A review of “The Almond Tree”
By Michelle Cohen Corasanti, Garnet Publishing, 2012.
Achmid, the name of the narrator and main protagonist of Ms. Cohen’s debut novel, “The Almond Tree,” turned me off so badly that at first I was tempted to drop the miserable fake altogether. Didn’t the woman know that such rendition of one of the prophet’s names is offensive to Arabic speakers? Only now, after devouring the spellbinding account of the dramatic life of the Palestinian prodigy with the insulting misnomer from his dirt-poor village beginnings to the halls of the Swedish Academy of Science, do I really appreciate the cunning choice of the name. What better statement could the author have made about the mixed-up identity and muddled self-conception of the average Palestinian Arab citizen of Israel? Truly, the Ashkenazy cultural hegemony in Israel had taken hold of us all. We speak the Ashkenazy dialect of Hebrew even when conversing in Arabic with each other, we eat the Ashkenazi sheminit instead of labane for breakfast in our arabesque-tiled kitchens, and we hang Hebrew billboards at the entrance to our businesses catering to our 100% Arab cliental. There are no ‘Ahmads’ left among us. ‘Achmid’ gives a taste of the colonization of our indigenous culture, the appropriation of our falafel, hummus and tabbouleh as items of Israeli cuisine, and the violent mangling of our psyche.
But the novel is not another artful attempt at whitewashing Israel and singing the praises of its civilizing influence on its Palestinian citizens. On the contrary, it presents in full force and gory detail Israel’s violent suppression and merciless punishment of the Palestinians’ attempts at resisting its land theft and iron-fist practices of its military. Trigger-happy Israeli soldiers kill Palestinian children just as they continue to do daily in the West Bank and Gaza, and bulldozer operators and their commanders raze Palestinian homes crushing American activist protestors in a detailed and faithful recreation of the mechanized assassination of Rachel Corrie. If any figure shines in the narrative, it is Achmid’s father, a pillar of wisdom, kindness, sacrifice and understanding and an accomplished painter and traditional musician committed to nonviolence and reconciliation. A near perfect negative mirror image is Achmid’s boss and scientific guardian. He is bigoted and full of hate and accepts Achmid as his student against his will. Achmid’s wrongly jailed father’s image never leaves his mind. His constant wise admonition to his obedient son together with the family’s extreme poverty pacifies the young man’s every step of the way. His submissiveness and mathematical genius force the holocaust-scarred professor to put up with him. The compromise eventually succeeds in tethering the two scientists for life, a camaraderie that costs both dearly in terms of their respective family relationships.
Ms. Cohen does a good job of stringing a series of violent atrocities into a near believable sequence of events that shape the life of Achmid and his family. Along with this, she manages to visit traditional Palestinian customs and lore, with an occasional slip-up such as depicting them living on a steady diet of rice when in fact wheat is the Palestinian staple. But this is more than balanced by her lively and colorful portrayal of their daily life, take her description of the traditional wedding ceremony and the Dabkeh, the Palestinian group dance, for example. This incongruity and fluctuating fidelity in reporting the horrendous life experiences and many losses of the family at the core of the powerful narrative colors it with a hue of unreality though it hardly affects its truthfulness. Throughout the entire saga, the Palestinian is the underdog, the defeated and powerless sufferer left to survive by his wits and the kindness and care of his next of kin. The Jew, whether Israeli or American, is his occasional but obligatory benefactor, be it in obtaining a permit for him to build a house or to travel or securing him a post-doctorate position at MIT. The latter stipulation is an accurate account of the real experience of every Palestinian scientist in Israel that I know. This patronizing gesture, often processed through the collegial close contact with a fellow scientist at an American research institute, reflects the unequal relationship between the needy Palestinian and his magnanimous Jewish boss regardless how their relative scientific abilities compare. The fact that the deal is often sealed between two scientist who happen to be Jewish adds a further rub to the ethnically nuanced benevolent gesture. Overall, “The Almond Tree” conforms to this stratified ordering of the parties’ relative outreach and power: The Arab always needs the input of the Jew to get ahead in the world, a basic premise of Shimon Peres’s Oslo era dream of the New Middle East.
I may have stretched my feeling of awkwardness regarding the role of Achmid’s professor and enabler a bit too far. After all, there is a precedent: Arafat had to drag two Israeli's along to qualify for his prize. (just kidding! Actually all three were falsely accused.) Still, reading the novel did leave me wishing Ms. Cohen had invented a more equal relationship despite the contrary reality. Even more thought provoking was imagining reading the novel wearing the hat of an Israeli Jew: After dismissing the initial urge to call the author anti-Semitic and a self-hating Jew, more out of blind habit than out of conviction, I found myself kneeling to the ground under the weighty burden I needed to shoulder in seeking true peace and reconciliation with the Palestinians, starting with those sharing Israel’s citizenship with me since day one, those on whom the author purports to shine the international spotlight.
Having sung the praise of this powerful and timely novel, I am still at a loss as to how to convey my gut-level revulsion at the choice of name for its hero, clever and meaningful as it truly is. For the Arabic speaking reader and the student of Arabic culture, I have just discovered a convincing illustration of what I mean: Go to the link and see how the IDF greets its Moslem soldiers and tell me how your stomach feels?
Others just have to believe me: “Achmid” stinks. Yet he is a true reflection of our reality. And who am I to complain? The hero of my forthcoming novel lives for two decades with the name “Eli” instead of the Arabic “Ali” for the sake of convenience and to keep peace in his mixed family.