The Almond Tree by Michelle Cohen Corasanti, Prakash Books India Pvt Ltd.,
New Delhi, 2013, 352 pp., Rs 295 (PB) ISBN 978-81-7234-487-0
The Politics of Making Peace
Many years back, I decided I would only write about books I admired. My reviews would pay tribute to such books by analysing what they taught me about how life gets lived, or can be lived. Not far into my reading of Michelle Cohen Corasanti’s first novel The Almond Tree, it was clear that the novel challenged this old resolution. Sometimes a mediocre novel needs to be discussed because it sparks debate about troubling questions.
“My purpose in writing The Almond Tree, says Michelle Cohen Corasanti, “was to shine a light on Palestinian suffering and help bring about peace”.
Corasanti’s story about suffering and peace: Ahmad, a Palestinian, gets a break, studies in an Israeli university, and proves to be smarter than everyone. Every time the Israelis ill treat the Palestinians, Ahmad consoles himself with calculations -- of problems in physics or mathematics. He becomes research assistant to a Zionist supervisor; Ahmad converts the Zionist heart. They become best friends and collaborators, all the way to America, and then Stockholm, to pick up their joint Nobel Prize. Ahmad, the exemplary Palestinian, says at one point in the novel: “The last thing I wanted to do was talk politics.” As reward for being politically comatose, he gets to live the American dream.
Ahmad’s brother, Abbas, is the “political” brother. He is as twisted as his body becomes after an accident when building settlement homes for the Israelis. He goes underground, down the path of resistance. He works for George Habash, the founder of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). Even worse, he refuses Ahmad’s offers of sponsoring his family for a better life, preferably in America. When his son turns suicide bomber, Abbas realises his mistake.
Somewhere in between, Ahmad marries the perfect Jewish American woman, not only beautiful and intelligent, but also a human rights activist. She dies in Palestine, exactly as real life American activist Rachel Corrie did, run over by an Israeli bulldozer. A heartbroken Ahmad is later coaxed into an arranged marriage with a Palestinian. He is miserable; but he grows to love her, especially since she cooks well, bears children, loses weight and generally learns to fit into his American life.
Why bother with this mishmash of cardboard and saccharine, the sort of concoction we know from so many Hollywood and Bollywood films? Mainly because this is a book that plays both the marketplace of sales and the marketplace of opinion-making.
The Almond Tree has arrived in bookshops and the social media in the way packaged books are wont to do in our market-driven times. The author has even hired a Palestinian actor to play Ahmad in an interactive website, and there is a video trailer online. Much has been made of some breathless predictions: that “this novel will be a bestseller;” that it “can do for Palestine and Israel what The Kite Runner did for Afghanistan”. Corasanti herself has said that “part of [the book’s] appeal is that it is a novel written in the voice of a Palestinian Muslim male by a Jewish American woman... Major publications also state that The Almond Tree is a Kite Runner-esque novel and can be a game changer.” A “game changer”, because Corasanti means to offer a “roadmap for peace” by educating people, Americans in particular, about Palestinian suffering. A campaign of sorts has been built around the novel, an “Almond Tree Project” that will reinforce this education, and make efforts to “reconcile” the Israelis and Palestinians, and promote “peace”.
In 1948, the Palestinians went through what they call the Nakba, the catastrophe. They lost home when Israel was created. Palestinian villages were razed to the ground; Palestinians fled to refugee camps or were forced into exile. Those who remained in ‘48 Palestine, what became Israel, became “present-absent” aliens. After the 1967 war, Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza. Since 1948, the Palestinian experience has encompassed every possible form of loss, whether it is loss of land or control over their day-to-day lives. Even their past, their memories and their history, have been systematically eroded. For more than six decades now, Israel has done everything possible to make this all-pervasive loss a functioning system of apartheid policies put into practice. And this system has had the support of the pre-eminent military power in the world, the United States.
But the loss and damage that accompany colonialism, particularly the settler form of colonialism, is an incomplete story. History shows us that occupied subjects resist; and their resistance forms movements. The suffering of the colonised is a partial, even pointless narrative, if the inevitable fights for freedom, all kinds of fights under all kinds of leadership, are not in some way part of the story.
This is the historical and political territory The Almond Tree tries to travel. The novel has two broad plans: one is to recount the years of suffering by the Palestinians; and the second is to show “the way to peace in this troubled region” by forging links between the two sides in “conflict”.
This may seem a worthy motive; but as all readers and writers know, the motive is only as worthwhile as the text.
The novel begins with a long litany of sufferings; but throughout, resistance is absent, except as caricature. Just as Golda Meir famously said, “There are no Palestinians” to explain away the Zionist tenet of “a land without people for a people without a land”, this novel seems to say that there is no struggle among the Palestinians, except for a few misguided, warped, violent individuals who stand in the way of “leaving the past behind” and moving on toward “peace”. The novel simply does not face up to the fact that if it is about Palestine, it has to be about the last bastion of colonialism – a particularly virulent form in which the Nakba of 1948 continues to this day. If you make Palestine merely another “troubled” place where the two sides can negotiate as if they are on equal ground, it is possible to create a story where peace comes with collaboration. The past and present can be laid aside because the future means neither a Palestinian state nor an Israel in which all its citizens are equal. It means “moving ahead” and normalising the essentially abnormal relationship between coloniser and colonised. It also means feeding into the myth that democracy in Israel, and the very identity of the Israeli state, are “normal”.
It’s not surprising then that Corasanti has been accused of normalising Israel, and Israelising the Palestinian story. Palestinian writer Susan Abulhawa, author of Mornings in Jenin, wrote in Al Jazeera that to want to expose “injustice” through fiction is fine. But “when coupled with racist assumptions or lack of emotional comprehension of a people's culture, the result is often muting of already marginalised voices, theft of their narrative, stripping of their agency, and caricaturising of their humanity.”
Corasanti’s response to this review (http://mondoweiss.net/2013/12/corasanti-palestinian-suffering.html) is telling: “Ask yourself, what is more powerful, one hundred books written by the victims of oppression describing occurrence after occurrence of loss, hardship and suffering or one book described as Kite Runner-esque and predicted to be one of the best sellers of the decade by an author perceived to be a member of the ruling, oppressor class that condemns the unjust, cruel oppression by the ruling class and extols the virtues and the legal and moral rights of the subjugated class?... Just look to the criminal justice system of any country for guidance in this matter. It’s well established that the confession of the accused party is always more powerful, more persuasive than the complaints of a victim.” (Emphases mine.)
As long as the Palestinian story is one about voiceless victims, the oppressor’s narrative may indeed be more “powerful”. Corasanti wants to show us how a “Palestinian and Israeli could overcome obstacles and work together to advance humanity”. She does this by contrasting the benefits of collaboration and the futility of resistance.
Fiction, despite appearances, or the author’s protestations, is deeply political. And this is inescapable when writing about the oppressed past and present of a people, and their hopes for the future.
Published in Biblio, A Review of Books, New Delhi, Vol. XVIII Nos. 1&2, January-February 2014