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Oslo’s order: the Arab needs the Jew to get ahead in the world

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A review of The Almond Tree, by Michelle Cohen Corasanti, Garnet Publishing, 2012.

almond tree cover
The Almond tree, cover image

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 Ashkenazi cultural hegemony in Israel had taken hold of us all. We speak the Ashkenazi 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 clientele. 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 scientists 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. 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.

Hatim Kanaaneh
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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5 Responses

  1. Shmuel
    July 14, 2013, 1:07 pm

    The hero of my forthcoming novel lives for two decades with the name “Eli” instead of the Arabic “Ali” for the sake of convenience

    Reminds me of Sayed Kashua’s character Amir Lahab/Lahav in Second Person Singular. Kashua has also written about how many Jewish Israelis insist on calling him the more familiar (to them) “Sa’id”.

    You still seem to have the last word on those Ashkenazi-Hebrew vowels though, when you call “shamenet” “sheminit” :-)

    You have also reminded me of Simone Daoud’s idea of “the colonisation of the coloniser”:

  2. W.Jones
    July 14, 2013, 6:59 pm

    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?
    Probably one of the nicest things I have seen them put out.

  3. cohencorasanti
    July 15, 2013, 9:04 pm

    Dear Dr. Kanaaneh,

    Thank you for the beautiful review of my novel, The Almond Tree.

    I’m a Jewish American, a yeshiva graduate, with a BA from Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and an MA from Harvard, both in Middle Eastern studies. I’m a lawyer trained in international law and human rights. I lived in Israel for seven years. I decided to write The Almond Tree after I read The Kite Runner and realized a writer can reach into readers’ hearts and change them forever. I said to myself, if a medical doctor can write The Kite Runner, than surely I, a lawyer trained in writing, will have no problem. Seven years, twenty-one writing courses and six years later, I completed the task.

    The reason I wrote The Almond Tree is because I believe that until the US changes its policies and understands what is really going on, the Israeli-Palestinian situation won’t improve. The US supported Apartheid South Africa through the Reagan years. Even when the rest of the world condemned South Africa, apartheid continued because as long as the US backed the Afrikaners, they didn’t need anyone else. Apartheid only fell when the masses in the US understood what apartheid was and what it meant to the natives.

    Throughout my novel, I appeal to western values of democracy and equality for all and Jewish values which are in direct opposition to Zionism. The Almond Tree isn’t about being Israeli or Palestinian or Muslim or Christian or Jewish. It’s about being human. It’s about celebrating differences and focusing on our commonalities to advance humanity instead of our differences to destroy it. People across the board are responding to The Almond Tree. Here are a couple of examples:
    Blurb for Michelle Cohen’s The Almond Tree from Les Edgerton
    Many months ago, Michelle Cohen-Corasanti enrolled in one of my Writer’s Digest creative writing courses on story beginnings. The novel she worked on in class was The Almond Tree. It was clear immediately that this was a writer of uncommon talent and promise. The problem—for me—was her subject material. She was writing what seemed to be a pro-Palestinian book. All my life, I’ve been pro-Israeli. A political stand derived from my upbringing in a fundamentalist Christian home, where we were taught from an early age that the Jewish people were God’s “chosen people,” and Israel, a God-favored state. I was taught (and firmly believed) that as long as the U.S. was an ally of Israel, that we were also a nation under the grace of God. A pro-Palestinian novel simply went against all of my core beliefs. But, I consider myself a professional and I also fervently believe in freedom of expression. So, while I disagreed with the theme of her novel, she was never aware of my personal beliefs which I never revealed and I simply worked with her in addressing her craft. And then… she asked if she could hire me after class to coach her on her final rewrite. Now, I had a moral quandary. Could I, in good conscience, help someone in a work that was fundamentally opposed to everything I believe in? I asked several Jewish friends for their advice. I got differing views. Some said I shouldn’t lend my name and whatever editing expertise I had to the project if I disagreed with the politics. That wasn’t censorship, they argued, and I agreed. Others said that this was a professional matter and that my personal politics and beliefs shouldn’t be the deciding factors. After much soul-searching, I agreed with the latter. At no time during the process did Michelle know of my beliefs. I pride myself that I’ve never revealed to any of my students or writing clients my personal and political views nor let those views influence the way I worked with them. The few who’ve learned of them have always been surprised, assuming I shared their own views. I’m proud of the fact that I’ve remained neutral when working with writers.

    We began to work together. At no time during this process was Michelle aware of how I felt about Palestinians and Israel. My only guide was to always treat her material in a professional way and only look at it with the goal of helping her make it the best novel she was capable of writing. It was only when she had finished, that I revealed my personal feelings about Israel and Palestine to her. And that her novel had changed my mind…What’s important about this lengthy preamble to what I have to say about Michelle Cohen and her novel, The Almond Tree, is that this novel—the intensely gripping story of a Palestinian boy and his family and their suffering under Israeli occupation—convinced me with surety that my beliefs about this conflict were severely flawed and had been formed from a one-sided awareness. Her truly beautiful novel showed clearly that there are always two sides to a question, something I’d forgotten. In other words, Michelle wrote a novel which changed my mind about something important. That is the mark of a great work of art.

