Darkness and desperation seems to pervade much of the world today, especially in the Middle Eastern region. People struggle to establish some stability for themselves. Alongside bombings, poverty, and injustice, life must continue – filled with mundane errands, personal journeys of fulfillment, and love.
Religious wars and unjust policies crash against talks at a local café and shopping trips. The Almond Tree by Michelle Cohen Corasanti brings this juxtaposition to the forefront by following the life of one Palestinian boy, Ichmad Hamid, with a natural talent for math.
Ichmad grows up in a rural town in Israel. His family is dispossessed of their house and they are forced to live, at first, in a much smaller assigned house and then, after another eviction, in a tent as the permit process is delayed. Ichmad’s father is wrongly imprisoned for 14 years under the accusation of terrorist collaboration. Ichmad tries to support his family by getting a job in hard labour with his younger brother. He wins the opportunity to attend university focusing on higher level mathematics and computer chips. He suffers recriminations from his family, though he sends them part of his stipend, and discrimination from his peers. He moves to America as a prominent math scholar while remaining connected with his family and life in Israel. The story starts in 1955 and continues to 2009, tracking the development of violence, intervention, and resistance in the Israel-Palestine conflict through Ichmad’s eyes.
The tone of the book is established from the very first page. Ichmad is looking for his precocious 2-year-old little sister, Amal (meaning hope), missing from her crib. He finds her running towards an open field to play. As he runs to get her, his mother grabs him and screams for her daughter to stop. But, Amal is distracted by a butterfly and continues playing. What was a normal scene of a mischievous child becomes a horror scene when a land mine explodes, ripping the girl to pieces. The field was an abandoned minefield, a “closed area.” Ichmad’s father was able to carefully collect her body parts, but it was too late in the day to apply for a permit. They couldn’t bury her. Scenes like this occur throughout the book; Corasanti reminds the reader over and over again that life in Israel is a jarring combination of everyday trials in an atmosphere of violence. Ichmad needs to finish his homework but is threatened in the library by an armed prejudicial Israeli classmate. He shyly flirts with an attractive girl at school while living on nothing because most of his money goes to his family (a classmate even quips that Ichmad “looks like a Palestine refugee”). He tries to restart his life after the emotional devastation of his wife’s death and attempts to save his brother’s life when bombs fall harder in the city where his brother lived.
For those with basic knowledge of the political history of the Israel-Palestine conflict, The Almond Tree can serve as a good emotional supplement and summary of diverse points of view. Corasanti captures the feeling of the conflict, not of the soldiers or politicians but of the people who live in the country. They are presented with all of their flaws. Their decisions are not always rational, but they have a reason behind them, be it tradition, prejudice, anger, desperation, love, loyalty, or duty. People do not always make the best decisions; and they must live with the consequences of their decisions, for good or ill.
This book, while trying to maintain the verisimilitude of moral ambiguity, upholds a nonviolent paradigm such that decisions that promote peace are rewarded. One of Ichmad’s professor’s is a Holocaust survivor, and his hurt translates into hatred for Palestinians and a sense of entitlement to the land of Israel. At first, he actively tries to get
Ichmad kicked out of the university. When his ploys are reported, Ichmad is allowed to decide if the professor will be fired. Yet, because he’s interested in his line of research, Ichmad chooses to work as his research assistant instead, hoping to change his professor’s prejudices at the same time. Eventually, it works and they slowly become friends as well as lifelong academic partners. Presumptions and historical anger fuel modern hatred and active discrimination that can be addressed with, the book suggests, patience and an open mind. The author doesn’t allow for easy lines to be drawn or roles to be filled.
Even the protagonist doesn’t escape the difficult mix of harsh realities and good intentions. Ichmad is a good son, loyal to and supportive of his family. But when his parents insist he remarry with the 16-year-old daughter of the village doctor to improve the family’s status, he is faced with a moral and ethical dilemma. He decides to marry a girl he has never met before and struggles with his disdain for her subservient demeanor, his grief for his first dead wife, and his pity and consideration for her equally discomfiting situation. As they learn more about each other, he eventually falls in love her and she with him. They are both happy with the life they share in the end. Was it the “right” choice? Corasanti doesn’t seem to completely condemn the arrangement, but she does imply that his first marriage, of love not arrangement, was better.
The author also makes her points clear through the treatment of her characters. Ichmad represents all that a Palestinian man is and could be: poor, rural, houseless, social climber, prominent scholar, emigrant, activist, and ordinary man. Though the opinions proffered and the emotions explored are real to life, the plot of the story is somewhat fantastic. It seems that every possible tragedy and opportunity befalls Ichmad. And he is guided to make “correct” decisions by the steady influence of his separated father, a symbol of peace who held no malice towards his captors even during the destitute and harsh conditions of prison. He constantly advised and practiced forgiveness and inner strength.
This message of peace runs strongly throughout the book. Even Ichmad’s brother, a leader of a terrorist faction, reverses his opinion about suicide bombing and martyrdom when his son sacrifices his life in the name of their cause (though Corasanti does not address a self- sustaining alternative to the poverty and damages resulting from Israeli attacks in Palestine. She seems to suggest that the answer is escape from the area and escape is furnished by rich relations who can afford to move their family out of the country). The Almond Tree is a relatively quick read though the subject matter does not make it an easy read. Corasanti’s writing style is almost conversational and informal. She doesn’t spend a lot of space on philosophical musing or ethical deliberation. Instead she focuses on an action-driven plot. The acts, and sometimes explicit pronouncements by certain characters, direct the ethics dialogue between author and reader. And with its consistent message of nonviolence and surprisingly uplifting conclusion, The Almond Tree is a comfortable treatment of a controversial topic.