The following is the author’s response to Susan Abulhawa’s review The Almond Tree: When novels distort legacies of struggle.
Also, below Michelle Cohen Corasanti’s article we are publishing an article by Ahmad Abu Hussein a primary source with first-hand knowledge of the subject-matter in question, who affirms Ms. Cohen Corasanti’s rebuttal.
I’d like to thank Susan Abulhawa for taking notice of The Almond Tree although I must say that I am both fascinated and mystified by her review. She correctly points out that The Almond Tree has received very favorable reviews. She noted that an article in the Huffington Post predicted it will become one of the best sellers of the decade. She also correctly implied that part of its appeal is that it is a novel written in the voice of a Palestinian Muslim male by a Jewish American woman. As the sales and reviews of the novel suggest, The Almond Tree is succeeding in shining a light on the suffering of the Palestinian people. Major publications also state that The Almond Tree, is a Kite Runner– esque novel and can be a game changer. Like The Kite Runner, The Almond Tree is reaching readers across the board. Many of these readers would never otherwise read a book about the Palestinians. My goal was to write a “page-turner” that also had the ability to offer readers an opportunity to step into at least one Palestinian’s shoes and learn some small measure of the Palestinian narrative.
The Almond Tree, I am told, stimulates readers to seek greater understanding of the Palestinian condition and question their own beliefs about the conflict and its root cause. It is a novel forged from the traditions of its precursors, such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin. That book was written by a white woman in the voice of a black man and changed the hearts and minds of white Americans. Does anyone believe that her target audience was black American slaves? Similarly, The Almond Tree isn’t meant to preach to the choir.
I believe it’s fair to say, that in the United States the Palestinian narrative is not known and not understood. What’s worse is that the Palestinians have been unfairly stereotyped and had their history either distorted or totally erased.
Judging from Ms. Abulhawa’s lectures, she appears to share a similar view of such perceptions in the United States. Accordingly, I am completely mystified by Ms. Abulhawa’s criticism of The Almond Tree especially since The Almond Tree reaches audiences in the United States not shared widely by readers of Edward Said or Ms.Abulhawa. She suggests that only Palestinians should write about the Palestinian narrative. 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? Not only is it succeeding in changing people’s existing positions, but it is also opening people’s eyes who until reading The Almond Tree could care less about the Palestinians.
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.
Now with regard to specific comments about The Almond Tree presented in Ms. Abulhawa’s review. I feel it necessary to correct certain statements that she made so that our readers are not confused about the history and geography of Israel and Palestine. I believe they are entitled to accuracy.
The Almond Tree starts in 1955 in a small village in the Triangle inside the green line that I named ElKouriyah village. None of my characters are from the West Bank and no part of my novel takes place in the West Bank. I do not understand why Ms. Abulhawa would think that Ichmad is from the West Bank. In 1955, the West Bank was controlled by Jordan and continued to be controlled by Jordan until 1967. Accordingly, it would be wrong to think that Elkouriyah village was located in the West Bank in light of the fact that for more than the first one hundred pages of The Almond Tree, the reader is made painfully aware that the village is under Israeli martial law. Until 1966, the Palestinians in the Triangle inside the green line, among other places in Israel, were ruled by Israeli martial law.
I lived inside the green line, in Jerusalem and other places, for seven years, in high school and college in the eighties. I witnessed first-hand the Palestinian reality there. I have my BA from Hebrew University in Jerusalem in Middle Eastern studies. In that program, with me, were many Palestinians from inside the green line from areas such as the Triangle.
