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Where a thousand human rights reports fail, can this woman succeed?

Born to Zionist parents in America, the suffering of the Palestinian people was an alien concept to Michelle Cohen Corasanti. Until she went to Israel and saw it firsthand. Her first novel is an attempt at communicating that suffering to an uncaring world, says Ajachi Chakrabarti.

Ajachi Chakrabarti  17th May 2014

Michelle Cohen Corasanti

his novel," goes the blurb on the cover of Michelle Cohen-Corasanti's The Almond Tree, "will become one of the biggest best-sellers of this decade." The prophecy is attributed to The Huffington Post. A search of the venerable literary journal — and Google — does not turn up any review that contains this sentence, or a variation of this claim. It is possible that the review has been taken down; perhaps the soothsayer misspoke.

For The Almond Tree to become a bestseller of some sort, if not quite Fifty Shades of Grey, is not beyond the realms of possibility. It is, after all, a Horatio Alger tale of the little Palestinian boy that could, one that takes the moral burden of trying to heal the crisis in the Middle East through the power of fiction. HuffPo does carry a fairly laudatory review, by Spanish journalist Guillermo Fesser, which mentions Barack Obama's exhortation to America to empathise with the Palestinian people. "So how will Americans be able to put on those shoes and see through those eyes?" Fesser asks. "By engaging in loud debate? Vociferous argument? Lengthy lectures? Probably not. Sometimes it takes a small thing, something unforeseen, to open eyes and galvanise opinion. How about a good story?" The Almond Tree, he goes on to say, is such a story, "an epic drama of the proportions of The Kite Runner", one "that grabs you from the first page and makes your heart go out to the Palestinians without pointing fingers at anyone."

It's a noble endeavour, teaching Americans the nitty-gritties of the Isreal-Palestine issue. For years, discourse in the US about the Palestinian question has been a highly emotive one where facts are subordinate to ideology. Despite Israel's numerous violation of human rights and its treatment of the subjugated Palestinian people that is barely a step removed from South Africa's apartheid regime, the world's biggest superpower continues to defend it on every international forum and provide more material support than it does to any other country. When a president like Obama criticises Israel's latest act of aggression — building settlements on land confiscated from the original Arab residents — he is excoriated at home for not standing up for "America's best friend in the region". The US must support Israel, we are told, because even though Jews constitute just over 2% of the American population, 94% of them live in 13 crucial swing states that provide enough electoral votes to elect a president, a vote bank every American politician courts by appearing more hawkish than his or her opponents.

Cohen-Corasanti grew up in one such home, to Zionist parents "in a Jewish home in which German cars were boycotted and Israeli bonds were plentiful". She studied at the Hillel Yeshiva in New Jersey, an orthodox Jewish school, and the Ben Shemen Boarding School in Israel, where her boyfriend was a Kahanist, an ultra-nationalist party that believes all Israeli Arabs are enemies of the state and that a theocratic state should be created where non-Jews don't have the right to vote.

"Everything I was taught," she says, "was a lie. We were taught that the Jews found a land without a people for a people without a land. Palestine had a people, the majority of whom the Zionists drove out of Palestine by the November of 1947. We were taught that the Jews made the desert bloom. Palestine had many cites built of stone — Jaffa, Acre, Haifa, Bethlehem, Nazareth, Hebron and many more. It is common for colonists to try and dehumanise the colonised to justify colonisation. That is the reality I witnessed."

She witnessed this discrimination when she enrolled in the Middle-Eastern Studies programme at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. There, she met her first Palestinians — the only Arabs she had met before this were the rich, educated Lebanese men she met in Paris nightclubs during a summer spent studying French — poor, second-class citizens, her friendship with whom she had to hide "out of fear she might be failed out". "I went to Israel for fun and parental freedom, not to be a human rights activist," she says. "I had the misfortune of seeing what I didn't want to see and it deeply affected me."

"I tried telling everyone I could about the situation," she explains, but "no one cared and there was nothing that could be done to bring about change." Determined to make a difference, she decided to complete her MA in Middle-Eastern studies at Harvard, after which she simultaneously pursued a PhD as well as a law degree. There, she met her future husband, a Palestinian who had had to work to support his family ever since his father was arrested for helping a refugee bury arms. He had barely found time to attend school, but was brilliant enough at math and science to win a scholarship in the Hebrew University. He was working on his PhD in Chemical Physics at the time.

"When I first returned to the US, I could not just go to parties as if I didn't see anything," she says. "But after a few years, I just wanted to go back to who I was before I witnessed what I did. I was studying 20 hours a day, seven days a week, for 10 years. I just didn't want the burden of awareness anymore. I thought I could just bury it and go back to who I was. But the past does have a way of clawing its way back."

That last line is a quote from The Kite Runner. Reading the novel during a vacation in Florida, this line, she says, caused her past to call out to her, a past she wanted her two kids to know about. She spent the next five years working on The Almond Tree.

Her husband's story forms the basis of the novel's protagonist Ahmed (originally Ichmad, which is how she says the name is pronounced in Palestine; when Palestinian critics protested that they'd never heard that pronunciation, which is problematic since it's a verb meaning to suffocate or subdue, she changed the name for the South Asia edition). After his father is arrested for allegedly aiding a terrorist and their home is demolished, after a number of his siblings are killed by various Israeli soldiers, after his brother is crippled on being pushed off a scaffolding by an Israeli co-worker, Ahmad rises above his circumstances through sheer hard work and academic brilliance. In the process, he impresses a racist Jewish professor called, amazingly, Menachem Sharon, and marries a Jewish woman — who later dies trying to stand up to an Israeli bulldozer — both acts that are condemned by his increasingly radicalised brother as collaboration with the enemy.

Several critics, most prominently Palestinian-American author Susan Abulhawa, have attacked the book for the way it depicts Ahmad and his brother Abbas. In a review for The Palestine Chronicle, activist Vacy Vlazna sees the book as a dual narrative, where the Good Brother (Ahmad) "takes the path of least resistance i.e. do nothing except take care of one's own" and is "rewarded with the fulfilment of the American dream", while the Bad Brother (Abbas) "takes the path of political and armed resistance on behalf of all his people... apparently 'blinded by hatred' [and] ends up a 'crippled old man' living in an overcrowded squalid mudbrick house in Gaza, the most dangerous place on earth — serves him right, the author implies."

Cohen-Corasanti denies the allegations; Ahmad, after all, does speak out about the Palestinian issue once he wins the Nobel Prize, she says. Ultimately, the argument comes down to one thing: is one saccharine novel dripping with white privilege that actually gets widely read and shines a light on a crucial issue to an oblivious audience more important than a hundred politically correct human rights reports that are ignored? It's a loaded question.

 

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