    It was easy to see Michelle has talent—what convinced me that this will be a book that will achieve substantial sales and be nominated for prestigious awards—was that the story she created converted me from what I had assumed to be a committed and unyielding position to one in which I now see the Palestinian people as belonging to the community of mankind every bit as much as any other group, including the Israelis.

    Some will be tempted to compare The Almond Tree to The Kite Runner, but to do so unfairly places the two books in some sort of presumed ranking. Both of these books are brilliant and powerful accounts and deserve to stand tall on their own merits, irrespective of the other.

    Ichmad’s story is a big-hearted story of a small Palestinian boy who learns to survive in a brutal environment and doesn’t simply endure, but emerges from the fire with the wisdom gleaned from the example of a father who has taught him that all men have value, even their enemies. A tale of innocence moving through a vicious world, compassion learned against an environment of daily horrors, and wisdom forged through a boy’s journey through a life we would never wish upon our own children. Michelle Cohen’s The Almond Tree is one of those rarest of books—a fiction that rings with authenticity and integrity to reveal the wonder of what it really is to be human.

    If ever peace is to become a reality between Israel and Palestine, it will be because of the influence of books such as this. I am proud to have been allowed by Michelle Cohen to have played a very tiny role in the development of this novel. This is a book that I think will endure and resonate forever in the souls of all who read it. I know it will in mine. Some books have the power to change us profoundly; this is one of those books.

    Les Edgerton
    Author of The Death of Tarpons, Monday’s Meal, Hooked and others.
    This is the relevant part of an email from an ardent Zionist:
    wow!… the perspective is fascinating, new and so disappointing to an american jew. honestly, i am embarrassed to say i never entertained the palestinian perspective… the story needs to be so personal to understand the injustices that were/are being committed in the land of israel. our “entitlement” focus is drilled so deep because of the holocaust.

    I have many more examples of Zionist responses to The Almond Tree. An Israeli newspaper, The Times of Israel, is doing a book review of The Almond Tree this week. I know you wondered how a Jewish Israeli would react to The Almond Tree. We shall see.

    In high school, I went to Israel because I wanted to get some parental freedom as my parents were very conservative. I had initially wanted to go to Paris, but my Zionist parents rejected that idea and sent me to Israel to study with the Rabbi’s daughter. All I had been taught at that point about Israel was that after the Holocaust, the Jews found a land without a people for a people without a land and this land was a desert and we made it bloom. To perpetuate this fallacy, we paid every year to have trees planted in Israel. When I was in Israel, an Israeli, told me that the Palestinians need to choose one of the twenty-one Arab countries and leave. That they don’t want them in Israel. I was confused because if there were no people in the land the Jews found, who could the Palestinians be? I thought Palestinian was a synonym for Israeli like Iranian or Persian. We never questioned the ancient cities that were there. It was only when I moved to Jerusalem and opened my eyes that I began to see what Zionism meant to the Palestinians.

    I was indoctrinated to believe that we Jews are entitled to Israel because of the Holocaust. When I was growing up, I was never taught about the Palestinians. I was taught that Arabs are terrorists, Muslim fanatics, anti-Semites who hate us solely because we are Jewish and they want to destroy our western values.

    I wrote this book for the Jews of America because I knew they would listen to someone from their own tribe before a gentile. I wrote this very personal story in the voice of a Palestinian Muslim so I could try and step into his shoes and speak from his perspective in order to try and show what Zionism meant to him. I didn’t write this book to show who did what to whom or who came first. Those arguments are manipulated. Most Americans don’t care about the conflict enough to read a book about it and don’t want to listen to the facts of who did what to whom. They want a fast-paced, gripping story.

    The intention of this book was to show that we are all equal entitled to equal rights and a person’s worth shouldn’t be judged based on his religion. We may have ethnically cleansed the Indians, but since then we’ve gone to war to abolish slavery and fought for equal rights. I’m sending those messages. The message to the Jews that we didn’t survive the Holocaust to go from victims to victimizers. The Almond Tree shows how powerful we can be if we pool forces and it’s about showing the horrific injustices that have been committed against the Palestinians.

    Now the time is ripe. I couldn’t have written this book twenty years ago. For one thing, the world wasn’t ready. Also because I didn’t have the perspective. That became apparent when a Jewish editor (Marcy Dermansky) told me I should include Gaza since the war had just happened. As opposed to the other places in The Almond Tree, I hadn’t been to Gaza so I had to do a lot of research. That wasn’t a good idea because I completely lost perspective. I tried to shine a light on everything, petrified I’d fail to draw attention to some horror. It was like I took the reader out to sea, pushed him overboard without a life-jacket and sped away. It was only at the bitter end that I was able to see that less is more.