In fact, I came up with the name for my protagonist from a Palestinian friend who attended Hebrew University with me. His name was Ahmed. He was from Baqa Elgharbiya in the Triangle, also known as “The Little Triangle.” As I had no family in Israel, Palestinian friends would invite me to their homes on weekends. I went with him to a wedding in his village. His parents and others of their generation called him Ichmad. They spoke to me in a rural dialect such as, “Chief Halich? Sho Ismich?” This was in the eighties before internet reached us there. My protagonist would be from my friend Ahmed’s parents’ generation. What I didn’t realize was that many Palestinians didn’t know that and believed Ichmad was the Israeli pronunciation of the name Ahmed. As I heard many Israelis say the name Ahmed because he and other Ahmeds were in class with me at Hebrew University, the Israelis pronounce the name with an Ah and not an Ich. My book will be published over the next twelve months in ten languages. Despite being perfectly correct on this point, I have suggested that the name be changed from Ichmad to Ahmed because this level of nuance is lost and even misconstrued by many readers. The South Asian English edition has already been changed.
Ms. Abulhawa claims “Only in the most orientalist imaginations would a Palestinian groom lift the veil of his bride with the tip of a sword.” She obviously has failed to watch the film, Wedding in Galilee by Palestinian film-maker Marcel Khelifi. Furthermore, I am quite familiar with a wedding in a Palestinian village in the Galilee because, unlike Ms. Abulhawa, I actually had one. Moreover, my Palestinian groom in fact received a scholarship to Hebrew University.
Never did I imply that a sewing machine was used in the tent to make Ichmad’s clothes. As I am someone who knows how to sew and has made many of my children’s clothes, I am well aware that one can sew by hand such items and does not need a machine. As a novelist, it was important for me to show that Ichmad’s family lived in abject poverty. One way I achieved this was to show his family being so poor that the mother had to make their clothes. Another is to show rice was a staple in their diet. I did this not to show that the Palestinian diet is rice based, but because I had a Palestinian friend whose father went to prison for over a decade and he told me that they were so poor that he grew up on rice because they couldn’t afford much more. He grew up on a poverty diet, not a Palestinian diet.
The Almond Tree shows that Ichmad is not only a genius, but is also smarter than all his Jewish peers. He goes on to win a Nobel Prize. Comparing him to the black domestic help that remains just that in The Help is simply not accurate.
In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe believed that white women would be more sympathetic to the plight of the blacks. As a result, she made white females, such as Eva, who were against slavery beautiful and brilliant to give white women heroines to emulate. The Almond Tree isn’t a beauty contest between Palestinian and Jewish women. It is about giving women heroines to emulate. Furthermore, Ichmad’s first love is Palestinian, beautiful and brilliant.
Professor Menachem Sharon starts off as an evil racist and so his name helps convey that sentiment. He lies and maliciously tries to sabotage Ichmad at first until he is forced to hire him as his research assistant. When this occurs he recognizes Ichmad’s genius and changes. As my motive in writing The Almond Tree is to try to help bring about change I show the change I would like to see. In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which President Abraham Lincoln allegedly claimed brought about the civil war, even the white supremacists who beat Uncle Tom to death later convert to Christianity. Harriet Beecher Stowe used Christianity as a bridge just like I used science.
I took a course in Arabic literature at Harvard called East/West. A major theme in that course was about eastern men who went to the west, fell in love with western women, returned home and were blinded by the west until they realized the greatness of their culture. One story we studied was “The Lamp of Um Hashem.” In that story, an Egyptian man from a rural village goes to the UK to study medicine. While there he falls in love with a British woman. She breaks up with him. He returns to his village. His parents want him to marry his cousin. His cousin is going blind and his parents are treating her eyes with oil from Um Hashem’s’ lamp. He is an eye specialist and insists they stop and he begins to treat her with western medicine. Her eyes deteriorate. His parents begin to treat her again with the oil and she improves. Her blindness represented his blinders. His blinders come off and he realizes the greatness of his culture. He marries his cousin and lives happily ever after.
Ms. Abulhawa states that Ichmad’s second wife who is Palestinian could not compete with his Jewish first wife. After his Jewish wife is killed Rachel Corrie style, Ichmad is devastated. He agrees to an arranged marriage to please his parents while he still hasn’t recovered from the brutal murder of his Jewish wife. At first he is blind to the greatness of his Palestinian wife and how well suited they are for each other until their son is born and his blinders come off. That is a theme from Arabic literature.
