The Almond Tree by Michelle Cohen Corasanti
READING novels is not high on my “to do” list, although I have made exceptions for those with social or historical elements.
The Almond Tree was one of those exceptions and it turned out to be a moving and powerful novel based on historical events, which the writer weaves together harmoniously in more than 300 pages.
It is the type of story that will keep you wondering where reality ends and fiction starts and was an interesting read, even for someone who rarely appreciates fiction.
When I started it I knew nothing about the writer, but as the pages turned I discovered a person who was well-versed in the Palestinian and Jewish cultures.
This was apparent in the use of local lexicons and by discussing events less commonly known to people from outside the conflict zone.
I learned later that the writer was born into a typical Jewish, Zionist environment in the US and grew up believing in the long-held myth that “Jews found a land without people for a people without land and made the desert bloom”.
She was taught that “Jews were always the victims” and that “Arabs and Muslims… hated Jews because they were Jewish”.
At 16 she went to study Hebrew in Israel, where the myths and racist stereotypes were institutionally reinforced all over again.
However, it was when she spent a summer in France and – for the first time in her life – came across Arabs from Lebanon that her life was transformed.
She was exposed to a different narrative and, with an open heart and mind, her curiosity took her back to Jerusalem to pursue Middle East studies at the Hebrew University.
She was the only American in a programme full of “Jewish Israelis and Palestinian Israelis”.
Craving the truth, she befriended native Palestinians and discovered the descendants of people she always believed never existed.
Realising that everything she had been taught “was a lie”, the writer left Jerusalem to attend graduate school at Harvard University, majoring in Middle Eastern history, and also law school specialising in international and human rights laws.
Her book focuses on the human side of Palestinians’ trials since the creation of Israel up until contemporary occupation, illegal settlements and war.
The novel is good reading for anyone seeking to grasp the inherent contradictions and complexity of the Palestine question.
It describes how some were able to overcome all odds, while others were swept up in the vortex of perpetual conflict.
The Almond Tree tackles individual and institutional Israeli racism towards native Palestinians, as well as the inner struggle among Palestinians and Jewish communities for mutual acceptance.
Characters in the book range from a highly educated Palestinian who struggled to break through the walls of Israeli racism, worked with Israelis and ended up marrying a Jewish-American woman.
On the other hand there is a man who rejected his brother’s perceived submission to the enemy and who was driven into exile, moving from one ideological extreme on the left to become a leading figure in a radical Palestinian organisation on the right.
There is the Jewish-American woman fighting her “progressive” parents’ inhibited racism to marry a Palestinian, as a young Palestinian man struggles to overcome his mother’s trepidation before marrying a Jewish girl.
However, the writer also deals honestly with the desperate environment that drives young Palestinians to become suicide bombers.
One chapter in the book discusses in great detail the case for and against military confrontation with Israel and while the deliberations do not seek to persuade the reader one way or another, they help us better appreciate conflicting views.
Not many writers have made the effort to examine the Palestinian-Israeli conflict outside the polemic historical discourse and, historical interpretations aside, The Almond Tree is a journey that puts the reader in touch with people directly affected by the perceived “irrational and convoluted” Middle East conflict.
It is one author’s humble contribution to help people, especially Zionists, remove their subliminal bigoted blinders and is a message that we should leave our parochial shells and discover humanity outside the tribe.
By JAMAL KANJ
Jamal Kanj is an author and GDN columnist who writes frequently on Arab issues and is an expert on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict
Read this review on the Gulf Daily News.