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Corasanti describes inspiration for novel, ‘The Almond Tree’

Cover Art: The Almond Tree

Cover Art: The Almond Tree

We have run several pieces about the novel, The Almond Tree, by Michelle Cohen Corasanti, including criticism of her perspective. The book has now been published in Asian markets; and it is garnering favorable reviews.

Last month The Times of India published an interview with the authorand  interviewer Ipshita Mitra recently released the full transcript on her personal blog, “It’s only words…

In that interview, Corasanti reveals the inspiration for the story of the book that she had not disclosed before–her former marriage to a Palestinian. The two were married in his village, she says, and her former husband provided the “seed” for her protagonist in her book.


Qs. Significance of the almond tree in the book: it’s witness to the atrocities but stands mute and silent. Could silence be ever an answer to violence?

Ans. For me, this conflict is not about one’s skin color, nationality, or religion. It’s about being human. I am the almond tree. I wrote about the burden that comes with awareness that I carry with me every day. I am a witness and I wrote this novel because silence should never be an answer to violence. I put myself in the shoes of the many Palestinians I grew up with and loved during the seven years I lived in Israel and the years afterwards. I witnessed and heard their stories. I have never forgotten their voices; their stories are a part of my story and helped me to write ‘The Almond Tree’.

I returned to the US after living in Israel for seven years during high school and college, my innocence shattered, desperate to stop the needless suffering caused by the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. At the time, no one cared or even believed me. I thought, as an American, I would re-acclimate easily into US life, but that wasn’t the case. Having witnessed what I had, it was hard to talk about guys, what to wear and what parties to attend. After a year in graduate school, I still hadn’t met a friend I could relate to until I met Ahmed (not his real name). We had graduated from the same college in Jerusalem. We knew many of the same people and had lived in the same dorms. I was doing my masters and he, his post-doctorate in chemical physics jointly with a Nobel Prize winner and his Israeli professor. I finally felt at home. We had come from the same world, or so it felt at the time.

Ahmed, whose father went to prison when he was a child and wasn’t released until he was in graduate school, became the breadwinner at an early age, picking fruit to support his family. He was the oldest of nine and so brilliant that he could attend school infrequently and still graduate and receive a needs-based scholarship to Hebrew University. Yes, Israel does give scholarships to Palestinians inside Israel. In fact, the Koenig Report that was leaked to the press in 1976 revealed recommendations to encourage Palestinian intellectuals in Israel to study the sciences so they would have less time to dabble in nationalism. With degrees in science, it would be easier for them to find work abroad and nearly impossible for them to find high-level scientific jobs in Israel since military service is almost always a prerequisite. In fact, I met and was friends with many Palestinian post-docs from Israel both in the US and in Europe.

Ahmed was from a world far different than the one I grew up in, but it was a world I understood, that continues to shape the woman I am today. We were married in Ahmed’s village and lived there for the summer. I had been to many Palestinian villages before, but as his wife I was one of the family.

In writing The Almond Tree, I focused on the glimmer of hope in his story: Ahmed and his Israeli professor who worked together. I didn’t write Ahmed, my former husband’s story, but it was a seed for my novel. The Almond Tree is influenced by the many Palestinians lives I witnessed and stories I heard. I didn’t write about the West Bank. I never lived there. I lived inside of Israel like my characters.

From past experience, I knew that if I told the truth, that it would sound too incredible. People would say I was making it up. I needed to be able to show, yes that really did happen. It is a story I carried in my heart for over a decade before I found the strength and the way to tell it. During the seven years it took me to write the novel, I revisited my days in Israel during the first Intifada, my marriage, the stories my Palestinian friends had shared with me and those I had seen, I drew from all of these real events for the novel.

President Obama told an auditorium of Jewish Israelis that the conflict would not be resolved until they could put themselves in Palestinian shoes. Why? I believe because he knows it creates empathy. And in writing The Almond Tree, I have tried to walk in their shoes so as to help my readers do the same.

