Many months ago, Michelle Cohen-Corasanti enrolled in one of my Writer’s Digest creative writing courses on story beginnings. The novel she worked on in class was The Almond Tree. It was clear immediately that this was a writer of uncommon talent and promise. The problem—for me—was her subject material. She was writing what seemed to be a pro-Palestinian book. All my life, I’ve been pro-Israeli. A political stand derived from my upbringing in a fundamentalist Christian home, where we were taught from an early age that the Jewish people were God’s “chosen people,” and Israel, a God-favored state. I was taught (and firmly believed) that as long as the U.S. was an ally of Israel, that we were also a nation under the grace of God. A pro-Palestinian novel simply went against all of my core beliefs. But, I consider myself a professional and I also fervently believe in freedom of expression. So, while I disagreed with the theme of her novel, she was never aware of my personal beliefs which I never revealed and I simply worked with her in addressing her craft. And then… she asked if she could hire me after class to coach her on her final rewrite. Now, I had a moral quandary. Could I, in good conscience, help someone in a work that was fundamentally opposed to everything I believe in? I asked several Jewish friends for their advice. I got differing views. Some said, I shouldn’t lend my name and whatever editing expertise I had to the project if I disagreed with the politics. That wasn’t censorship, they argued, and I agreed. Others said that this was a professional matter and that my personal politics and beliefs shouldn’t be the deciding factors. After much soul-searching, I agreed with the latter. At no time during the process did Michelle know of my beliefs. I pride myself that I’ve never revealed to any of my students or writing clients my personal and political views nor let those views influence the way I worked with them. The few who’ve learned of them have always been surprised, assuming I shared their own views. I’m proud of the fact that I’ve remained neutral when working with writers.
We began to work together. At no time during this process was Michelle aware of how I felt about Palestinians and Israel. My only guide was to always treat her material in a professional way and only look at it with the goal of helping her make it the best novel she was capable of writing. It was only when she had finished, that I revealed my personal feelings about Israel and Palestine to her. And that her novel had changed my mind…What’s important about this lengthy preamble to what I have to say about Michelle Cohen and her novel, The Almond Tree, is that this novel—the intensely gripping story of a Palestinian boy and his family and their suffering under Israeli occupation—convinced me with surety that my beliefs about this conflict were severely flawed and had been formed from a one-sided awareness. Her truly beautiful novel showed clearly that there are always two sides to a question, something I’d forgotten. In other words, Michelle wrote a novel which changed my mind about something important. That is the mark of a great work of art.
It was easy to see Michelle has talent—what convinced me that this will be a book that will achieve substantial sales and be nominated for prestigious awards—was that the story she created converted me from what I had assumed to be a committed and unyielding position to one in which I now see the Palestinian people as belonging to the community of mankind every bit as much as any other group, including the Israelis.
Some will be tempted to compare The Almond Tree to The Kite Runner, but to do so unfairly places the two books in some sort of presumed ranking. Both of these books are brilliant and powerful accounts and deserve to stand tall on their own merits, irrespective of the other.
Ichmad’s story is a big-hearted story of a small Palestinian boy who learns to survive in a brutal environment and doesn’t simply endure, but emerges from the fire with the wisdom gleaned from the example of a father who has taught him that all men have value, even their enemies. A tale of innocence moving through a vicious world, compassion learned against an environment of daily horrors, and wisdom forged through a boy’s journey through a life we would never wish upon our own children. Michelle Cohen’s The Almond Tree is one of those rarest of books—a fiction that rings with authenticity and integrity to reveal the wonder of what it really is to be human.
If ever peace is to become a reality between Israel and Palestine, it will be because of the influence of books such as this. I am proud to have been allowed by Michelle Cohen to have played a very tiny role in the development of this novel. This is a book that I think will endure and resonate forever in the souls of all who read it. I know it will in mine. Some books have the power to change us profoundly; this is one of those books.
Author of The Death of Tarpons, Monday’s Meal, Hooked and others