I didn’t need a Palestinian editor because I lived among the Palestinians inside the green line for seven years and saw with my own eyes the Palestinian reality.
I cannot think of any events in my novel that aren’t fictionalized reality and my reasons for doing so were as follows. The majority of people in the US don’t care enough to read non-fiction accounts about what’s happening to Palestinians. By writing about them in a compelling novel form, the reader has 348 pages to become invested in the characters and care about what happens to them. That is why people are saying that The Almond Tree changed the way they view the conflict. Another reason was that if anyone tried to say Israel would never do something that occurred in The Almond Tree, I wanted to make sure I could show that it already had.
Ichmad is able to succeed because he has a skill the Israelis value. In the end of the novel, when Ichmad finds his brother, the freedom fighter, he realizes that in saving himself and his immediate family, he left his people behind. He then tries to use his stature to shine a light on his people’s suffering. The Almond Tree doesn’t condemn or advocate one way or the other, which is pointed out by Palestinians such as Jamal Kanj, the author of the excellent book, Children of Catastrophe. He has also written a review of The Almond Tree. The Almond Tree shows how Ichmad is able to succeed within the framework of the oppressors’ institutions through collaboration while his brother resists. I think it is accurate to show that the collaborator would be financially more successful whereas the freedom fighter sacrifices such success in order to resist the oppressor. My book accurately shows how the resistance fighter is more concerned with his people whereas the collaborator is not.
My purpose in writing The Almond Tree was to try and shine a light on Palestinian suffering and help bring about peace. I believe that awareness leads to understanding and understanding leads to change. I have a BA from Hebrew University and an MA from Harvard both in Middle Eastern studies. I am also a lawyer trained in international and human rights law. As already mentioned, I’m Jewish and have lived inside the green line for seven years. In the Huffington Post, The Almond Tree is described as ”a drama of the proportions of The Kite Runner, but set in Palestine.” I am quite frankly astonished to read that Ms. Abulhawa views the success of The Almond Tree in shining a light on Palestinian suffering and creating awareness as a negative development. Are we not working to achieve the same goal? Are we not hoping to end Palestinian suffering and bring about positive change? We should all wonder how she can believe that her attack on The Almond Tree somehow benefits the Palestinian people?
Ahmad Abu Hussein’s Rebuttal to Susan Abulhawa’s Review “The Almond Tree: When novels distort legacies of struggle”
By Ahmad Abu Hussein from Baqa Elgharbiyah Village in the Triangle
How is it possible that American Jewess Michelle Cohen Corasanti would know more about our Palestinian reality in the Triangle than Susan Abulhawa, an American of Palestinian descent? The answer is easy. As a Jew, Michelle was allowed to live inside the 1949 armistice lines and witness first-hand the lives of Palestinians who remained in what became Israel. That is something the majority of Palestinians in exile are denied. In addition, Michelle came with an open mind and a desire to know the truth.
I know because I’m a Palestinian Muslim from Baqa Elgharbiyah village in the Triangle, which is located inside the green line — in Israel. I met Michelle on our first day of college at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. She was the only American in our department of Middle Eastern studies and we became instant friends.
Over the next three years, Michelle and I would spend countless hours together preparing for classes. As we studied Israel’s version of history in which we, Palestinians, were referred to prior to 1948 as the ‘Arabs of the Land of Israel,’ I filled her in on the truth.
During those years, Michelle lived my life with me and my friends. She witnessed first-hand the way we were treated, how we lived, our customs, and our political realities.
After college, Michelle returned to the United States to pursue graduate school in Middle Eastern studies at Harvard University; and I eventually returned to my village in the Triangle. We lost touch until I read a review of Michelle’s novel, The Almond Tree, in Al Jazeera that shocked and saddened me.