Qs. Was it a deliberate attempt on the author’s part to represent the two brothers Ahmed and Abbas in stark contrast in terms of their political ideas? Was it a case of the ‘Good’ Palestinian (Ahmed- the math prodigy who wins the Nobel) vs the ‘Bad’ Palestinian (Abbas- the freedom fighter and lives in abject poverty)? Ahmed’s easy acceptance of the oppressor’s society is hailed but Abbas’ rejection to be part of the same is criticized. Why?

Ans. The brothers, though very different in character, were virtually inseparable until an Israeli cripples twelve-year-old Abbas, leaving him in chronic pain – and angry at the people who caused his disabilities. Abbas fills an important role in The Almond Tree, providing a context for why some Palestinians choose a life of resistance, risking death, injury, torture and imprisonment. I have not written about abstract ideas in Palestinian families’ lives. They are facts of life that touch and have touched every family. Abbas is not a bad person. He’s a freedom fighter as opposed to Ahmed whose genius opened doors for him that were not available to Abbas. Ahmed chooses another path, partly out of a moral indebtedness to his father, which is established early in the story and runs throughout the novel, and partly because he naturally possessed something that could act as a bridge between him and the world beyond his Palestinian village.

Of the two brothers Abbas is much more dedicated to the cause of resistance and freeing his people. Ahmed is more concerned with his immediate family’s survival and fulfilling his promise to his father. Neither of the brothers is bad and their relationship is crucial to the story.

As far as “easy acceptance of the oppressor’s society,” I wouldn’t call life in the diaspora easy even for those Palestinians who have lived and prospered in it. No one with a conscience can forget what he knows, where he comes from or the people left behind. I don’t think those burdens will lessen until the conflict is over. I neither hail nor criticize my characters’ choices in the book, I simply show how humans may behave in real life, and at times how brothers can grow apart, when each is convinced of his “truth.”.

Qs. Nora vs Yasmine: Who makes the better wife according to you and why?

Ans. There are actually three loves of Ahmed’s life.The counterpart for Nora in The Almond Tree wasn’t Yasmine, but rather his first love, Amani, a beautiful and brilliant Palestinian woman……

To learn Corasanti’s views on peace, justice and a one or two state solution, read the rest of the interview.

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12 Responses

  1. Scott
    March 19, 2014, 7:35 pm

    Thanks for making me aware of this novel. Corasanti seems like a good force. I don’t dismiss Susan Abuhalwa’s perspective, but my first thought was that Cry the Beloved Country was a great and important book, which played a large role in setting the American consciousness about apartheid.

    • Keith
      March 19, 2014, 8:33 pm

      SCOTT- You may care to read my comment below. If you decide to get the book, do yourself a favor and buy a used one, there seem to be a lot of cheap ones floating around.

      • Keith
        March 21, 2014, 10:40 am

        SCOTT- Well, you can forget about reading my comment below as it didn’t pass moderation. I’m not sure why. Granted, it was a rather harsh critique of “The Almond Tree,” but not outrageously so. Apparently, I have yet again offended one of the moderators. In the past, attempts at euphemistic rephrasing were of no avail so I’ll leave it at this and hope that this sneaks its way through. Cheers.

  2. WillemPJdeBrouwer
    March 22, 2014, 1:29 pm

    Cry, Thy Beloved Country which was written by a white man in the voice of a black man did create awareness for Apartheid just like The Almond Tree creates awareness of the Palestinians’ plight. Have you read her book? If you did, you would understand why Abulhawa’s inaccurate review should be dismissed. Here’s a link to all the inaccuracies in Abulhawa’s review that she wrote and Aljazeera refused to print:

    • Keith
      March 23, 2014, 3:49 pm

      WILLEMPJDEBROUWER- “Have you read her book?”