    When I wrote The Almond Tree, I just assumed, incorrectly, the following were known to Palestinians, Israelis and others involved in the conflict. For the rest of the readers, it doesn’t matter because it just seems to go over their heads. The first one I think you were one of the few Palestinians or Israelis to know:
    1. Ichmad is a Palestinian from inside the green line. He’s from the Triangle which became part of the State of Israel in 1949. The Palestinians from the Triangle, as well as the vast majority of Palestinians from inside the green line, were subject to martial law until 1966. There are Palestinians and Israelis who don’t know that and think I’m talking about the Palestinians from the territories occupied in 1967.
    2. The name Ichmad – When I was in college, I had a friend Ahmad from the Triangle. I went to a wedding in his village. People didn’t not call him Ahmad. They called him Ichmad. They also said to me “Chief Halich?” “Sho Ismich?”It was just a local dialect and it left an impression on me. I wanted my protagonist to be from the Triangle so I thought if I gave him that name, Palestinians would know where he was from. No Palestinian so far has known. Every Palestinian who has mentioned the name Ichmad says it’s the way Israelis pronounce Ahmad. I would love to be able to say that I called him Ichmad to show how much the Israelis have desecrated even holy names, but in all honesty, I used it because that was how the villagers were calling my friend Ahmad. Who knows. Maybe it was just his village that pronounced Ahmad as Ichmad and not the entire Triangle. That was in the eighties before the internet.

    The important thing is that The Almond Tree has put a little Palestinian boy at the top of the Jewish fiction charts on amazon and people, including Americans, Israelis and other Jews, all over the world are rooting for him to succeed.
    Garnet Publishing in the UK released The Almond Tree in October, 2013.
    Foreign rights sold to date:

    World Spanish Rights: Ediciones B
    Dutch/Flemish Rights: Xander
    Italian Rights: Feltrienelli
    Catalan Rights: Ara Llibres
    English Rights in South Asia: Fingerprint Publishing
    Norwegian Rights: Schibsted Forlag
    Polish Rights: Sine Qua Non
    Turkish rights are currently being auctioned.

    Foreign Publishers’ Reactions to The Almond Tree:
    “Let’s make this the next Kite Runner!” Ricciarda Barbieri, editor, Feltrinelli
    “It has been a long time since a book struck me so hard. (…) It is an honest novel. There is no death or tragedy in it that leaves you indifferent or that comes across as sensationalist. (…) I felt captured from the first moment by her voice and her style. It is an honest story, exciting, with touching moments… It addresses a subject which is always present. A novel that shows pain, but also hope.”
    – Carol París, Foreign Fiction Editor, Ediciones B
    “Last night I could hardly sleep. I am excited. From the first 50 pages I knew that I wanted to publish the novel in our Amsterdam imprint. (…) I really loved it, it had me gripped, it made me cry (more than laugh), it made me think and, in a way, it transformed me, which is what I ask most of in a book. Yes, yes, yes, we want to publish it!”
    – Izaskun Arretxe, Editor and Director, Ara Llibres
    “We have read The Almond Tree, and we simply love it! It’s such a beautiful and strong story – and it made me cry several times. We will do our best to make sure that this beautiful novel gets all the readers it deserves.”
    -Inger Marit Hansen, editor, Schibsted Forlag
    “THE ALMOND TREE offers that rare combination of emotion and meaningfulness. The very complex situation in Palestine territories and Israel is dealt with in a very clever way that provides both humanizing insight and a perspective not often seen.
    THE ALMOND TREE is an accessible commercial novel with a literary appeal. The characters are engaging and believable, and we sympathize deeply with them. The novel’s perspective and the fact that the core of the story is a personal journey (against many odds) makes it enormously captivating.
    What really got me however –other than the simply gripping storytelling- is that this is a book which will make us think, it offers themes and points of view you want to discuss, and I can see reading groups are just waiting for a book like this. (…) To bring such a complex and sensitive subject down to a pure human story is a great achievement, and – next to the great reading experience this book provides – I also feel it’s message of perseverance, unity and humanity is important and should be spread. THE ALMOND TREE is part a sad and poignant story that reflects the inherent absurdity of the situation Ichmad’s family is in, and possibly of any family during war times. But more than that, this is a moving story of family love, hope and the power of dreams.” Sander Knol, publisher, Xander Uitgevers

    May the battles that we fight be for the advancement of humanity.

  4. cohencorasanti
    July 15, 2013, 9:16 pm

    In the sentence, “Seven years, twenty-one writing courses and six years later, I completed the task.” I meant to write six editors later. I might add, four of my editors were Jewish and one, Les, was from a Christian fundamentalist background.

  5. gamal
    July 16, 2013, 10:20 am

    very inspiring i am almost speechless with admiration,

    as to ahmad/achmid, eli/ali, i am reminded of Yoram Binur’s “My Enemy My Self” where he describes a negotiation between himself, posing as a Palestinian, and an Israeli employer over choosing a Jewish Israeli name by which he could be addressed in front of customers instead of the Ahmad i think he was going by. He was quite moved by the experience.

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