A review of The Almond Tree, by Michelle Cohen Corasanti.
I’ll admit, I started reading this novel with a bit of trepidation. A Jewish-American woman writing a historical novel from the perspective of a young Palestinian man requires serious chutzpah, and the fact that she named the main character Ichmad (a Hebrew-sounding transliteration of Ahmed) made me wary.
But thankfully, what I found was an engaging novel with an impressive degree of empathy and authenticity. It reads like a combination of Mornings in Jenin and The Kite Runner. As such, it has the potential to reach broad audiences with a powerful message of Palestinian humanity that’s sadly missing from the popular consciousness. (And the choice to use ‘Ichmad’ actually comes from the author’s interpretation of a rural Palestinian accent, which later serves to distinguish him from a city-boy roommate.)
The story begins with an idyllic/tragic scene that sets the tone for the rest of the novel: a young girl, Ichmad’s sister, goes out chasing butterflies, not understanding that the field nearby is studded with Israeli landmines. Her family rushes out to try to save her, but they are too late. They watch her mischievous smile evaporate before their eyes.
In an earlier version, the book began with a scene of Ichmad helping another man hide weapons for the Palestinian resistance. But the author realized this would make no sense without explaining what had come before. By opening the book with Ichmad’s loss of innocence, the events that follow become more understandable.
According to interviews with the author (who spent seven years in Israel and was horrified as she began learning the truth about the Palestinian situation), the seed for the idea of the book began with a friend she met at Harvard, a Palestinian with an Israeli PhD advisor whose father spent many years in prison. Despite the harshness of his childhood (he was forced early into being the breadwinner because of his father’s imprisonment), he showed an aptitude for math and science that allowed him to attend Israeli and later American universities. Ichmad’s life follows this basic narrative, though it’s set a couple of decades earlier.
She acknowledges this is a rare occurrence, and the question of how Ichmad’s success causes him to become out of touch with his fellow Palestinians is sensitively addressed. The book does not take a fantasist approach that the conflict will be easy to solve if we can just hold hands and sing kumbaya. Still, it shows what’s possible when love of science (or humanity, music, or anything else) transcends love of your own particular ethnically-based privilege. Minds can open, and old wounds can begin to heal. (One is invited to imagine how much more so once some measure of justice is finally done.)
Israelis are not demonized in the book, and this is critical both because it rings authentic (Israelis, after all, are not demons but human beings in a particular human context) and because it allows the possibility of reaching genuinely broad audiences, including Jewish Israelis and Jewish and Christian Zionists.
It may be sad and unfortunate, but it’s true: Often it takes a white/Christian/Jewish or otherwise privileged writer to reach a privileged audience that is otherwise quite fine with the status quo. Palestinian voices tell beautiful and evocative stories. But they often allude to historical events, cultural touchstones, and political realities that are meaningless to the average American.
Like Uncle Tom’s Cabin or Cry, the Beloved Country, The Almond Tree is a kind of “hybrid” or “gateway” book that tells a Palestinian story but with Western sensibilities in mind. None of these books is perfect, nor can they ever be perfectly authentic. But they can hopefully do their job—both to educate ignorant societies about otherwise very foreign subjects, and to inspire them to read and understand accounts by the victims of oppression themselves.
The human mind is, after all, wired to respond more to narratives than to facts, and there must be something in a narrative that we can grasp onto in order to be able to integrate it into our own view of the world.
Nearly all the facts have been on “our” side (the side of justice and peace for all) for decades. It’s about time the narrative became so as well—that the Palestinians had for themselves something akin to the novel Exodus (though not as mendacious) that could capture the imagination of middle Americans.
The book is epic in scope, beginning shortly after 1948 when Ichmad’s Palestinian family finds themselves becoming “Arab-Israelis” with no rights to their own land, and continuing almost to the present day.
I do wish it included a map that showed where the family’s village, its confiscated land, and the nearby Israeli towns and moshavs were located, and maybe a small author’s note explaining what it meant to become an “Arab-Israeli” under strict military rule up until 1966. I feel it would situate the reader in space and political context better. But the basic human realities shine through.
There is no shortage of tragedies along the way, and readers with weak stomachs may have to put the book down occasionally before continuing on. But there are also moments of pure joy and humor and beauty, of taking stock and realizing that despite what has been lost, so much does still exist, with so much potential.
As the book says: “You cannot go back and make a new start, but you can start now and make a new ending.”