By Mohammad Aleem
It has always been a pleasure for me to read a good book but so rarely it comes in hand.
This year, I have just finished my first book and I am pretty glad about it. This is The Almond Tree, penned by Michelle Cohen Corasanti and published by Garnet, UK, in 2012. This is a novel which runs around in three hundred fifty pages and it contains fifty eight chapters.
The book is all about the day-to-day struggle and triumph of a Palestinian boy, Ichmad Hamid who later on turns to be a Nobel Prize winner in Physics. It looks like a fairy tale because if we look at the background of Ichmad, it seems a pretty unachievable task because he comes from a very poor background. But it also strengthens the long held conviction that if one struggles hard and learns to live in different circumstances keeping his or her aim high, he or she may succeed, no matter at what time and how it comes. For Ichmad, though it was hard even to dream for a good cloth to wear and go to school regularly because his father, Baba is imprisoned in a cattle pen like security prison of Israel, perched in a barren and secluded desert for no any apparent reason. The only fault of that man was that some rugs had hid some arms and ammunitions in the courtyard of his house and he knew nothing about it. It was also coincidently the birthday of Ichmad and the family was celebrating its quite modestly that night when that ignominious incident had taken place. They live in a one room shabby house which even that gets destroyed by the Israeli bulldozer when they come to know about the arms hidden there in front of their house. Ichmad luckily finds out who has hid that ammunition. He was with a militant group fighting to liberate his motherland from the chocking shackle of Israelis but he gets caught by the security forces and reveals all his activities including his act of hiding the arms near the house of Ichmad. When Ichmad confronts with him in the night when the family was happily celebrating his birthday quite modestly because they had nothing to do lavishly, he threatens to shoot him and wipe out his entire family if dares to reveal about it to any, especially Israelis.
For Ichmad, it is a difficult situation to cope with. He is only twelve years old then. He gets caught in the web of violence. He fears both from the militant groups and the Israeli army.
But finally his father and his whole family pay the price.
The Israeli rouge soldiers punish him brutally with total disregard of the human propriety and dignity. And even they raze their tent like house to the ground like. Though once upon a time, his family was rich and they owned a big plot of fertile land on which they used to grow oranges, olive and other food crops suitable for that area. The story is of a village which is perched near the border of Palestine and Israel. This village comes under jurisdiction of Israel and they leave not any chance unused to harass them and to make them feel like a slave and more than that. They live a wretched life. They have no freedom even to breathe freely. They can’t think of sending their students to school but they have to turn to the fields and construction building sites and slaughterhouses to earn their livings.
The story begins with a sad note. Ichmad has a big family. Among his siblings, he is the eldest. He’s one of the sisters Amal gets killed by an explosion of mine which was laid just nearby their home and the Israeli army was pretty aware about those dangers. But they would never pay heed to such things. For them, killing innocent and unarmed Palestinians was just like killing some flies. They would never seem to take these incidents as a human should take.
“The next part was like slow motion. Like someone threw her up in the air. Smoke and fire were under her and the smile flew away. The sound hits us- really hard. And when I looked to where she was, she was gone. Just gone, I couldn’t hear anything.” (P, 5)
This is the gory scene which the family witness while seeing their eldest daughter going into flames and soon after that devastating blast, they find her dead and completely disfigured.
The second deaths come in the house when the security forces come to take Ichmad’s father into their custody. They beat him badly in front of his family members and even don’t spare small children. And Ichmad’s second sister in line succumbs to their mindless violence.
After the incarceration of his father, Ichmad is forced to work at the building construction sites to earn a living. He now learns to live like a grown up man who could provide succor to his family. His younger brother, Abbas also goes to work with him because it was necessary for them to survive. There Abbas and Ichmad were treated not like a normal child but of an outcast class and every type of ill treatment they get there. On an ill-fated day, one thick headed Iraqi immigrant Jew tortures Abbas badly for not doing his work properly. He suffers deadly fractures and gets hospitalized. He becomes paralyzed. For many years, he lives in the hospital. This is another big problem for the impoverished family. That incident not only breaks the body of that crippled boy but his soul and mind also. He later on turns hostile to Israel and leaves his village to join a militant organization at Gaza. He now constantly grudges against his enemy and tires to avenge all humiliation and disgust received at the hand of Israeli. But this situation makes Ichmad and his family more vulnerable and harassments increase.
Ichmad is saved from such inglorious situation by a prudent and wise teacher who teaches him at the school. Ichmad is quite an intelligent boy. Especially, in science, his minds just fly like a bird in the sky. He loves to calculate the even difficult calculations in a fraction of time. And his teacher encourages him to continue studying and don’t think leaving it in any way.