      I read about 40 pages. I found it to be very contrived and poorly written, so much so that I stopped reading even though I had originally planned to read it all. My first comment was rather insulting and provocative and didn’t pass moderation, hence, I am toning this one down a lot. Because of the commenter response on the first series of articles on “The Almond Tree,” I expected to see more on this thread now that some of us had read the book, but, alas, that did not occur. I wonder why? And now, as we approach the end of the comment period, you come along with your very first Mondoweiss comment. How interesting. I have never read “Cry, the Beloved Country,” however, I suspect that it is much better written than “The Almond Tree.” I would love to see a Mondoweiss commenter that I respect who has read both make a comparison.

      • annie
        March 23, 2014, 4:46 pm

        I expected to see more on this thread now that some of us had read the book

        us? you didn’t read the book keith. and in your comment that got dumped you claimed to have read 20 pages, and now it’s up to 40? hmm.

        and while i don’t qualify as someone you respect i read and liked the book. i thought it made an excellent young adults novel written in a style and voice young adults could relate to, like the hunger games. and hostage read the book and commented on it affirmatively (pam and hatim liked it too).

        i don’t know why hardly anyone commented on this thread. probably had something to do w/the fact we had a huge fight in three other posts about the book, one of which was authored by someone who had not read the book based solely on the critique of susie abulhawa, who is an incredible palestinian author and activist and friend of the site. but as far as i know yours was the only comment that got dumped.

        the reason we posted this excerpt from the times of india interview, is because it is news when an author, one who is in the middle of a controversy that’s garnered lots of international attention due to the critique against her book, reveals she was married to the protagonist.

        and it’s been years since i read cry the beloved country, since i was in high school. but i think a more apropo comparison might be uncle tom’s cabin which the author herself made reference to in an article here. i believe her when she says her intention in writing the book was to bring about a resolution to the conflict. and while there has been much completely understandable criticism over the years about uncle tom’s cabin, it is credited with fueling the abolitionist movement in this county and bringing about the civil war. more than any other book. there was lots of speculation about what corasanti’s true intentions were, including the idea she was a liberal zionist. however i think in the interview above it becomes clear she doesn’t care about 1 or 2 states but “there must be justice for there to be lasting peace.”

        if the book reaches readers, especially young adults who have not formed opinions of the situation in palestine, the dearth of information in the book makes it almost impossible not to empathize with the plight of palestinians. it’s not written with an intention to bring ‘balance’ (imho). and i think it’s worth whatever criticisms and speculation the author will endure, including insults about her writing (she’s no abulhawa and corasanti doesn’t profess to be a great learned writer) but i think she’s a great storyteller and thought the book was a real page turner, takes the uninitiated on a psychological journey.

      • Keith
        March 23, 2014, 5:52 pm

        ANNIE- “you didn’t read the book keith. and in your comment that got dumped you claimed to have read 20 pages, and now it’s up to 40? Hmm.”

        In my first comment I said “I closely read the first twenty pages plus skimmed an additional twenty.” I think that qualifies as “about forty.” I tried to shorten this comment not expecting you to nitpick me. Foolish me.

        “while i don’t qualify as someone you respect”

        Why so catty? Was I referring to you? Why such a chip on your shoulder? Since this was Willem P J deBrouwer’s first comment, he doesn’t qualify. There are other commenters who don’t inspire confidence, surely you could name a few.

        “i read and liked the book.”

        I am happy for you. I obviously didn’t, and forty odd pages was enough to convince me not to read further. And I bought the book. Had to, The Seattle Public Library doesn’t have it. Strange, it being so well received and all.

        “corasanti doesn’t profess to be a great learned writer”

        In the initial discussion she continually compared her book to “The Kite Runner,” as did all of her promotional material. Now we have a new commenter suddenly appear comparing her book to “Cry, the Beloved Country,” so don’t you go claiming she is simply some modest do-gooder.

        “i think a more apropo comparison might be uncle tom’s cabin”

        I probably wouldn’t be able to read more than 40 pages of that either, but I take your assessment at face value that “The Almond Tree” is on a literary par with “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”

      • annie
        March 23, 2014, 7:30 pm

        “i read and liked the book.”

