Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Almond Tree

Title: The Almond Tree
Author: Michelle Cohen Corasanti
Available on: Various sites
Author's blog: Click here
Link to a book review in The Hindu Business Line

Gist of the book as available on GoodReads and the Author's website:Gifted with a mind that continues to impress the elders in his village, Ichmad Hamid struggles with the knowledge that he can do nothing to save his Palestinian friends and family. Ruled by the Israeli military government, the entire village operates in fear of losing homes, jobs, and belongings. But more importantly, they fear losing each other. On Ichmad's twelfth birthday, that fear becomes a reality. With his father imprisoned, his family's home and possessions confiscated, and his siblings quickly succumbing to the dangers of war, Ichmad begins the endless struggle to use his intellect to save his poor and dying family and reclaim a love for others that was lost when the bombs first hit."The Almond Tree" capitalizes on the reader's desire to be picked up and dropped off in another part of the world. It tackles issues that many Americans only hear about on World News or read about at The Huffington Post, such as the Israeli Palestinian conflict, the scholasticide that is being imposed upon the Palestinians in Gaza and the current Gaza blockade. But even more, it offers hope.

The Almond Tree humanizes a culture and brings characters from a distant land to life, with a family united by love but divided by their personal beliefs. From Ichmad’s staunchly traditional and at times overbearing mother, to his father who believes in the power of education, the crux of the family’s story lies in the growing dispute between two brothers who choose very different paths in order to create a new future.

The Almond Tree brings humanity and clarity to the Arab-Israeli conflict and reveals themes of redemption and family sacrifice. Michelle Cohen Corasanti’s personal experience of living in Israel for seven years while attending high school and obtaining her undergraduate degree in Middle Eastern studies from the Hebrew University lends her the perspective, insight and ability to shed new light on a controversial history. The Almond Tree showcases the resilience of the human spirit and brings forth a message of the necessity of education and a plan for peace in the conflict.

My views:

When I began to read this book, I cried. It is not just a story of Ichmad Hamid, a Palestinian boy and his journey starting as a young boy in 1953, but of just any little boy or girl, caught between two warring forces.

Ichmad's world comes apart, when arms and ammunition are hidden in his garden. He sneaks upon the person hiding them - but for fear of being killed he keeps mum. The Israeli forces find these arms, his father is branded a terrorist - is jailed for years together and tortured. Their house is burnt down and the Israeli forces do not grant a permit to build another house. His world begins to fall apart.

He and his younger brother are forced to find work - back breaking work. Unfortunately, a co-worker, deliberately pushes Abbas his younger brother - crippling him for life.

Ichamd has to soldier on alone, he even faces torture on his rare visits to meet his father in the prison. Take this sentence for example:
“The guard pulled my buttocks apart and I gasped with pain as the instrument penetrated my rectum. I held my breath. When the instrument scraped my insides, my eyes watered. It was all I could do to keep from whimpering. My ears popped when the guard finally removed it.”

It is always the innocent civilians who bear the brunt of the fury. Fertile land is stripped away, education is denied, these measures cause irreparable harm even for future generations, even as lack of clean drinking water, lack of sanitation facilities has a more immediate and equally unfortunate impact.

Coming back to the book. A local teacher recognizes Ichmad's talent in maths and physics and coaches him whenever Ichmad has some time to spare after his back-breaking work. This local teacher, goads him to enter a contest - a sole ragged Arab participant in the midst of well to do Israeli kids.

There is hope ahead. Ichmad gets a scholarship to study. Professor Sharon, who despises the Arabs eventually becomes his mentor. He makes Israeli friends, he finds support from within the 'enemy group'.

Ichmad's father had rightly said that people hate because of ignorance or because of their own past painful experiences - as was the case with Professor Sharon. The bond between Ichmad and Professor Sharon continues to gain in strength and they join MIIT in America. Ichmad also finds love - he marries Nora, an American Jew.

This itself has its own impact on his family and her family. She had thought her parent's to be broadminded, but they are unwilling to accept Ichmad. In Gaza, Ichmad's father whole heartedly supports this union, his mother is not that welcoming (not to begin with) and Abbas completely disowns his brother. Unfortunately, while on a visit in Gaza, Nora dies while trying to protect the family's home from the onslaught of bulldozers, intent to rip their lives asunder again.

Life goes on, Ichmad buries himself in his work, several long years later he remarries a young Arab wife, who with the help of Professor Sharon and his wife, slowly adjusts to America.

Abbas, much to Ichmad's horror has gone underground. Ichmad moves heaven and earth for one last meeting with his brother.

He does manage to meet Abbas, now part of the Hamas outfit one last time in Gaza. He is taken on a tour of the Gaza strip by Abbas' grandson Majid. Here on the burnt-streets chocked with fumes from white phosphorous shells, which can cause multiple organ failure, children such as Majid carry backpacks which contain no books. There are no books to speak of - the entire generation is ripped of its right to education.

Instead of trading baseball cards these kids trade fragments of shells. Majid shows Ichmad one such shell which says: Produced in Saltsberg, Pennsylvania. Yet, another kid, pops out his artificial eye. Ichmand and his wife Yasmine haven't seen the worse, not just yet.

Abbas' youngest son, Khaled has inherited his Uncle's prowess in science and maths. Ichmad promises to take him to America for further studies. This proves to be impossible. Khaled commits suicide because he sees no way out of a dismal oppressive existence. Ichmad realizes that he has killed his nephew by promising him a new life, which he could then not fulfill.

Abbas tells his brother: Israel had turned a hard-working, proud and resourceful people into a “nation of beggars.”

In this book, Professor Sharon and Ichmad jointly help create a more peaceful future by setting up a scholarship fund - so that many other youngsters do not have to resort to what Khaled did, but can cling on to the hope of a better future. If two individuals could celebrate their differences,focus on their commonalities and work together to advance humanity, so can others.

May the peace forces, be it the conflict area covered by the book, or any other part of the world, gain greater strength.

The Almond Tree, nurtured Ichmad and his family, all through the years, we need to learn how to nurture each other.

And as we enter 2013, let us all, in our own tiny way, resolve to work towards a more peaceful co-existence.

Author's message to me via GoodReads:

I think The Almond Tree is a universal story about oppression. Through my book, without giving away the plot, I try to show that there's a better way. I try to show that we should celebrate differences and focus on our commonalities to advance humanity, instead of our differences and destroying it. I try to show how strong we would be if we worked togehter to advance each other.

I wasn't a writer. I went to Israel in high school and was horrified to find out that everything I had been taught about it turned out to be a lie. I wanted to become a human rights activist, but 20 years ago, there was little anyone could do. After I read The Kite Runner and realized a writer can reach into peoples' hearts and change them forever, I decided to write the Palestinians story. I tried to shine a light so bright the whole world would see the horrible injustices they suffer and help try to bring about a real and just peace. Every life is precious. I think we were put on this earth to lift each other up.

With the latest massacre in Gaza, you wouldn't believe how many Americans wrote me that before when they heard of things in Gaza, they just thought Israel was defending itself against terrorist. They told me that my book has made them see the situation completely differently. They were so concerned for the Palestinians in Gaza and so against what Israel is doing. They said it wasn't a far away situation anymore. They felt like they knew the people there.

Author's detailed bio is available on her website:
Click here
Her motto: "May the battles we fight be for the advancement of the human race."

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