With the Palestine-Israel conflict flaring up once again and a chunk of Gaza reduced to near-rubble status, Michelle Cohen Corasanti’s debut book The Almond Tree , launched in the US last month, focuses attention once again on the Palestine-Israel conflict.
The story, related by Ichmad Hamid, a Palestinian boy, is about the unimaginable sufferings of his large family, staying on occupied land. It begins with Israeli soldiers throwing the family out of their home, fencing their land with abundant orange groves, and shunting them to a mud-hut smaller than “our chicken coop”. The only saving grace of their new home is an almond tree from which Ichamd, then 9, and his younger brother Abbas, can see the entire village with the telescope the gifted Ichmad has made.
With their orange groves gone, his father — Baba — a pacifist, has to find work with the Israelis. To his horrified family, he explains how even Israeli soldiers can be good. “They are bad, good, scared, greedy, moral, immoral, kind, mean — they’re human beings like us. Who knows what they might be if they were not soldiers? This is politics.”
But Baba with his liberal views is implicated in a crime he didn’t commit and imprisoned for 14 years. As he is taken away, “my family’s wails, as we huddled together, penetrated my bones. I willed myself dead in Baba’s place and knew that I’d never be happy again,” thinks the child.
A good portion of the book is devoted to the back-breaking physical labour 12-year-old Ichmad and Abbas have to do to save their family from starvation. But one crisis follows another — Abbas is crippled when deliberately pushed at the construction site where the two boys are working.
A chill penetrates our bones as we go through a vivid, graphic account of how Palestinians like Ichmad are treated by Israeli soldiers at check posts and other places. While visiting Baba in prison, he is stripped. “The guard pulled my buttocks apart and I gasped with pain as the instrument penetrated my rectum. I held my breath. When the instrument scraped my insides, my eyes watered. It was all I could do to keep from whimpering. My ears popped when the guard finally removed it.”
Michelle’s book has been compared to Khaled Hosseini’s Kite Runner , but reading the excruciating pain and sorrow he is subjected to, Ichmad reminds me of Mariam, the protagonist of Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns . But unlike Mariam, Ichmad is headed for better times; he is brilliant at math and the village teacher insists he participate in a math competition. To keep his promise to Baba that he would not “get sucked into this struggle” and make something of his life, he does, is selected, and never looks back.
His brilliance in math and Physics takes Ichmad to academic heights and he ends up collaborating with his Israeli teacher, Professor Sharon, who first tries to “fix” him, but later recognises his talent and opens doors for him.
But this only horrifies Abbas, who hates the Jews and warns Ichmad not to “be seduced by the devil” and fill his head with “phony ideas like equality and friendship”.
When Ichmad finally accepts the offer of a post-doc at MIT in America — a country that is helping Israel in the war against Palestinians — and falls in love with Nora, a Jew, Abbas disowns him. The rest of the book is about one brother climbing the summit of success and prosperity in the western world, and the other getting sucked into the Palestinian cause.
All his life, Ichmad sends whatever money he makes — from his student’s stipend to his generous salary later — home, and feels he has done well by his family.
But, when he finally goes to Gaza to meet Abbas, for which permission is got only with the help of Prof Sharon, and sees the havoc wreaked there by Israeli bombs and missiles, does he realise that he has failed his people. Michelle’s graphic description churns your insides and holds a mirror to what must have happened during the fresh outbreak of violence.
The prose is as evocative as powerful. All over Gaza, Ichmad sees unpainted cinderblock structures with “giant gaping holes. Plastic covered most of the windows. Out in the rain, the streets were packed with wet people of all ages, dilapidated vehicles and donkey-pulled carts. Broken TVs, water heaters, cables and bent iron rods protruded from more piles of rubble. Abandoned sniper towers were on every corner. Barefoot children sloshed in mud.”
When he fails to find the extensive orange groves of Gaza that Baba had said “infused the air with a sweet sense”, the taxi driver’s scathing reply to his query is: “Israel uprooted the trees, you can imagine what a threat to their security the trees must have posed: an orange must have dropped onto one of their tanks.”
Even the waves sound angry in his palatial hotel and its owner asks him: “Do you know anyone who is interested in purchasing a five-star hotel in a prison?”
The ultimate debate he has with Abbas, now a Hamas leader, is searing. When Ichmad asks him why the peace Israel offered at Oslo wasn’t accepted, a bitter Abbas says: “Peace wasn’t offered. Israel wanted to rule us land, sea and air, create an open-air prison… Do you really think they did all this just to stop a few homemade missiles? They want to kill our hopes and dreams, destroy our humanity.”
The truth, he adds, is that Israel had turned a hard-working, proud and resourceful people into a “nation of beggars.”
But the book also holds out hope for a better future for Palestinians. Giving this hope is the almond tree all through the narrative. The book ends with the tree being in full bloom well before its time.
End the blind support for Israel
Michelle Cohen Corasanti is a lawyer trained in international law and human rights. A Jewish American, she was raised in “a Zionist home where Israeli bonds were plentiful and German cars boycotted”. After an M.A. in Middle Eastern studies from Harvard, she enrolled for Ph.D at both Harvard and in a law school.
“In addition, I was in a relationship with a Palestinian from Israel I met at Harvard. He was doing his post doctorate in chemical physics jointly with a Nobel Prize winner and his Israeli professor and mentor,” she says. You recognise bits of him in Ichmad, as he too was a genius in math and science, his father was in prison for 14 years, and he had to slog to support his large family.
A self-confessed human rights activist, Michelle has always longed to see peace between Israel and Palestinians. But the narrative in her book is skewed heavily in favour of the Palestinians and their suffering, which results in extremism.
To my query on this aspect, she says, “I did throughout the story take real events and fictionalise them. I had to tone them down because if I was to really say what happened, it would sound too incredible. Ichmad isn’t totally based on my ex-partner; he is a compilation of fictionalised facts, incidents and people.”
Michelle says that when she went to study in Israel, she was “shocked and saddened” by Zionism going against core Jewish values such as “thou shall not steal, kill. I had been taught that Jews were always the innocent victims. What I saw was that the Jews were the victimisers. I had never seen racism and cruelty like I witnessed there.”
She adds that as a Jewish American she was treated with respect, but she was disturbed to see the way they treated Palestinians.
“I was horrified, shocked and deeply disappointed at what I witnessed. I don’t recall ever witnessing Israelis being kind to Palestinians the entire time I was there.”
The only glimmer of hope she saw was in the way Israeli scientists treated people with exceptional scientific talent.
She sees a connection between the persecution of the Jews during the Holocaust and their torturing the Palestinians now.
“What I saw was that the lessons that the Israeli government and the majority of the Israelis today learned from the Holocaust was how to persecute and dehumanise the Palestinians. And that is why I had trouble portraying the Israelis in a positive light. Most Jewish Americans have no idea what they are supporting and if they knew I think they would be sick. I hope my book can open people’s eyes as to the real situation because the Palestinians’ suffering must end and Jewish Americans blind support for Israel must end.”
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