The Almond Tree
Michelle Cohen Corasanti
Publication Date: September 30, 2012
It is so easy to dismiss conflict and strife when it’s halfway across the world. It’s also easy to read about strife and conflict when you know it’s not real, when you can regulate it to the realm of fantasy. It makes it easier to rationalize the sensationalism, to blunt the cruelty and the horror of an ordinary life caught up in a power struggle between forces who refuse to acknowledge the toll caused by their rigid stances, a toll paid for in human life and humanity’s devastation.
Michelle Cohen Corasanti‘s novel, The Almond Tree, chronicles the life of one person caught up in such a conflict, yet this is no high-minded fantasy. The canvas on which she carefully paints this story is very real: the Palestinian-Israeli conflict from the 1955 to 2010. Although her central character, Ichmad Hamid, is fictional, the book is reflective of personal experiences shared with and encountered by the author during her seven years in Israel, where she attended high school and worked toward an undergraduate degree in Middle Eastern Studies at the Hebrew University.
Ichmad is the eldest son of a proud and prosperous family of orange growers; generations of the Hamids have developed high quality oranges and distributed them worldwide. But suddenly – with only 30 minutes’ notice – their land, their groves, and even their house was taken from them as they were displaced and occupied by the newly declared State of Israel. From there, Ichmad is witness to the systematic and brutal dismantling of an entire people, played out in an extremely personal and heartbreaking stage.
The young Palestinian boy’s story is indeed heartbreaking; the book opens with raw tragedy and spirals down from there. On his 12th birthday, a day that should have been remembered as one of celebration and joy, his father, his beloved Baba, is beaten and imprisoned for a transgression that not only did he not take part in, but that he knew nothing about. Mahmud Hamid is a gentle man, a musician and a painter, an orchardist, a man of great faith and even greater compassion, one who would not even eat meat because he meant harm to no one. Yet none of those things matter. Ichmad’s father is taken away, imprisoned at the Dror Detention Centre in the Negev Desert, leaving behind a wife and six children who are forced to live in a tent beneath an almond tree, with no means of support. Young Ichmad is forced to grow up very fast.
I thought of Marwan Ibn Sayyid. He was twelve years old when he saw a soldier beating his father in the street. Marwan jumped on him. They held him in an adult prison with Israeli criminals for two years before his case even went to the military court. Marwan tried to kill himself twice in his cell. He was finally sentenced to six months and when he was released, he ran into the road waving a plastic gun at the soldiers. They killed him instantly.
But in amongst all the insanity of being an occupied people on their own land, despite the oppression and simmering anger and overwhelming obstacles, Ichmad has one thing that can’t be taken from him: a keen mathematical mind paired with an insatiable curiosity. Even while his back is bent under work and burdens that would have defeated a healthy man, his intelligence shines, and eventually he wins a competition that allows him a way out of the squalor and harsh conditions that had become his life, and gives him the opportunity to lift his family from abject poverty and despair. Although this means leaving his mother and siblings, and living amongst the hated Jews, he has the blessing and encouragement of his imprisoned father, who, despite his situation, still sees beyond the moment to what the future may bring and pushes his eldest son towards that brighter future.
While Ichmaud thrives – albeit timidly and tentatively – his younger brother left behind chooses a far different path. Abbas, who had been the gregarious and playful one before a construction “accident” at age 11 (being pushed off a 5th floor scaffolding by a Jewish co-worker) left him a cripple, turns inward and allows his resentment and anger to bleed into hatred. Feeling betrayed by Ichmaud’s “treason” in working with those who had imprisoned their father, murdered friends and family, and taken from the Hamids every bit of comfort and solace, he, too, leaves home, but to disappear deeper into the radical and often violent Palestinian resistance.
“As Bishop Desmond Tutu said, ‘If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.'”
Abbas’ words hit me like a slap. If he could only understand. “I’ve tried to make peace in my own way.”
“You’ve done what’s good for you. You’ve forgotten about your people. You’re a collaborator. Did you ever think that not all of us possess skills the Israelis can exploit?”
The Almond Tree is a hard book to read, for it forces us to take a radical look at our own complacency in the face of cruelty and oppression. Whether or not you are a supporter of Israel or a Palestinian sympathizer – or are ambivalent about either – it is still important that voices not normally given notice are heard. If nothing else, being able to get a glimpse into a part of the world and a mindset that may be very different than one’s own helps us all to have a more meaningful understanding of our world as a whole.
When I first read Qais Akbar Omar’s beautiful and harrowing memoir on growing up in a conflicted yet beloved Afghanistan, A Fort of Nine Towers, I felt that a whole new world had been opened to me. It was a world that I had only known through a red, white and blue lens, when in reality, it was full of its own color and emotion, containing a depth of history as precious to its people as mine is to me. The Almond Tree has had this same effect for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is a hard knowledge, a disquieting knowledge, and a confusing one, but that does not make it any less valuable. In fact, it may because it is uncomfortable that makes it all the more worth our efforts to understand, regardless of our own backgrounds and affiliations.
In the end, despite the cause and effect, it is the human spirit that endures. That, I think, is the main message of The Almond Tree. As author Corasanti says both in the book and in her own notes to readers, “May the battles that we fight be for the advancement of humanity.” The Almond Tree gives us a broader stance to approach those battles, to hopefully make them unnecessary in the future.
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