Michelle Cohen Corasanti’s response to Susan Abulhawa’s critique of The Almond Tree proves Abulhawa’s point about the book coming off as informed by white privilege and the white savior complex. Here are some of Corasanti’s major points, which need to be deconstructed:
1. Corasanti stated, “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.”
This is statement speaks directly to the arrogance of Corasanti that Abulhawa described. Abulhawa is Palestinian, born to a Palestinian family and raised among Palestinians in Jerusalem, in Jordan and Kuwait. Her characters were composites of grandmothers, uncles, aunts, neighbors and friends. Yet she still had several of her Palestinian friends and at least one Palestinian academic read her manuscript at different stages because she understands what Corasanti clearly doesn’t that novelists should approach the lives of others with humility. The Palestinian struggle with its many painful facets is something Abulhawa grew up with. She wasn’t an observer “on weekends” while away at school, but she still didn’t presume to fully comprehend everything her grandmother and parents told her about their dispossession and she sought to authenticate her writing from those who did. To do otherwise is arrogant and insensitive in the extreme.
2. Corasanti also said, “[Abulhawa] suggests that only Palestinians should write about the Palestinian narrative.”
Abulhawa has written favorable reviews of a Palestinian narratives by non-Palestinians. The most recent is of a book titled The Wall, by William Sutcliffe (who is white and Jewish).
3. She further stated, “I am completely mystified by Ms. Abulhawa’s criticism of The Almond Tree“.
It makes perfect sense that Corasanti is mystified by Abulhawa’s objection to the caricaturizing of Palestinians, the romanticizing of collaboration, and the diminution of the valiant Palestinian struggle over the decades. This is a textbook white privilege reaction that believes it is the prerogative of white people to fix brown lives, that nothing should be beyond their reach (not even the wounds they caused) to interpret, manipulate, pity, photograph or exoticize.
4. She then postulated “especially since The Almond Tree reaches audiences in the United States not shared widely by readers of Edward Said or Ms. Abulhawa.”
Is she really putting this orientalist novel above Edward Said’s work? Maybe not. It’s difficult to tell. But for clarification, as one of the greatest intellectuals of our time, Edward Said transformed the way in which we view the world. You cannot go anywhere in the world and not find educated people who know his work intimately. And though his work is not pop culture, it has certainly affected pop culture. As for Abulhawa, her book actually is a bestseller and has been read by millions the world over. But all that is beside the point. It’s the nature of the narrative that concerns us all, and like all people, Palestinians have a right to their own stories and they have a right to criticize and call out distortions and self-serving distortions of their lives.
5. She then stated, “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?”
I think it’s fair to paraphrase that statement as: “Nobody wants to hear the incessant whining of Palestinians. I’m here to save Palestinians from themselves.” There are a thousand ways that Corasanti could have shown solidarity and thousands of authentic accounts by Palestinian writers that she could have championed if solidarity was truly her aim. May I suggest she and those who think like her read this excellent guide on how to check your privilege and be a true ally.
6. She then reiterated, “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.”
So, Corasanti is actually teaching Palestinians how their names are pronounced? Further, she did not address Abulhawa’s point that the word “Ichmad” is a form of the verb to suffocate/subdue.
As a Black American, who has traveled to Occupied Palestine more than once, I not only empathize with Palestinians, but I can smell from a mile away those who attempt to transpose their narrative upon marginalized people based upon their privileged arrogance. Using literature and art that falsely depicts the realities and sensitivities of oppressed people can actually do more harm than good. I applaud Abulhawa for not staying silent in the face of such cultural misrepresentation.