By Muhammad Farhan
The preconceived notion that the greatest creations in world literature have almost been achieved in the grim periods of time comes true with Michelle Cohen’s debut, The Almond Tree. Michelle, although is a lesser known novelist unlike other Jewish authors of enormous fame, Imre Kertész or Amos Oz but her literary explorations and rich narration can be feasibly equated to such canons of literature. She was born into a Jewish family in Utica, New York, that time on the other side of world in Germany where Jews fell prey to Hitler’s formidable belligerence and the then Jewish identity was a sort of taboo. She asserts in a conversation,” Because of the Holocaust, my parents and other Jewish families boycotted German products.” She grew up at home with the post-Holocaust vicissitudes occurring to her country and then moved to Jerusalem to study at Hebrew University.
The fact that family is a miniature of nation sounds apposite here as in the novel the portraiture of family of Ahmed, the protagonist is delineated. The theme that dominates the entire book is Israeli-Palestinian conflict looked through Ahmed’s family. He is a prodigious child possessing an amazing intelligence which paves his way to his further studies at Hebrew University. Having undergone countless hellish ordeals in his life, how his life shifts from the vulnerable home of tents to the opulent and comforting dormitory in the university is noticeable; the story of the novel is based on the thread of this transition.
The tale begins to walk with a ghastly incident; Ahmed’s younger sister when frolicking around the garden comes to, which Ahmed calls,’ devils’ land’ rooted with mines and out of the blue she blows up with a fierce explosion. The ensuing images of the incident are as following with Ahmed’s words,” I could see her arm. It was her arm, but her body wasn’t attached to it anymore. Amal was torn up like her doll after watchdog ripped it apart”. Seeing the innocuous kid killed before their eyes, he as well as his brother catatonically remains in a stupor while her mother plaintively screams. The next odd experience comes across to Ahmed when he finds his parents wrangling on where to bury the mortals of his sister.” They fought because Mama wanted to bury Amal on our land so she could stay close to us and not be afraid, but Baba said no, that they’d come and take our land and then we’d either have to dig her up or leave her with them”.
Thus a conjecture can be made here that the root cause of clash between Palestine and Israel does not lie In the conflicts of religion, of culture or of ethnic disparity but It’s the conflict of land. Amos Oz, the Jewish author opines that ‘there is no essential misunderstanding between Palestinian Arab and Israeli Jews. The Palestinians want the land they call Palestinian. They have a very strong to reason to want it. The Israeli Jews want exactly the same land for exactly the same reason. Whatever their reasons are but it is obvious as Michelle strikingly unfolds that innumerable innocent voices are being brutally interred as of Amal.
The story continues with the arrest of Ahmed’s father for a crime that he has not committed and thrown out of their house. Now he doesn’t scruple to accept that it is up to him now to protect his family and to become responsible for the livelihood. The deeper pain of ghetto’s life and of compelled diaspora is brimming in his heart but he soon leaves the sense of vulnerability to embark on the expedition of anguished life with great gusto.
A new vantage point springs up when Ahmed gets into the Hebrew University in which he is the only Arab student who becomes the specs in the eyes of professors because of his identity. Professor Sharon scornfully despises him and always tries to affront him by asking complex mathematical questions although he fails in his intention. On the contrary, being excessively meek in his behavior, Ahmed always trusts that ‘People hate out of fear and ignorance’.
Once he entered into a conversation with his Jewish professor asking him why Israel has brought great suffering to his people. Subsequently Sharon bursts out recalling his own traumatic past of Auschwitz and lays a claim that Jews have been rather brutally persecuted by Nazis. He still carries those painful memories of Holocaust when his ‘little brother Avraham who was only six’ was gunned down by the Nazi soldiers and ‘the Nazis separated the men from women’. One of the things that deepens this conflict is the fact the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is essentially the conflict between two victims. Amos Oz calls them “two children of the same cruel parent and further encapsulates that ‘victims of the same oppressor, Europe which colonized the Arab world, exploited it, humiliated it, trampled upon its culture, controlled it and used it as an imperialistic playground, is the same Europe which discriminated the Jews, persecuted them, harassed them and finally mass-murdered them in an unprecedented crime of genocide’. Hearing the tales of each other’s agony, these ‘two children of the same oppressor- Ahmed and Sharon- develops a sense of mutual solidarity. Sharon has to concede that it is the land of/for the Arabs but he argues that sharing the food with the deprived is ‘the moral obligation of the man who possesses it’.
Soon Ahmed, once who was a shabby child, embarks on his journey to America to join MIT with Professor Sharon and there he holds a position of post-doc researcher. Now story takes another turn here, Ahmed falls in love with Jewish girl, Nora who also happens to be his student. He tries to restrain himself because both belong to two different groups fighting since ages. He suspects that their marriage may trigger mayhem in his village and cause a tumult in the heart of his family. Even though, breaking the shackles of traditions, with the consent of his father, he marries the liberal Jewish girl who believes that ‘love transcends the barrier set up by humans’.
Michelle’s craftsmanship of drawing characters is conspicuously dexterous; reading novel means looking at the world through the eyes, mind and soul of the novel’s character. For instance, take Ahmed’s fourfold roll in the novel; he is a loyal son to his parents, a dedicated brother to his siblings, a brilliant and obedient student and also a liberal bloke in the region of fanatics. The way he survives with his extraordinary intrinsic traits not only strokes the chords of heart but he teaches the lessons of morality and of ethics. Art is not then a diversion or a side- issue, it is the most educational of all human activities and a place in which the nature of morality can be seen. Art gives a clear sense to many ideas which seem more puzzling if we meet them anywhere else. It is the magic of Michelle’s art that she puts various abstruse ideas and profound political issues in a lucid yet striking prose.
Almond Tree has the positive excellence of a good plot depending upon the power of its peculiar synthesis of character, action and thought, as inferable from the sequence of words, to move our feeling powerfully and pleasurably in definite certain way. So deftly Michelle intertwines the plot with its characters and action that the novel achieves a unique sublimity and entangles the reader with the string of verisimilitude. The language her characters speak is not that very dense and complicated but their parlance is too colloquial without any redundancies; Michelle has done no, what Chomsky calls, “exploitation of language” in the entire narrative, the things that should be said simply have been said simply.
Nonetheless, as I presume that every word cannot be translated into an alien language, on being translated, it may lose its beauty and charm so I think, Michelle has left handful of words un-translated from Arabic. The Arabic pidgin interspersed on few of the pages may cause a discomfort to a non-Arabic reader but it highlights the cultural phenomena of the country.
Precisely, I end it up here with Milan Kundera’s words that ‘the novel’s sole raison d’etre is to say what only novel can say’ and The Almond Tree evidently seems successful in its ‘raison d’etre’.
Read the original review on Rising Kashmir website http://www.risingkashmir.com/book-review-the-almond-tree-michelle-cohen/