The Almond Tree has all the makings of a bestseller or a Hollywood film. It is a rags-to-riches (in this case tent-dweller to international award-winner) tale with love, suffering, death and justice thrown into the mix. The star character thwarts his opponents with the force of his astonishing intelligence, inner kindness, decency and a keen sense of justice. It is pleasing to witness, enjoyable to read.
The power and importance of this book lies in its simplicity, its setting and the place where the indignation of the teller of this tale stems from. Cohen Corasanti’s voice comes through this novel as a person outraged at having been told a lie, with the lie being the nature of the State of Israel, where she lived for many years.
Abuse at every turn
Cohen Corasanti does not pull any punches in exposing the lie she has been told. In the opening pages, Ichmad’s cherubine toddler sister is blown up by a landmine laid on their family’s land that has been expropriated by force. The family house is confiscated, forcing them to live in a hut, which is demolished, pushing them into a tent. Israelis not only evict Palestinians from their land, but also divert their water, exploit them as laborers, impose curfews, refuse building permits, close borders, imprison arbitrarily, methodically discriminate against and humiliate Palestinians with racist slurs and abuse at every turn.
Ichmad’s family are Palestinians from the land that Zionist forces expropriated in 1948, who are forced to deal with the militaristic Israeli state that has been imposed on top of them, which clearly does not want them to be there.
In The Almond Tree Ichmad attains an Arab scholarship against all odds and gains entry to an Israeli university. The tensions being felt by Palestinians in Israeli institutions have been covered by other writers such as Sayed Kashua and Cohen Corasanti does not cover these relationships to the depth or with the type of humor or irony Kashua uses so masterfully in Dancing Arabs. But she does deal with the split identities and selective vision that artificially enforced racial, religious or ethnic divisions can bring about. Israeli students who know Ichmad grow to accept and love him while continuing to loathe other “Arabs,” while Ichmad cannot tell his mother that he has Israeli friends. Similarly. the Jewish American liberal parents of Ichmad’s girlfriend who have brought her up on a diet of peace and love for all mankind cannot take it when she goes out with a Palestinian.
Cohen Corasanti’s approach, in a manner similar to that of Susan Abulhawa in Mornings in Jenin, is one of a steel fist in a kid glove. This novel is already attaining a wide readership, many of whom have been brought up with the lie that Cohan Corasanti is seeking to expose.
An earlier version of this review incorrectly attributed a quotation to the Torah instead of Rabbi Hillel. It has since been corrected.
The Almond Tree is a compelling book, written from the heart by a courageous writer with an important story to tell.
Selma Dabbagh is a British-Palestinian writer. Her debut novel is Out of It.