The Almond Tree by Michelle Cohen Corasanti is a first person narrative of the life of Ahmed Hamid; a Palestinian boy living in an Arab village in Israel. The story centers on Ahmed’s struggle to keep his family together and provide for them as his father is carted off to prison, in the Najev for allegedly aiding a freedom fighter, and his home destroyed. The book follows Ahmed’s life from when he was 11 years old, all the way to his 60s.
Ahmed’s mathematical genius leads to him winning a scholarship to the Hebrew University where he gets a chance to change his life, and to experience a world quite different from his own in the village. He makes friends like Zoher, who don’t discriminate against him for being an Arab, and then he meets people like professor Sharon who go out of their way to make sure he fails and drops out of the university. He experiences love and heartbreak, sees how other Arabs like Jamal lead a quite different life than his own, and the alienation of his younger brother Abbas, who sees Ahmed as cooperating with the Israelis.
I’ll be honest, I had quite a few reservations before I started reading The Almond Tree. I am not wholly comfortable with the idea of a non Palestinian person writing from the perspective of a Palestinian person; I just don’t feel that any one other than a Palestinian can do justice to what the people stuck in the occupied territories go through. However, as I started reading the book , I actually liked it. The portrayal about the treatment of the Palestinians is true enough, the hints at how not all Israelis are bad is true enough too. Overall the story line is good, the losses that Ahmed has to experience are heart rending and really makes a person empathize with him.
However, I am not particularly fond of how the book is written, and the characters developed. The book is riddled with plot holes e.g Baba not being told about Sara’s death, and then the minute he gets back home he mentions Sara and Amal’s deaths, even how Abbas, Ahmed’s brother, is too badly crippled to move sometimes, and other times he is able to make the whole journey to the Hebrew University. There is WAY too much repetition, I mean I am sure there are other words for ‘ululating.’ Even the representation of Arab culture itself is disgusting, and SO far withdrawn from reality, it’s hilarious, really. Taking a sword to fling back the veil of his bride? Um no.
The characterization in the book is mediocre at best. Looking at the main character, Ahmed to start with, he is perfect. Too perfect. Unrealistically perfect. Okay fine he is brilliant at math and science, that’s great, but then he is also the backgammon champion in the tea house, and the hero who saves the sheep herding girl from the rabid jackal, and the two students in the university dorm from the fire, and of course the savior of his family. It just gets too much.
Even the change of heart of characters is so weakly written. Professor Sharon, the guy who basically tries to get Ahmed expelled from the university, and is well known for his hatred of Arabs, suddenly transforms into Ahmed’s best friend over some scientific research. It feels as if the characters are forcefully developed to fill the needs of the story, instead of being developed along with the story.
The ending of the book was rushed and feeble. It just felt forced for the sake of Ahmed’s promise to Nora, a promise he somehow couldn’t even remember before.
I’d give it a 2/5. Its not worth all the acclaim its gotten for being ,’ a potential bestseller.’ I can overlook the shoddy writing, I can even overlook the weak characters, but what really irks me is how ignorant the author really is, and how much of her ignorance comes through in her writing. Despite what she might say about wishing to bring peace between the Israelis and Palestinians, her writing is counter productive. It is detrimental to the Palestinian cause. The message she sends out is clear by how the lives of the two brothers, Ahmed and Abbass, are presented; if you cooperate with Israel, if you turn the other cheek, if you believe in ‘liberation through peaceful means’, you are all set. You get to go to the nice Israeli universities, you get to explore your full potential, move to America, win a nobel prize and send money back home to put your siblings and put their kids through universities in Italy etc and buy them fancy Mercedes, and vacations on the beach. On the other hand, if like Abbas, you reject the Israeli occupation and take an active role for the Palestinian cause, you turn into a cripple, who lives in broken down, two bedroom mud house in Gaza with no hopes of a future of any kind.