Recently, Susan Abulhawa wrote an article about my novel, The Almond Tree that included a series of accusations about me and my book. While Ms. Abulhawa is certainly free to review and critique my work, I want to take this opportunity to correct a number of errors in her review so that readers may have the benefit of understanding what I actually wrote and why I did so.
The Almond Tree is based on what I witnessed with my own eyes, what I heard, and what I learned. I am a Jewish American who was raised in the US by Zionist parents. From the ages of sixteen to twenty-three, I lived in Israel, inside the green line, the 1949 Armistice lines. During that time, I attended Hebrew University where I received my BA in Middle Eastern studies. My department was composed of Palestinians from inside the green line and Jewish Israelis. My friends were both Palestinians and Israelis; we attended school and lived together in the dorms. Both groups invited me to their homes on weekends and during vacations, as I had no family nearby. The last year I lived in Israel, I rented an apartment in Wadi Jose, a neighborhood in East Jerusalem, with a Palestinian friend in a Palestinian family’s house.
When I went to Israel at the age of sixteen, I knew nothing about the Middle East or the history of the Israeli/Palestine conflict. After seven years, I returned to the US having had my eyes opened. Wanting to learn more, I pursued a Masters in Middle Eastern studies at Harvard. I then continued on to my PhD at Harvard. At the same time I attended law school. While I was doing my Masters at Harvard, I met a Palestinian from inside the green line. He had also attended Hebrew University and we knew many of the same people. He was a post-doc working jointly with his Israeli professor and a Harvard professor. I married him in his village inside the green line and lived there that summer. (It was not my first experience in Palestinian villages inside the green line, as I had visited a number of them while I was a student at Hebrew University.) Ultimately and sadly, our marriage did not succeed and we divorced several years later.
So when I began to write The Almond Tree, I drew on not only my years of study but also my personal experiences in Israel and here in the US with both Israelis and Palestinians. My aim was to write a story that could reach into readers’ hearts and help them to understand the perspective I came to see, one that is not known to many Jews or Americans.
I’d like to address some of the specific concerns raised in Ms. Abulhawa’s Opinion Piece:
1. Ms. Abulhawa argues The Almond Tree is like the novel The Help by Kathryn Stockett. Her main criticism of The Help seems to be that Stockett’s characters are stereotypical Aunt Jemima or Mammy characters. My Palestinian protagonist is a genius who is smarter than his Jewish colleagues and goes on to win a Nobel Prize. Ms. Abulhawa also says that like The Help, my novel creates sympathy for an oppressed people by depicting the injustices they endure; that’s true although there is also triumph as well as heartbreak for the Palestinian characters.
2. Ms. Abulhawa argues I have stolen “the life and murder of Rachel Corrie” in my depiction of one of the main female characters, Nora. While it is certainly true that my character is killed in a similar manner as Rachel Corrie, Nora was also a Jew from Beverly Hills, a student at Harvard, married a Palestinian, and was killed in Elkouriya village none of which resemble Rachel Corrie. The similarities between the real and the imagined deaths help to persuade some readers when they insist that an Israeli bulldozer driver would not kill an American woman trying to prevent a home demolition. Throughout literature, authors have made use of real incidents and details (and sometimes more) of people’s lives in order to write about a particular historical period, place or event.
3. Ms. Abulhawa states that my protagonist is from the West Bank and argues that it is implausible that for him to attend an Israeli university in Jerusalem on scholarship. Here Ms. Abulhawa has misread my book since my protagonist is clearly not from the West Bank. He is from The Triangle, also known as “The Little Triangle”, the concentration of Palestinian villages and towns located adjacent to and inside the Green Line. The village I write about, which I named ElKouriyah, is an impoverished rural, peasant village in the Triangle inside the green line.
My story begins in 1955 with my protagonist’s village under Israeli martial law. The village remains under Israeli martial law for more than one hundred pages of The Almond Tree until 1966 when Israeli martial law ceased in the Triangle. Note also that Israel didn’t occupy the West Bank until 1967; prior to that time the West Bank was controlled by Jordan.
Palestinians inside the green line can and do attend Israeli universities and do receive scholarships. In fact, Israel’s policy of encouraging Palestinians from Israel to study science as a means of removing them from the country was leaked to the press in 1976. That policy was part of a comprehensive package of recommendations known as “The Koenig Memorandum” which had secretly been submitted to Prime Minister Rabin that same year. Since many jobs in scientific fields require military service, if Palestinian PhDs wanted to work, they needed to go abroad.