The reviewer, Susan Abulhawa, attacked Michelle for purportedly distorting Palestinian legacy. Upon reading Michelle’s book, I was outraged. It was obvious that Ms. Abulhawa knew nothing about the lives of Palestinians in the Triangle, which was accurately depicted in Michelle’s internationally bestselling novel,The Almond Tree.
Michelle’s novel was based, to a large extent, on realities I’d shown her and stories I’d told her. These were not stories Michelle stole — as Ms. Abulhawa tried to argue. They were stories that Michelle brilliantly turned into a novel that shined a light on our plight.
Here is the story behind The Almond Tree: essay.
In the first 100 pages of The Almond Tree, which takes place between the years 1955 and 1966, Michelle’s protagonist is living under Israeli martial law. Ms. Abulhawa erroneously suggested in her review that the novel’s protagonist was from the West Bank, which did not come under Israeli occupation until June 1967.
As Palestinians under Israeli rule from 1948 on, we were isolated from Ms. Abulhawa and the rest of the Arab world. The majority of Palestinians in Israel lived until 1966 under Israeli martial law, which was formally British marital law adopted by Israel in 1948. Israel continues to use that same law today to rule the West Bank. So, from the start, Ms. Abulhawa didn’t even know where the novel’s protagonist was from.
Ms. Abulhawa unfairly accused Michelle of being a white supremacist because her protagonist went to Hebrew University instead of college in the West Bank. Ms. Abulhawa also claimed that such Palestinians aren’t allowed to attend college at Israeli universities, adding “on scholarship, no less.” The novel’s protagonist went to college in 1966. At that time, the West bank was under Jordanian control. Michelle’s protagonist’s village was located in Israel. He won a scholarship and stipend to Hebrew University after beating all of the Jewish Israeli students in a math competition because he was smarter than them. In exchange, he was not required to give anything to Israel.
At the time when the novel’s protagonist was to go to college, his father was serving a 14 year prison term in Israel. As the oldest child, he was the main breadwinner for his illiterate mother, his dependent crippled brother and the rest of his younger siblings, who he was barely able to keep afloat. The protagonist was raised under the state of Israel and his family paid taxes in Israel. He was entitled to attend Israeli universities and was absolutely forbidden to travel to Arab countries let alone attend college there. In fact, at that time, it was against Israeli law for a Palestinian with Israeli citizenship to have contact with any Arab outside of Israel. It would not be credible to any reader for him to self-deport to Jordan for university, thereby abandoning his family. Anyone with even the most basic understanding of the political realities of the Palestinians in Israel would have been familiar with these basic facts. Ms. Abulhawa’s bogus claim that Michelle is a white supremacist is based on fallacy and ignorance.
Israel has a well-documented policy of pushing Palestinian intellectuals in Israel into the sciences, while at the same time making military service a prerequisite for high level science jobs. If these Palestinian scientists want to work in their field, they need to go abroad. That is known as one of Israel’s milder forms of ethnic cleansing. So Israel does give scholarships to Palestinians in Israel. And yes, Palestinians in Israel do attend Israeli universities.
And unlike Ms. Abulhawa, I’m not writing an academic review of a book based on fabricated facts. I’m writing about life as I experienced it living in a Palestinian village in what became Israel in 1948 and feel it is important to set the facts straight. We Palestinians who live under what became Israel in 1948 pay Israeli taxes and attend Israeli schools and universities. We have no other choice. We’ve endured harsh treatment and fought against all odds to remain in our homes and keep Palestinian traditions the way they were in Palestine before 1948. Ms. Abulhawa was wrong when she insinuated in her review that we’re collaborators because we refuse to leave our homes. Israel would love for us to self deport, not attend its universities and be considered collaborators. Ms. Abulhawa is supporting Israel against us. If that wasn’t bad enough, she had the nerve to mock our rural traditional Palestinian ways criticizing The Almond Tree’s depiction of our customs, claiming that they exist only in “the most Orientalist imaginations.”
We are proud of our customs and traditions; Michelle did not invent them because she is an “Orientalist.” Our traditions are part of the preserved Palestinian legacy and way of life in the Triangle. Sadly, Ms. Abulhawa wielded the term “Orientalist” the same way Zionists use “anti-Semitic.”