        I am happy for you. I obviously didn’t, and forty odd pages was enough to convince me not to read further.

        ok. we got it. you neither read nor liked the book. pity your distaste prevented you from assuaging your many questions and inferences about it. here’s just one of your earlier comments:

        her actual history is critical in assessing her claims. Her scene with the Palestinian groom lifting the bride’s veil with a sword has been ridiculed both by Abulhawa and Mondoweiss commenters. In her defense, she cites “Wedding in Galilee” by Palestinian film-maker Marcel Khelifi which apparently has a similar scene. From this I infer that her wedding scene is strongly influenced by the movie for its dramatic appeal at the expense of authenticity. She makes additional references to Arab literature which influenced her work, once again at the expense of authenticity. She seems to be cobbling together various fictional sources to tell a fictional story far removed from any authentic Palestinian narrative.

        Yet, she feels the need to claim authenticity. Hence, the startling revelation that “Furthermore, I am quite familiar with a wedding in a Palestinian village in the Galilee because, unlike Ms. Abulhawa, I actually had one.” Here she is claiming that on her personal experience, she is more knowledgeable about Palestinian weddings than Abulhawa. This is critically important and needs to be pursued. Married to whom? When? Where? Did the groom lift her veil with a sword? Did she meet him at school? Was he the son of a high ranking Palestinian official? Was the marriage legal in Israel? In the US? Annulled? Divorced? Too personal? Not when she brought it up in defense of her bona fides. We already know that her biography is calculated to show what she wants shown and hide what she wants hidden. This is a Harvard trained lawyer with twenty years experience, not some naïve waif.

        Getting back to Corasanti’s official biography, We know she came from a Zionist family, studied for seven years in Israel, had what appears to me to be superficial exposure to the trials and tribulations of the mass of Palestinians, may have been married to an unknown, unnamed Palestinian who later disappeared, returned to the US and got multiple degrees from Harvard, interned at her father’s law firm where she met her current husband and settled down for twenty years before reading “The Kite Flyer.” Let us be honest here. Looks to me that the fruit didn’t fall far from the tree. She may have landed slightly to the left, but what does that indicate? Perhaps a liberal Zionist?

        that was a lot of speculation on your part keith. how’s all that ‘inferring’ going for you? knowing what we know now, i think it’s more likely to assume her husband was not the son of a high ranking Palestinian official, but instead, like the protagonist in the book, the son whose father went to prison to protect his son’s from culpability in helping the resistance hide weapons. and since that happened between pg 35 and 38 (the 7% of the book you skimmed and claimed was contrived) kindly tell us now why you would infer something like this just wouldn’t happen during that era or any other since. you don’t think this sort of thing happens? contrived? because in the opening of the book the little girl gets blown into bits.

        is it because she’s white you assumed she was married to a ‘high ranking Palestinian official’? or you just don’t think corasanti could have been married to someone raised in a tent. first you have all this opinion based on a book you didn’t read, and now you have an equal amount of distain based on a book you read 20 pages of, and skimmed another 20.

        i’m just curious why all the interest in this particular book and author keith? and i didn’t claim it was on on a “literary par” with Uncle Tom’s Cabin, i have not even read that book. you were so active in the other threads, and you can’t seem to leave it alone.

        btw, lots of people agree w/me. palestinian author (fiction) Selma Dabbagh says the writing style is

        “clear, unforced and uncluttered.. straightforward linear fashion, with no flashbacks or alternative narratives, and keeps a steady, easy pace…moving, despite being occasionally rather sappy…
        The Almond Tree has all the makings of a bestseller or a Hollywood film. It is a rags-to-riches (in this case tent-dweller to international award-winner) tale with love, suffering, death and justice thrown into the mix.”

        go ahead and take the last word (or several i’m sure), it’s all yours. but after reading 5 of your comments in 4 days, in an otherwise silent thread, it’s not me itching this scab.

      • LeaNder
        March 23, 2014, 8:32 pm

        Keith, while reading Shira Robinson’s Citizen Strangers a lot of passages from Corasanti’s The Almond Tree came to mind.

