The Almond Tree

By Michelle Cohen Corasanti
Garnet Publishing, November 30, 2011, $10.57

Michelle Cohen Corasanti’s The Almond Tree is the fictional memoir of Ichmad Hamid, a Palestinian man who is forced to the head of the family at the age of twelve when his father is arrested for terrorism.

I am of two minds when it comes to this book. On the one hand, I appreciate the author’s effort to tell a comprehensive story about Palestine that illustrates the hardship experienced by so many throughout the last 63 years.

 On the other hand, I had a lot of problems with the way she went about it. There was a distinctly neutral tone to Corasanti’s set of characters, providing the reader with good Israelis and bad Israelis, and good Palestinians and bad Palestinians. However, what might have been an attempt to dispel generalizations ended up detracting from the believability of the characters. The token bad Israeli was a Jewish man from Iraq that was routinely taunted Ichmad and his brother at their place of work, which seems unlikely given the anti-Arab racism prevalent in the novel and Israeli policies. Not to say such a person could not exist, but it seemed like a poor example for this context.

 I found myself questioning Corasanti’s decision to make the only ‘bad Israeli’ an Arab, while other, white Israeli characters in the novel that started off prejudiced consistently saw the error of their ways as the novel and their relationship to the protagonist progressed.

Her protagonist, Ichmad, is on the whole entirely unlikeable. It’s difficult to get behind a character whose thoughts are so tediously patronizing everyone around him.

Ichmad is extremely gifted, and his coping method for stressful situations is to focus on making mundane calculations about objects around him. While the advanced mathematics illustrates that Ichmad is very bright for his age, which becomes relevant to the plot, these sections are extremely unreadable. As a literary device, these mathematical deviations are more jarring than engaging in comparison to Corasanti’s overall style.

Her attempt to create champions on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict feels contrived, especially with the transformation of Professor Menachem Sharon who begins as one of Ichmad’s most anti-Arab and racist professors and then becomes Ichmad’s graduate school supervisor and lifelong friend. The hardest part to swallow being that when Ichmad first encounters Professor Sharon in his military uniform, it is implied that he recognises him as the man who beat and arrested his father when Ichmad was twelve years old. While Ichmad is encouraged to focus on his academic pursuits in order to obtain consistent income and continue providing for his family, moving past this extremely emotional and traumatic memory (a very powerfully written scene) just seems unlikely.

It must be noted that it was a refreshing change to read fictional work based on the Palestinian narrative, a perspective that is hugely downplayed here in Canada. I am certain that any person picking up this novel, however uninformed they were to start, would develop sympathy to the plight of the continuously oppressed people of Palestine. The novel is in four parts, jumping from 1955 to 1965 to 1974 to finally 2009. I thought this could have been especially effective in illustrating the development of the Israeli apartheid machine, but Corasanti chose to use that to focus on the progression of Ichmad’s life as an academic, his relationship with Professor Sharon and their work.

One other point that I would like to mention is Corasanti’s portrayal of women in the novel. The only major female characters that are positively portrayed was Ichmad’s first wife, a white Jewish American woman he meets in New York City and Professor Sharon’s wife, Justice. Ichmad’s mother, his second wife and his first love (forced to marry her cousin), are all boorish and uncivilized.

“Everything about my bride screamed ignorance,” writes Ichmad when he first meets his young, second wife, “Her veil, her thick, unplucked eyebrows, her traditional robe.” And his mother says at one point “Man doesn’t need to know more than is necessary for his daily living,” while begging him not to go to school. This depiction of uncouth, “ignorant” women is an extremely problematic portrayal of an already misrepresented population.

Again, while I was initially very excited to see the Palestinian experience being explored in such an accessible format, the actual product of Corasanti’s work is fairly disappointing. Instead of building understanding of the experience of the oppressed but constantly villainized, The Almond Tree depicts Palestinian resistance as reactive and Palestinians in general as almost backward, through the self-righteous voice of the protagonist.

This novel has great potential but in execution is a little disappointing. I hope to see more authors attempt to engage with the Palestinian narrative with more success in the future.