In addition, Ms. Abulhawa’s claim that the depiction of a brilliant Palestinian math and science prodigy who goes on to win a Nobel Prize in science is equivalent to a black maid in Mississippi just shows the extent Ms. Abulhawa is willing to go to deceive people.
In the Triangle, we take pride in preserving our regional Palestinian vernacular, despite Israel’s efforts to normalize the Arabic language. Israel wants the world to believe that we are Arabs, not Palestinians, because, according to their falsified version of history, Palestine never existed.
In the Triangle, the first letter in Ahmad, which is my name, is pronounced in colloquial Arabic with a kasra.The A in Ahmad thus becomes the letter I in English. As the second letter in Ahmad, ح, doesn’t exist in English, when we try and capture Ahmad with a kasra in English, we can either spell it Ihmad or Ichmad. If we write it as Ihmad, one cannot tell if the h stands for the letter ه or the letter ح. So Michelle used “ch” to capture the ح, which is a harder sound than the letter h that represents ه, but not as hard as the “kh” which represents in English the sound for the Arabic letter خ. Ms. Abulhawa claimed the Ichmad is how Israelis pronounce Ahmad. That is completely incorrect. Israelis can pronounce the A vowel. “Ch” isn’t in Hebrew. Those are Latin letters in which English is written. Hebrew is written in different characters. Hebrew, which is also a Semitic language, has the exact sounding letter as the ح.
Words such as challah and chutzpah begin with that letter. “Ch” is how that sound is captured in English. It’s been captured that way long before Zionism was even an ideology. The c is used to indicate to the English speaker to make the h harder than a normal h, but not as hard as the “kh”. “Kh” in English stands for the letter خ, which is needed to spell the Arabic word that means “to put out or suffocate like a fire” which, Ms. Abulhawa wrongly claimed Ichmad meant. An equivalent of the Arabic letter خ doesn’t exist in Hebrew. Hebrew letters in Arabic.
Ms. Abulhawa further claimed that she knew every accent in the Triangle and no one pronounced Ahmad that way. Unfortunately, Ms. Abulhawa most probably has never made it to the Triangle. Had she been here, she’d know how Ahmad is pronounced in our colloquial tongue. Knowingly or because of ignorance, Ms. Abulhawa is helping Israel obliterate our Palestinian vernacular in the Triangle by insisting on normalizing the name Ahmad.
The Almond Tree has succeeded in shining a bright light on our plight and I couldn’t remain quiet while Ms. Abulhawa joins hands with Zionists in trying to unjustly snuff it out. She has distorted the legacy of the Palestinians who have managed to remain in the Triangle against all odds.
Adolf Hitler once said, “If you tell a big enough lie and tell it frequently enough, it will be believed.” No one can deny that the Zionists have excelled at that. Then they block the truth from being heard.
That is exactly what Ms. Abulhawa has done. She’s tried to employ Zionist tactics to discredit The Almond Tree. Instead of recanting her inaccurate review, Ms. Abulhawa indulged in making unfounded accusations to undermine the author of The Almond Tree by calling her a white supremacist, criminal, racist, and distorter of Palestinian legacy and blocking Michelle’s rebuttal.
For anyone who would like to read an accurate depiction of a Palestinian boy’s life growing up in Israel, I highly recommend this amazing story. Ms. Abulhawa’s negative review of The Almond Tree stands alone in a sea of praise, towering even the Zionists who were unhappy with the novel’s accurate portrayal of our life under the State of Israel.
Ahmad Abu Hussein is a Palestinian from Baqa Elgharbiyah village in the Triangle, where he lives with his family. He has a BA in Middle Eastern studies and an English teaching certificate from Hunter College. He is both a high school teacher and college lecturer as well as an award-winning author of the books: ELSA and To Study English. He is currently writing his third book, a novel, about a Palestinian from Israel.