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The Almond Tree

The Almond Tree - Michelle Cohen Corasanti Although well written, the author has provided only a one-sided Pro-Palestinian novel, largely ignoring information about why the Middle East conflict exists, a situation that has existed for decades. I tried to read it with an open mind but the presentation was so biased, even in the description of the characters, that it was really hard to do. The first Jewish person you meet is an Israeli soldier who is described as pimply-faced, with a brutal demeanor. On the other hand, Ichmad Hamid, boy genius, hero of this novel, is handsome with beautiful eyes and hair, intelligent and compassionate, whose innocent family is constantly abused by such as these.
Next, the reader meets a murderous Iraqi Jew, the construction boss at the site where Ichmad Hamid and his younger brother Abbas, mere children, are forced to work to support their family when their father is arrested. The Iraqi’s son was murdered and he carries his hatred for the Arabs in his heart at all times and is unafraid to display it.
The next is a survivor of the Holocaust, Menachem Sharon, eventual mentor of Ichmad, who at first is presented as his enemy. His family was all murdered in Europe. He is a professor who is mean and biased and is steadfast in his effort to show his displeasure with the enemies of the Jews, even in his classroom where he tries to thwart Ichmad’s every effort to succeed. His first wife is presented without redeeming features, as well, a hater of all that isn’t Jewish. Then we meet his second wife who is someone who shows him the “right’ way as she works to help the Palestinians. She arranges for Ichmad to tutor Nora, a beautiful Jewish girl who hopes to go to Gaza to help the Palestinian cause. Her parents are Jewish but are presented more as if they are missionaries. Nora is a Jew with a free spirit, unlike the others already presented, she is more akin to a flower child of that era, with posters saying “make love not war” and peace signs in her room. She falls in love with the hero of the story, boy genius, Ichmad Hamid. Against all odds, they marry. She and Ichmad symbolize the bridge to a future of harmony where both cultures can live in peace. It symbolizes a blending of their worlds, although it is short-lived which may also foreshadow the continuing failed effort of the Middle East peace process. These are the only really positively presented good Jews, and they are good because they promote the Palestinian cause and anti-Israel sentiment.
The novel actually opens with a horrific scene of loss and sadness. A young, innocent child, heedless to the danger, steps into a closed area in the Palestinian Territory controlled by Israel, and is blown up by a mine in front of her mother’s and sibling’s eyes. They were helpless to help the 4-year old child as she ran through the minefield chasing a butterfly. (Anyone familiar with the Holocausst poem, “I Never Saw Another Butterfly” will make the association that his little innocent sister will never see another one either.) If the author is comparing the Holocaust to the situation in the Palestinian Territories, than she has lost me entirely.
Following this tragedy, the Hamid home seems to be unfairly confiscated to make way for Israeli settlements, and they are sent to what amounts to a one room shack that had once belonged to another turned out Arab family, without any recompense or recourse. Their land and orchards have been taken and now they live in squalor. All they have is one almond tree on the property, a tree that later inspires Ichmad. In spite of this unjust treatment, Ichmad’s father remains stalwart, works for the Israelis in construction and has a positive attitude at all times, hoping one day to live in peace with the Israelis. He knows some “good” Jews.
One night, Ichmad, then barely a teen, hears a noise outside and investigates. He is threatened with harm to himself and his family if he reveals what he has seen. The young man who confronts him wants a good place to hide the weapons he has brought, which he hopes to use to fight Israel. Ichmad helps him, and thus begins a tale of tragedy for years to come. When the Israeli soldiers find the weapons and arrest his father as a terrorist, although he is innocent, the family home is destroyed. They are forced to live in a tent, cannot get a permit to rebuild and cannot find work. No one wants to associate with them. When Ichmad eventually reveals the truth about what happened to his father, who is in prison, his father implores him to keep it a secret. He would rather be in prison than see his brilliant child languish behind bars. Mohammed, the teacher, tutors Ichmad so his gift is not wasted. He mentors him and arranges for him to take a scholarship test to attend the University in Israel. Ichmad wins and is provided with an excellent education by the Israelis! Ichmad’s guilt, however, consumes him ever after and he always lives very frugally, sending all his money back to his family. According to custom, when his father was arrested, as the eldest son, although only a boy, he assumed responsibility for his family as an adult and he continued this devotion and loyalty to them for decades, even after he was successful and living in America.
