The journey to the other side is never an easy walk. For Michelle Cohen Corasanti it was no different. As the Jewish American woman crossed the Separation Wall to enter occupied Palestine, it translated into moments filled with discoveries, and barriers succumbing to the undeniable truth. Michelle was certain she has a story to tell, a story she believed the world needs to hear. It did have the potential to upset preconceived notions, yet ignoring the risks involved, the Almond Tree was born.
The words start flowing from a brutal night in 1948 and culminates somewhere around the humanitarian crisis that continues to engulf Gaza. While documenting the hardship and heartbreaks of Palestinian people over the past six decades, the author keeps her focus on a simple yet poignant tale of an ordinary family and their struggle for survival.
“I wanted to write a story that showed the human cost of the strife. The quest didn’t end there, more importantly I wanted to show a better way. When I saw the Palestinian and Israeli scientists working together, all I could think was how strong we could be if we celebrated differences and worked together to advance humanity. The story I tell is the greatest glimmer of hope I saw during all the years I was a witness to the conflict,” she says.
The title too evokes curiosity. After all, does a tree have the capacity to symbolize a region notorious for its blood soaked history and a stagnant yet volatile present? To that she responds, “The thought behind naming the book after a tree was to show the Palestinians’ connection to the land. A tree that provided food and shelter for the family. When all else was taken away from them, that remained constant. Despite all the horrors that take place in that land, when the almond tree blossoms, it is beautiful. I named the tree Shaheda which translates as witness because it stood as a testimony to the protagonist Ahmed’s family’s life story.”
As the pages are turned, Michelle’s brilliance as a writer is hard to miss. She takes creative liberties, yet is particularly keen not to displace real life events from the Palestinian diary. Being an eye witness definitely has vantage point, and it is apparent in her writing too, “Living in Jerusalem for seven years guaranteed I witnessed a lot first hand. I tried to fictionalize reality as much as I could in order to shine a light. It deserves to be mentioned, reading Khaled Hussaini’s The Kite Runner further cemented the Almond Tree’s existence in between the covers.”
And speaking on the art of maintaining a fine balance on a subject that has the potential to ignite even at the slightest spark, she elaborates ” I needed to show enough so that people understood the situation, but not so much that it overwhelms the readers. I had twenty years to gain perspective, digest what I saw and write in a less emotional manner. The writing process took seven years and during that period was the war on Gaza . I hadn’t intended to write about Gaza, but then I realised it was clearly unavoidable. Over there, the majority of people are women and children who live on less than two dollars a day in an open air prison. It took me two years to write those forty pages.” she points out. “No conflict is ever resolved by confining it to one’s own perspective. There is also another point of view and it should be accommodated. Let’s remember there is no alternative to peace,” her voice very clearly reflecting her intention.
As the conversation veers towards an end, one cannot resist asking, if Michelle Cohen Corasanti ‘the voice of reason from the other side,’ is seeking a plausible role in resolving a crisis that has created deep fissures in the world order and has the best of politicians give up in vain? Her answer lies in an analogy drawn from the American history. “Just to remind, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which President Lincoln allegedly said brought about the civil war that ended slavery, was written by a white woman in the voice of a black slave.”