        For instance this scene, where the younger brother of the protagonist is attacked by a Sephardim worker and ultimately turned into a cripple. Yossi is the employer of the two boys, the “Iraqi” is an “Oriental Jew” according to Israeli diction, that works at the same place.

        ‘Son of a dog!’ the Iraqi shouted. He squeezed the towel in his hand so hard his fist turned white. Earlier, he had spat on my foot. His phlegm was warm and sticky. When I bent down to wipe it off, he said, ‘Your time’s up!’
        Yossi explained to Abbas and me that today was the first anniversary of the death of the Iraqi’s son and that we should ignore him because he wasn’t in his right mind.
        I heard the towel drop and turned to see the Iraqi run at Abbas. Jumping to my feet, I flew across the concrete moulds, but it was too late. The Iraqi pushed Abbas off the scaffold. He fell backwards. His arms and legs flailed. A primal scream pierced the air. Then, a horrible thud.
        ‘Abbas!’ Within seconds, I was on the ground floor running to him. His body was splayed in the mud. Blood pooled under his head. Rain pelted him.

        from Shira Robinson about Kafr Qasim:

        At the formal political level, MAKI presented the most radical analysis of the crime, accusing the government of pathologizing the shooters in order to conceal what had been a premeditated murder ordered by the highest ranks of the state.

        According to the footnote that follows this quote, the “common trope the that the then prime minister helped to create” to deny army responsibility was that the lower segments from backward Arab societies were responsible for the massacre. “Throughout the early 1950’s he repeatedly denied the army’s responsibility for the reprisal raids he sanctioned and blamed them instead on vigilante settlers who had either emigrated from the Arab world or survived the Holocaust.”

        I remember anyway that I wondered why it had to be a Sephardim that makes the younger brother a cripple. Accident? Why this choice?

        And yes, the there are stories about weapons possessions:

        In March 1949 several of his relatives were expelled, reportedly on the pretext of trumped-up charges of weapons possession.

        from a different footnote:

        “commented al-Ittihad’s editors. “Today the accusation of weapons possession has become the ‘fashion’ throughout … the Galilee … [Here a large white space indicates censored material.] We denounce these acts which violate democracy and … all the declared laws of the state.”

        and hostage read the book and commented on it affirmatively (pam and hatim liked it too).

        No doubt hatim did “like it best”, if you ask me. ;)

        Just as I am still mystified by hostage’s take. A bit more of the sensibility that Susan ultimately suggested may indeed have helped to turn into a better book beyond pure kids entertainment. But maybe the lady herself has not much depths so it very, very unlikely this will stand next to names like Dostoevsky or Dickens, as far as storytelling is concerned.

        Count me among the skeptics concerning the marriage above. Very, very skeptic. If that would be true, just as much of the rest of her biography the story possibly would have been different.

      • Keith
        March 23, 2014, 9:30 pm

        ANNIE- “go ahead and take the last word (or several i’m sure), it’s all yours.”

        You are taking this whole business much too personally. You are the one who “can’t seem to leave it alone.” Why else the lengthy defense followed by the lengthy quote of what I said on the previous thread? Everything I said at the time was justified when I said it. My questions the obvious ones following Corasanti’s alteration of her official biography to suddenly include a mystery Palestinian husband. I am not going to bother responding to why I found the book contrived since I don’t feel the books merits additional discussion by me. And your insinuation that my assessment of “The Almond Tree” as literature was a result of a deep bias on my part is totally off base. Had it been even reasonably well written, I would have read it cover to cover as I originally intended. And far from being fixated on “The Almond Tree,” I had set the book aside and out of mind until it came up again as part of Mondoweiss’ promotion of the book.

      • annie
        March 24, 2014, 1:45 am

        I don’t feel the books merits additional discussion by me.

        lol, you crack me up.

      • LeaNder
        March 24, 2014, 6:55 am

        Actually, her publisher, I assume, has put up a biographical essay on the site for the book:

        I am the Almond Tree

        Since she already hinted at the story before, I found this quite interesting. although it is also too close to what I expected. ;)

        The page also links to this twitter feed: Ahmed Hamid TAT

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