Book Review: The Almond Tree February 2, 2015 11:00
By Michelle Cohen Corasanti, Garnet Publishing, 2012, paperback, 348 pp.
Reviewed by Delinda C. Hanley
We first meet 7-year-old Ichmad Hamid in 1955, as he guides his father through a field of landmines in the West Bank of Palestine to retrieve what’s left of the boy’s tiny sister Amal. As the household prepared for a holiday celebration the toddler climbed out of her crib to follow a red butterfly into their field—which Israel has designated a “Closed Area.” Ichmad guides his “baba” using a map he drew as he watched Israeli soldiers plant mines in the family’s land.
I’m not giving away the plot. Amal is killed in the first three pages ofThe Almond Tree, and that heartbreak is only the first of many catastrophes to rock this young hero in his painful coming-of-age journey. Ichmad is a gifted boy who works to keep his family together amid the senseless cruelty and overwhelming hardship that is everyday life under Israeli occupation. Along with Ichmad, the reader learns that Israeli settlers can push his family off their land, move into his home, and divert water to build a swimming pool in the illegal settlement he can watch from his favorite almond tree. Soldiers can destroy every hut or tent that shelters Ichmad’s family—but nothing can force this Palestinian, or his artist father, to give up their dreams for a normal future.
As Ichmad steadfastly retains his dignity, decency and resolution and tries to make something of his life, he also discovers friends, including a Palestinian teacher who prods him to pursue his studies, Israelis and Americans, who offer helping hands along the way.
A Spanish journalist, Guillermo Fesser, who lives in Rhinebeck, NY, first sent me The Almond Tree, along with his glowing book review published in Spain’s Huffington Post. In his note he mentioned, “I believe this book could be a useful tool for Americans understanding the conflict, since it is not a political book. It’s fiction...which just happens to be in the context of Israel/Palestine.” He was so impressed by the novel that he’s created The Almond Tree Project, <thealmondtreeproject.com>, with a goal to use the arts—music, film, theater and storytelling—to promote dialogue, awareness and understanding.
Fesser’s website helped answer my biggest question after I read the book: Just who is this first-time author, with a decidely un-Palestinian name, who has the storytelling gift, not to mention the chutzpah, to tell an authentic-sounding Nakba story through the eyes a Palestinian boy? It turned out she has her own important coming-of-age story.
Michelle Cohen Corasanti grew up in a Zionist home in Utica, New York and first traveled to Israel with her rabbi’s daughter during high school in 1982. When she got there she was shocked to learn that everything she’d been taught (i.e., after the Holocaust, the Jews found a land without a people for a people without a land and made the desert bloom) “turned out to be a lie.” She lived in Israel for seven years, earning an undergraduate degree in Middle East studies from Hebrew University. “It’s easy to live there and never notice anything,” Corasanti admits. “We were segregated from Palestinians and taught that they are evil and violent and less than human, that their lives don’t matter.”
The last year Corasanti was in Israel, the intifada broke out. “Things went from horrible to unbearable,” so Corasanti returned to the U.S. to earn an MA from Harvard and train in international and human rights law. At Harvard, she said, she tried to tell her family and friends “about the plight of Palestinians, but no one cared. All the Harvard students I spoke with cared about was boycotting tuna fish because they killed dolphins when they caught the tuna.”
After a summer studying Arabic, Corasanti went with a friend to Walden Pond. Some Palestinians overheard them speaking Arabic, and it turned out one of them had lived in her same dorm at Hebrew University. They knew the same people and had the same birthday—although he was five years older. “It was love at first sight,” Corasanti recalled. He was doing his post-doctorate at Harvard with a Nobel Prize winner. In the end the two didn’t marry, as we can guess by her married name.
Although Corasanti had the seed of her story, she said she buried it for 15 years—until she readThe Kite Runner by Afghan-American author Khaled Hosseini. “One might say it was a defining moment and I decided that I wanted my kids to know that I had seen injustice and tried to do something about it.” No U.S. publisher would touch The Almond Tree, but Garnet in the U.K. took a chance.
It’s clear that Corasanti has done what President Barack Obama asked Jewish students in Jerusalem to do in his March 21, 2013 speech. He urged Israelis to “Put yourself in their shoes—look at the world through their eyes. It is not fair that a Palestinian child cannot grow up in a state of her own, and lives with the presence of a foreign army that controls the movements of her parents, every single day.” In a letter Corasanti penned to the president, thanking him for those words, she warns her fellow Jews: “We cannot turn a blind eye to the truth. We have the power now, but that won’t last if we don’t give others what we want for ourselves...We cannot keep repeating our same history: We are persecuted, we overcome, we abuse and we are persecuted again.”
This story would now be a screenplay for a guaranteed blockbuster if its hero, who endures and overcomes so much, came from anywhere but Palestine. Corasanti’s tale of resilience, hope and forgiveness is a must-read both for those who are stumbling through the Israeli-Palestinian minefield for the first time, and others who know its sorrows all too well.
Delinda C. Hanley is news editor of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.