Ms. Abulhawa further argues that I suggest that the path to success is necessarily through the Israeli or oppressor’s educational system. In the novel, my protagonist wins a math competition in which he beats all the Jewish Israeli students because he is smarter than them and thus wins a scholarship to the university and a stipend. Had he tried to go to one of the institutions of higher education on the West Bank and Gaza, he would have had to deport himself and would have been unable to return to Israel to see his family, much less his father who remains in prison. Given the fact that he was supporting his family and was barely able to keep them afloat, self-deportation and abandoning them just so he wouldn’t take a free education and stipend from an Israeli institution for which he was not required to give anything back to Israel does not seem plausible.
4. Ms. Abulhawa argues that the spelling of the protagonist’s name, Ichmad, is an Israeli version of Ahmad. According to Wikipedia, the name Ahmad has the following variants: Achmad, Achmed. As discussed earlier, Ichmad, is from a village in the Triangle, inside the green line. In villages in that area, it was not uncommon for people to pronounce I for A. Thus Achmad became Ichmad.
Further, Ms. Abulhawa suggests that Ichmad is a form of an Arabic verb meaning to suffocate or subdue. As I will show, Ichmad does not have a common root with this Arabic verb.
In Arabic, Achmad is written: أحمد. The letter ح or Het does not exist in English. In Hebrew, Achmed is written אחמד. The letter ח or Het does not exist in English. Ḥet or H̱et (also spelled Khet, Kheth, Chet, Cheth, Het, or Heth) is the eighth letter of many Semitic alphabets including the Hebrew ח and Arabic ح.
The letter ח or Het is often written ch when Hebrew words are written in English. For example, challah, chutzpah, and Chanukah are words that begin with het. Wikipedia lists the Palestinian from inside the green line the soccer player, as one of the people who spells his name with a ch. The ch in Achmad stands for the Arabic letter ح or Het.
The issue with the transliteration of words from Arabic to English is that the letters ح (Ch like in Chanukah) and خ (Kh like in Khaled) don’t exist in English. If you put the following English words into Google translate, this is how Google translate writes them in Arabic.
Chanukah = حانوكا The ح is the letter that is in Achmad. Ichmad comes from the root حمد “praised.”
khaled = خالد The خ is the letter that is used for the word “to put out” or “to suffocate (like a fire)” اخماد. This word comes from the root خمد. That root is different than the root for the name, حمد, Achmad. Whereas خ (pronounced kh like in Khaled) is in the root “to put out,” the letter ح (pronounced ch like in Chanukah) is in the root “to praise” from which the name Achmad is derived.
Hence, the name Ichmad is derived from the use of I instead of A which as I mentioned earlier is not an uncommon usage in the Triangle area. The second letter is ح which can be written as an h or ch. Jewish readers translate the ח which is more similar to ح than the regular h in English often as ch. Therefore, I decided to write Ichmad that way.
In addition, Ms. Abulhawa seems to believe that Israelis can’t pronounce the Ach/Ah sound and therefore I used Ich in the spelling of my protagonist, Ichmad’s name. However, Hebrew has the sounds Ah/Ach in many words ranging from the feminine word for the number one אַחַת (Achad/Ahad) to the word last אחרון (Acharon/Aharon) and many in between. Those words are written in Hebrew with an alef with the “ah” vowel followed by the letter c/het and Israelis don’t pronounce these words with an “i” sound and nor would they pronounce Achmed with an “i” sound.
After finishing the manuscript, Professor of Arabic Linguistics Samir Abu Absi read The Almond Tree. While he asked about this spelling, he understood why I had come to use it but never brought up that the spelling I had used could be construed as a form of the Arabic verb meaning to suffocate or subdue which Ms. Abulhawa mentions in her piece.