The constant tragedies that befell Ichmad and his family, going forward, were disastrous, never-ending and mind-numbing. To present her point of view, the author piled all of the injustices inflicted upon the Arab population on this one Hamid family which made the situation look even worse because of the enormity of traumatic events, but it also seemed somewhat contrived and unrealistic because it was over the top. She points out the Israeli bombing of innocent people in Arab villages but fails to fully point out the effect of the suicide bombs worn by the Arabs, by the Palestinians, on their buses, in the malls, in their restaurants. She says little if anything about the unprovoked wars against Israel or the unfair treatment of Jews when the Arabs controlled the Holy sites. She does not mention the daily trauma of missiles lobbed at them from the West Bank and Gaza. She does not mention the atrocities perpetrated on Israeli prisoners who have been abused and dragged through the streets. She says nothing of their beheadings, their abuse of women, their honor killings. She makes no mention of the fact that the Arabs have been waiting for vengeance since statehood was declared or that Chairman Arafat had refused the best peace deal ever offered.
Instead, she presents Ichmad, scholar in math and science, going through his life with unnecessary guilt for circumstances beyond his control; it is a situation she believes confronts most of that population. (Much of his math explanations in the book were way over my head and seemed superfluous. I assumed the author wanted to impress the reader with the intelligence of the Arab and/or perhaps imply they were superior to their oppressors, the Israelis, who deliberately kept them down so they could not advance and assume leadership roles.) In all of the experiences and crises that Ichmad had to deal with, his method and thought process always began simply, at the beginning, as do his theories. He is brilliant. He deals with things from the bottom up, not top down, which seems to be another message of the author’s. I think she feels that if we start from the beginning again, with open minds, maybe we can solve the problems of the Middle East and the plight of the Palestinians, but she is being too simplistic, too Pollyanna, and her presentation is too one-sided. Perhaps in an ideal world, it would work, but in this world, it is doubtful. They have been enemies too long. Today, the whole Middle East region is exploding. The Muslims can’t even get along with each other, let alone with Jews.
Yes, their land was confiscated to make room for the European Jews that survived the Holocaust, and, in some cases, it may have been unfair, and yes, that land grab has expanded over the ensuing years. Some of this acquisition of land could be considered justified, in many cases. They were the spoils of wars they did not choose to fight. For the most part, Israel acted in its own defense, to insure their national security, to protect against Arab attacks. Do the Arabs even want peace when they won’t recognize Israel’s right to exist on a tiny plot of land, while the Arab brethren refuse to take their own refugees in on their abundant acreage? This idea is absent from the novel.
Yes, when the military is in charge they are brutal, regardless of whether they are Israeli or Arab. For the abuse to stop, the military must become less necessary, Israel must be recognized, their enemies must lay down their weapons and a more open society must be created, but there can never be one man one vote on Israeli soil, as the author hopes. That would eliminate the Jewish state entirely and the Arabs and anti-Semites of the world are well aware of this fact. Israel was not meant to be an Arab haven; there are plenty of those already.
Since Israeli statehood was declared, in 1948, the year Ichmad was born, the year of change for this and other Arab families, the Arabs have declared war against the Jews with the intent of annihilating Israel. The Arabs massed against Israel and set the stage for destruction themselves. Scene after scene of unprovoked aggression flowed outward from the Arab community, from that day forward. They refused to accept Israel’s existence. Even if they did now, I am not sure many Israelis would totally trust their word. The author makes a case for the honor of the Arab, i.e., when marriages are arranged or when families need support, but she doesn’t highlight the fact that their anger often overrides their common sense and sense of honor, or that their sense of honor often contradicts that of civilized humanity. When the author writes about what is occurring in the territories, it is simply not relevant unless taken in context with the past, with the root cause of all the hostility. Because she begins the book in 1955, she avoids the responsibility to present reasons for the oppression that exists.
We can’t forget that the Arabs declared war, not Israel. She doesn’t mention that many of these displaced Arabs, many of whom simply followed the advice of their own brethren to abandon their homes, and wait for Israel’s defeat when they would return the victors, left voluntarily. The Arab community should be responsible for their own, but they don’t want these people. It therefore serves their purpose to keep blaming the Israelis, keep teaching hate in their mosques, and continue maintaining the discord in order to justify their abandonment of their own.