Ichmad listens to his teacher patiently and gives his advice a due importance. He studies at night when he finds himself free from his tedious and bone cracking work during the day.
He has worked for some time at a slaughter house also. What is the condition of that house and how it impacts the whole village has been suitably summarized in these few lines:
“The chimney from the slaughterhouse and accompanying factories spread thick, oily, black smoke throughout our village. Because we had no sewage system, the filth, grease and chemicals from the slaughterhouse soaked into our soil. Bubbles of carbonic acid rose to the surface, while grease and filth caked the land. Every now and then, the land would catch fire and the whole village would run and put it out with buckets of well-water.” (P- 103)
This situation is almost with the entire occupied territory of Palestine. They live like a second class citizen and most of the time, even worse than a slave, on their own legitimate land which the aggressor Israelis had occupied it forcefully.
Ichmad luckily gets the chance to appear in a competitive exam and he succeeds at it.
And he is offered a scholarship at a Hebrew university. He is the first Palestinian boy who goes there to study. He meets there adverse situations and most of the time, his friends at college spew scorns and humiliation on him but he bears all with patience and determination for he knew that only this could make him success in his life.
He remembers his father’s word always in every adverse situation. He is always a pillar of strength and force for him.
“You cannot go back and make a new start, but you can start now and make a new end.” (P- 115)
He believes that he will be able to give a good start to his life. And finally he succeeds and he graduates from that university and after his post graduation he gets a scholarship to do his doctorate from an American university where he goes with his fellow science Professor, Menachem Sharon. He was the person who once despised and hated him abhorrently but later on when he realizes his talents he not becomes a close associate of him but helps him in his realizing his goal.
In America, they succeed and in the end they reach to the world’s most coveted award, the Nobel Prize.
The story of America is somehow with fewer struggles and passes it like a mild breeze.
In those happy moments, a fragrant breeze comes as Nora in the life of Ichmad. She is a Jew.
Her parents are quite wealthy and influential people. They work for the greater cause of the welfare of the society but when it comes to think about the marriage of their only daughter to a Palestinian boy, it becomes hard for them to swallow. Ichmad and Nora marry and start living together happily but its end comes soon in the form of a devastating incident at his village home.
Nora becomes victim of Israeli aggression there. When the bulldozer of Israeli army comes to raze the Ichmad’s house on the pretext of punishing them for joining the militant group of his younger brother, Abbas, Nora comes in the way of that barbaric aggression and she gets crushed.
It is a cold blooded murder and even her influential parents don’t succeed in bringing out the killers at the table of justice. Such is the highhandedness of Israeli army and its political heads.
The novel has some other characters also which succeed in ingraining their presence in the mind of the reader quite successfully like Manchem’s second wife, Justice, Ichmad’s second wife, Yasmin and his mother. They are fine ladies and seem always doing their thing quite sensibly. Ichmad’s mother is an illiterate lady so she has her own understanding of seeing and doing the things but the other two ladies are quite intelligent and they have some humble corners in their hearts for oppressed one.
Second most important character in the novel is the younger brother of Ichmad, Abbas who turns a militant but he doesn’t succeed in reaping any substantial results from it. It shows that you can’t get anything applying violence but peace and higher education will take you there where you want to reach. But the enemy forces know it well that how to keep these kinds of people like their slaves. They, in a much planned way, deprive them from a good education.
It reminds me the days of the British in India and even at the present scenario here, only a few chosen one goes to good schools and universities and a vast number gets unattended. The worst condition is of Muslims and other such class who are forced to live on the fringes of the society.
But this novel not only narrates the gloom and sadness of one’s life but good and rosy side also. It also looks a little bit idealistic approach and an exceptional case in itself. What if Ichmad was not an intelligent boy and good at his studies as he used to be in the story, then what would have happened? Is there any place in the society for deprived one and for those who are not so lucky to get good talents in their lives? Then who will take care of those boys and girls?
I will conclude this article on these lines penned by the famous social activist of India, Harsh Mander. He writes on the editorial page of the Hindustan Times on 14th January, 20013.
“In The Idea of Justice, Amartya Sen asks why the pursuit of justice is universal in human societies and concludes that this is primarily because human empathy, as well as the longing for freedom and reason, is essential to human nature. Empathy involves feeling the pain and humiliation of others as though it was one’s own.” (The Hindustan Times)
The whole Israeli establishment should understand that if they want to succeed in establishing the lasting peace with his Arab neighbors they would have to come out to them with a big heart and an open mind. Violence would take them nowhere. They can’t rule on Palestinians like this forever.
Read the original review http://indianmuslimobserver.com/2013/01/17/book-review-the-almond-tree/