Author: Michelle Cohen Corasanti
Paperback: 352 pages
Publisher: Garnet Publishing Ltd
ISBN: 10: 1859643299
Review by Ramona Wadi
The frailty of hope and the power of resistance weave an intricate story of contrasts. When the country in question is Palestine, hope and resistance merge and deviate as Israel's illegal occupation continues to fragment reality. In The Almond Tree, Michelle Cohen Corasanti explores the tribulations of a Palestinian family against a historical background of Israeli oppression and Palestinian resistance.
Ichmad, a gifted child living in the Occupied Palestinian territories, observes his family's suffering and insecurities - the possibility of home demolitions by the Israelis and the subsequent displacement haunts the entire village. On his twelfth birthday, Ichmad's father is brutally beaten by Israeli soldiers in his family's presence and falsely accused of being a terrorist. The family's house is burned, on the pretext that 'terrorists don't deserve houses'. Displaced and forced to live in a tent, whilst trying to discover where his father is being detained, Ichmad and his brother, Abbas, leave school out of the necessity to support the family. However, Ichmad resumes studying upon returning home from work each day, going on to win a scholarship in a prestigious Israeli university.
Corasanti skilfully portrays a family in imminent danger of being fragmented. The deaths of two siblings, Amal and Sara, serve to depict the disparity in temperament and understanding of the illegal occupation between Ichmad and Abbas. Ichmad's giftedness and responsibility towards his family bring him into direct contact with Israelis, through which he successfully manoeuvres himself by constantly keeping in mind his father's advice - to understand other perspectives and to face challenges and transform them into opportunities.
Abbas pursues the strategy of resistance. Pushed off some scaffolding by an Israeli Iraqi who harboured an intense hatred for Palestinians after his son was killed, Abbas is unable to work which further defines his mistrust of Israelis. For Abbas, survival is equivalent to resistance using force. Unlike Ichmad, whose initial sense of responsibility is limited to providing for his family's wellbeing, Abbas is concerned about all ramifications of the illegal occupation. Upon learning that Ichmad planned to marry a Jew, Abbas leaves the family home, joining Palestinian freedom fighters and eventually becoming a member of Hamas.
Through the experiences of the two brothers, Corasanti delves into the injustices faced by Palestinians in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and Gaza, as well as the precarious lives of activists who dare to protest against Israeli aggression. Ichmad's first wife, Nora, is murdered by an Israeli soldier whilst peacefully protesting the demolition of Ichmad's family's home. Prior to her death, she comments about the appropriation of Palestinian land, noting that Israeli settlements were smothering Palestinian villages, depriving villagers of their livelihood and safe travel. Ichmad's reaction to Nora's activism is to dissuade her, encouraging her instead to use her law degree and raise awareness from the safety of the US. Ichmad's awareness of Palestinians' suffering as a collective goes through phases. In his childhood, he is angered at injustices and soothed by his father. Once his career is established, his work alongside Israeli colleagues distances him from the people's plight, although his loyalty towards the family is unwavering. Towards the end of the novel, Abbas forces Ichmad to behold and acknowledge the indignities and abuse inflicted upon Palestinians. Once faced with the reality of mangled bodies, murdered children and the effects of white phosphorus, Ichmad acknowledges his brother's heightened perception of human rights abuses and comes to terms with his affiliation to Hamas.
In the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Ichmad receives the news that together with his Israeli colleague, Menachem, he has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Following his nephew's decision to become a martyr for the Palestinian cause, Ichmad blames himself for enlightening Khaled about opportunities to escape Gaza and pursue an education abroad, given that his father, Abbas, is affiliated with Hamas and therefore his travel is restricted. In the course of his speech at the prize giving ceremony, Ichmad acknowledges his mistake of misinterpreting and attributing privileges to education. "Where I once dreamed of manipulating atoms, I now dream of a world in which we rise above race and religion and all the other dividing factors and find a higher purpose."
Whilst the novel is replete with references to hope, it is difficult to conjure a concrete image of the rhetoric whilst abuses in Gaza and the Occupied Palestinian Territories are consolidated each year. Although the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to an Israeli and a Palestinian who pledge to provide educational opportunities for Palestinian children befits the conclusion of The Almond Tree, the award is of individual prestige, as Ichmad explains to his father. Secondly, education for Palestinians is far from being considered a right. Israelis have deprived Palestinians of fundamental freedoms, including the right to education, for decades. The yearning for education has been compromised by Israeli aggression towards students. When faced with an illegal occupation that indulges in an extermination of a population, hope faces a formidable opponent.
Menachem argues that "Cooperation between Palestinians and Israelis offers the only real hope for peace." However, the fact that the occupation itself is illegal fails to materialise in the context. A strategy based on hope, however active, seems to distance itself from decades of repression and atrocities. A cooperation which fails to address the root of the problem might be destined to fail, with the dominant group's political power basically remaining unchallenged. The Palestinian problem is far more entrenched than an illegal occupation - it is an illegal occupation which has gained the support of imperialism and many governments around the world participate in the destruction of the Palestinian population by relying on the rhetoric of hope and condemnations which are never enforced.
That said, the novel is beautifully written and exhibits an inherent knowledge of life in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and Gaza. Corasanti's elaboration of history and fiction has created a touching narration which ensnares the reader from the first chapter. The constant manipulation of opposites - violence versus peace, the concepts of trust and betrayal, dialogue and reticence, brought profound significance to the book; a reality which evokes a multitude of reactions against human rights violations and the legitimacy of each reaction questioned, addressed and acknowledged.
Therein lingers the metaphor of hope in the novel.