Israel has rarely been the aggressor and more often is reacting to the aggression of others or is acting in the interest of her own national security, the right of all sovereign nations. Comparing their weapons to those of the Arabs is unfair. Any weapon in the hands of an enemy presents a threat and ignoring its existence or forgiving the aggressor may lead to further aggression because it emboldens the enemy if he gets away with his defiance. In addition, Israel doesn’t wantonly bomb locations, and often, Israel warns the potential victims to vacate the area to avoid injury. Although there is no doubt that they do destroy the homes of those known to consort with their enemies, often regardless of whether or not those in the home are terrorists themselves, it is usually retaliatory only. It is not a capricious event. Just being associated with a terrorist, even simply by birth, is a danger, though, and few questions about guilt or innocence are asked. The punishment is swift.
The author also pays particular attention to the number of Palestinians crammed into a small area with barely any amenities to support life, but she ignores the fact that the size of Israel is miniscule and there is far more available land in the Arab countries which have never allowed the Palestinians to enter and assimilate. It was the Arabs who refused the two state solution.
Jews look after their own people and even allow them into the country regardless of their background. That said, the book is a tragic tale of horror. I was disgusted by the unjust brutality the author accused Israel of committing. Although I believe they have justification in being overcautious, because of the past incidents committed against them by the Arabs, the existence of so much hate and anger on the part of Israel came as a shock to me. After all the brutalization of Jews, down through the ages, I thought we would have had more compassion on our side rather than vengeance.
The author adds fuel to the flame, however, by presenting Jews very negatively when compared to Arabs. Arabs were portrayed as these beautiful, gentle geniuses with wonderful values, unconcerned about accumulating personal wealth. They were presented as peace-loving people wanting simply to care for their families, mind their own business, compromise and coexist; the Israelis and Jews were portrayed as unyielding, cruel bullies and sadists, stereotypically interested in amassing wealth. They were depicted as a people who enjoyed assaulting those weaker than they and were unaffected and unconcerned by the brutality they inflicted upon others. This flies in the face of reality. Spotlighting one family in which the father is full of kind proverbs and advice and who embraces everyone equally is not the reality in most of the Arab world. The reality is closer to the feelings of Ichmad’s brother Abbas, who is filled with the hatred and anger he was taught and which leads him down a path to destruction. One understanding man does not paint a true picture of circumstances in the Middle East. One brilliant student does not create a population of scholars. One angry Arab does not paint a picture of all angry Arabs, but he has the power to cause a lot of pain. The author pretty much totally dismissed Arab terror and painted them as sympathetic victims while Israel was their true enemy, without cause, treating them without human dignity.
I thought perhaps, for the author, Ichmad Hamid represented salvation. Menachem Sharon, his mentor, represented possibility; together they represented opportunity and hope. The father symbolized the older, more acquiescent population and the young children, Ichmad and Abbas, the independent, and sometimes more defiant and hostile generation of suicide bombers or alternately, the achievers, the outliers. In the end, though, Ichmad returns to his roots, participating in an arranged marriage. This flies in the face of the message of assimilation and peaceful cohabitation that the author tries to convey.
The author’s clear, concise presentation is sharp in its imagery of the abuse, even if not fairly presented. It is told simply from a point of view of a population that is oppressed but takes no responsibility for the reason for that oppression. Fanatic, fringe groups have been more influential on both sides, Israeli and Palestinian, than clearer, more moderate heads and thinkers. The author presents a position of extreme persecution of an innocent people who are, in fact, not so innocent. Many, however, are simply kept ignorant by a lack of education which could easily be provided by their own brethren, but their culture keeps them uneducated. The book oversimplified very complicated matters. It was a valiant effort to explain the Palestinian crisis, but it did not fairly represent it.
In all the theories and crises that Ichmad was engaged, his thought process always began simply, at the beginning, from the bottom up, not top down. The author seems to feel that if we start from the beginning again, maybe we can solve the problems of the Middle East and the plight of the Palestinians, but I thought she was too simplistic and her presentation was too prejudiced. Perhaps in an ideal world, it would work, but today, the Middle East is exploding everywhere and peace is elusive.
***For a fair presentation, all facts should have been presented, perhaps in a prologue or epilogue, rather than a one-sided biased opinion.