5. Ms. Abulhawa argues that naming the Israeli professor who takes Ichmad under his wings Professor Menachem Sharon is culturally insensitive. Neither Menachem nor Sharon is an uncommon name in Israel. Using the two names together for this character and assuming they refer to Menachem Begin and Ariel Sharon is like calling someone Jeffrey Jones and saying that I am referring to Jeffrey Dahmer and Jim Jones. Further, when we first meet Professor Sharon he is an a ruthless racist who tries to sabotage Ichmad and he may also be the vicious soldier who nearly beat Ichmad’s unarmed father to death in front of his family. Perhaps, on a subconscious level, when I started writing about him and wanted to show him as a ruthless, vicious racist, those two names came to mind. Ms. Abulhawa appears to object to that name because Professor Sharon is an ambitious professor and scientist who is forced to work with Ichmad. In an environment of publish or perish, Professor Sharon grows to appreciate Ichmad’s genius. Science serves as a bridge between them and eventually, when Professor Sharon comes to know Ichmad as a person, Professor Sharon changes and is no longer a racist. Professor Sharon is a Holocaust survivor and much of his racism is derived from fear. That fear abates as he gets to know Ichmad. Nonetheless, I have not heard from other readers – Arab, Palestinian, or otherwise – that they responded to the name of this Israeli character in the same way as Ms. Abulhawa.
6. Ms. Abulhawa argues that my protagonist’s failure to immediately see his second wife who is Palestinian as desirable, intelligent, beautiful or the equal of his first Jewish wife as insulting and orientalist. During the novel Ichmad marries two women: Nora, a Jew from America, and after her murder, Yasmine, who comes from his village and he weds in an arranged marriage, even though he is still mourning his murdered Jewish wife. Over time my protagonist not only falls in love with his Palestinian wife, but also sees her greatness. This is not an unusual storyline in novels, films, and plays about arranged marriages and indeed as part of my graduate studies at Harvard, I took a course in Arabic literature called East/West. A major theme in the course was about eastern men who went to the west, fell in love with western women, returned home and were blinded by the west until they realized the greatness of their culture. In The Almond Tree, Ichmad is, at first, blind to the greatness of his Palestinian wife and how well suited they are for each other, but when their son is born, his blinders come off. Furthermore, Ichmad is still in love with and mourning his first wife Nora who was killed. It is not uncommon for a person who is still mourning not to immediately fall in love with another woman. Ms. Abulhawa also ignores Ichmad’s first love, a beautiful and brilliant Palestinian named Amani whose parents have already arranged for her to marry another man, crushing Ichmad’s hopes for love.
7. Ms. Abulhawa states I should have consulted a Palestinian editor to work with me on the manuscript. The editors I worked with were helping me with the art and craft of writing a novel, not focusing on the cultural issues in it. Wanting cultural feedback, however, I showed the manuscript to numerous Arab and Palestinian readers for their comments.
8. According to Ms. Abulhawa, the scene in which Ichmad lifts Nora’s veil with the tip of his sword during their wedding is the product of an orientalist imagination. My inspiration for that scene was the movie ‘Wedding in the Galilee’ directed by a Palestinian named Michel Khleifi.
Ms. Abulhawa seems to feel that I have stolen the Palestinian narrative. The reality is that I’ve written a novel about a Palestinian family and what happens to them over the course of a number of decades that is informed by my personal experiences as well as years of study of Middle Eastern studies. Just as in the United States, someone coming from a rural impoverished area in Mississippi would have different customs than a wealthy, NY socialite, the same holds true among the Palestinians I met. In every society there is diversity. The Palestinians are one people, but there are many different Palestinian experiences. I don’t profess to know about all the different Palestinian realities. I know what I witnessed with my own eyes, what I lived and experienced, what I read and what I learned. In writing the novel, I did what President Obama recently urged Jewish Israeli students to do: try and put myself into Palestinian shoes. The Almond Tree isn’t the misrepresentation Ms. Abulhawa claims it to be. Fortunately, the majority of Palestinians (Gulf Daily News, The Electronic Intifada) , Arabs and Muslims who have read it have loved it. And I have been enormously gratified by articles in the Huffington Post, The Daily Star and other publications that have described The Almond Tree as a novel of the proportions of The Kite Runner and as having the potential to be a game changer. More than anything, I hope that people will read The Almond Tree and draw their own conclusions.
Michelle Cohen Corasanti is the author of the novel The Almond Tree. She received her BA from Hebrew University in Jerusalem and her MA from Harvard University, both in Middle Eastern studies. In addition, she is a lawyer trained in international and human rights law. She lived in Jerusalem and the other areas inside the Green Line for seven years and now lives in upstate New York where she is at work on her second novel.