The Almond Tree: A peace proposal

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A spirited debate has followed Susan Abulhawa’s critical review of Michelle Corasanti’s book, The Almond Tree, originally posted on Aljazeera and reposted on Mondoweiss together with the author’s rebuttal.  Much of the seemingly endless debate relates to issues of my community, the Palestinian citizens of Israel, the group that Ms. Michelle Corasanti says she wanted to bring to the worlds attention through her novel. Let me then try and bring the discussion to some kind of amicable end: In fact I had intentionally stayed above the fray so as not to risk losing favor with either of the two writers that I admire so much. I had read the book and wrote a positive review with several reservations.

The Almond Tree

The Almond Tree

Basically I raised some of the same points that Ms. Susan Abulhawa did. But I did it in a less critical style and with much less intellectual and literary grounding. Let me be quick to admit that I truly admire Ms. Abulhawa both for her literary contributions and national fidelity. In fact I have decided on her newly published poetry collection, My Voice Sought The Wind, for my holiday season’s present to family members and close friends. Susan’s central point in her critique regarding the role of supremacist fiction in perpetuating oppression is, of course, incontestable. And its intellectual validity is independent of the author’s goodwill. Still, since I published my review I have had a chance to correspond with Ms. Corasanti and have no reason to doubt her honest solidarity with the Palestinian community in Israel. In fact, as an aspiring fiction writer myself, I was quick to take advantage of Corasanti’s successful novel in my approaching publishers in the following manner:

“The Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel, a minority of 20% within Israel, stand at the crossroads of hope for peace in the Middle East, their role uncelebrated and their promise untested. As a member of this indigenous group, in this, my first novel, I try to bring our existence to light, to sing out our pleasure and pain, to echo our sense of alienation and dispossession, and to hail our occasional successes and persistent striving for peace.

Michelle Cohen Corasanti’s first novel The Almond Tree (Garnet, 2012) alarmed me the moment I saw its first online review. Not only did I covet its subject matter and its peace, justice and reconciliation focus but also I noted its epic time span. I felt indignant. The good woman stole my thunder. I had been struggling for some dozen years with addressing in fiction form my community’s experience of loss and depravation that came on the heels of the Palestinian Nakba. I had been attempting to depict my lifelong struggle to break out of the dilemma of my schizophrenic identity as a Palestinian Arab citizen of Israel (PACI). All through my career I had struggled to put my professional knowhow in the fields of public health and community development to use in the service of my own community and, through that, to promote peace and understanding in the Middle East and throughout the world.

Suddenly, Ms. Corasanti had done exactly that, I first thought. Only after speed-reading the gripping novel did I overcome my alarm and regain my balance: As a member of the community under discussion, I have the inside track, the real life experience, an advantage I should flaunt in my submission. With that I lulled myself back to tranquility. I highly respect Ms. Corasanti’s focus on human rights, her exposure of the suffering of the Palestinian people and her optimistic and reconciliatory outlook. The young author is my perfect enabler, I realized, not my competitor. As a Jewish woman who bears no ill will to her people, she had swept the field for me clean of anti-Semitic landmines. With my equally peace-and-equality-minded manuscript, I should be able to walk the turf safely.

In her novel, Ms. Corasanti scales the dramatic and violent peaks of my community’s experience since the day it came under Israel’s rule. In contrast, in my account, I scan the less confrontational but equally conflicted sociopolitical topography over the same period. And I accord the actual scenery a good amount of attention. The two accounts reinforce and complement each other.”

So, you’ll understand, I have a vested interest in an amicable resolution to the mounting feud between the two inspiring writers: I would love to have blurbs from both on the back of my novel. So, let me put forth my considered proposal for diminishing the tension and lowering the heat of the debate:

First the name of the protagonist, Ichmad. I hated it and took it in my review to be an intentional reference to our (Palestinian citizens of Israel) schizophrenic identity. It turns out that Michelle did not intend that. I can now see were the double mistake came from: The change of the first letter from ‘A’ to ‘I’ is very much village colloquial style that the author says she heard in the Triangle. People in our villages do say ‘Ihmad’ instead of ‘Ahmad.’ The second mistake is in changing the guttural ‘H,’ as in the first letter in my first name, to the German-like “CH” as in the infamous command of “Achtung.” That one is a strictly Ashkenazi problem because of their inability to pronounce the Arabic guttural sound (which is also the original eighth letter of the Hebrew alphabet.) I am not sure if Michelle even picks the acoustic difference because of her Ashkenazi roots. Fortunately, she had indicated that she stands corrected on the mispronounced name of the protagonist and had already rendered it as ‘Ahmad’ in the latest version of her book.

The second point I want to address is that of the orientalist trappings of the wedding scene: I know of a wedding in one of our villages attended by many Jewish bigwigs including Sharon and Peres in which the groom rode on stage on a white charger holding an unsheathed sword high in the air. I borrowed the scene for my own novel. I don’t think such infractions of Palestinian village decency are impossible to find in reality. Choosing them to present to the reader is the issue.

Perhaps this is the place to allude to the justifiably easy but highly significant mistake that Ms. Abulhawa makes in assuming that the protagonist and his family are from the West Bank. Many of the dramatic events in the novel do resemble what we have come to associate with the violence committed in the OPTs. We had similar violence committed against our community but this was mainly in the past and few ever heard of it. Still, putting the narrative in the right context may well soften the edge of the author’s colonialist burden in Abulhawa’s eyes. Who like me knows how compromised our minority community within the Green Line has become. For the uninformed reader, let me explain: In 1948 we were stuck through no choice of ours on the wrong side of the border, a leaderless peasant society one third of which displaced and dispossessed internal refugees. We were placed at the mercy of a draconian military administration and thoroughly infiltrated by an extensive network of informants. Mere survival levied a high price of compromise and subservience. Perhaps that plays into my own willingness to weigh the pros and cons of Ms. Corasanti’s few transgressions in her recounting of our life. As we all know, there are very few internationally audible literary voices speaking on our behalf. So, why risk loosing one such benefactor. I would add that it would be counter intuitive for our community, famed for its generosity in guest receiving and welcome to outsiders, to refuse a friendly gesture from a seemingly innocent outsider even at the risk of permitting her some slip-ups. See how far I would go for the sake of keeping peace in the family of Palestinians and their supporters! Doesn’t that remind you of Emil Habibi’s Pessoptomist?

Let me end by suggesting a way out of the second major objection to The Almond Tree, the fact that it didn’t benefit from the input of a Palestinian editor. I am not a professional editor. Still, I hereby declare my readiness to serve as a sounding board for Michelle’s next novel, which, I am sure, will be forthcoming soon. After all, Khaled Husseini didn’t stop at The Kite Runner.

About Hatim Kanaaneh

Dr. Hatim Kanaaneh is a Palestinian doctor who has worked for over 35 years to bring medical care to Palestinians in Galilee, against a culture of anti-Arab discrimination. He is the author of the book A Doctor in Galilee: The Life and Struggle of a Palestinian in Israel. His collection of short stories entitled Chief Complaint was released by Just World Books in the spring of 2015.

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