Kitaab Review: The Almond Tree by Michelle Cohen Corasanti

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‘The Almond Tree’ offers much optimism in spite of the violence, mayhem and melee and speaks to each of its readers through its lucid narrative and easy to follow plot and storyline, says Monica Arora in this review for Kitaab.

almond_tree_cvrThe bewitching debut novel ‘The Almond Tree’ of the Jewish American author Michelle Cohen Corasanti, a Jewish American is a busy story. Buzzing as it is with its dozen odd characters, mostly members of Ahmed’s family, his friends and mentors, who is the narrator of this saga, this is a heart wrenching account of misery, resilience, hope and the indefatigable human spirit and family bonding. Right from the first chapter when an innocent young child loses her life to the cruelty of landmines in terror stricken Israel, the reader gets a taste of the intensity and grimness of this sordid account woven around the intricacies of the decades-old Israel-Palestine conflict.

As Ahmed witnesses the unfairness and futility of war all around him in his childhood and grows up overnight following his dad’s ruthless indictment, he narrates this story straight from the heart and with him, the reader can experience every pain, every loss, every wound, every torture and every hunger pang experienced by this young man and his deep anguish at being witness to the suffering of his kith and kin at the hands of the Israeli soldiers.

However, despite the odds, his spirit refuses to die down and egged on by his self-belief and the kind and encouraging words of his village teacher Mohammad and his Baba languishing in prison, Ahmed literally rises from the Phoenix and resurrects himself and in the process his hopes for a bright future. His scholarship and further studies prove to be his much awaited boon, perhaps to fructify his natural talent and passion for numbers and the sciences and from that point onwards, there is no looking back for him.

His hunger to excel and his innate genius enable him to earn the friendship of his colleagues and fellow students and the wrath of his Jewish professors all at once and the growing up years in a land far removed from his rural upbringing in extreme poverty are a virtual struggle. The raging hormones, paucity of funds, peer pressure and the angst to ‘fit in’ have been beautifully captured by this talented young author and one can empathise with Ahmed’s growing up pangs.

Leading up to his adulthood and the parallel story of his family enduring hardships back in the village but gradually climbing up the socio-economic ladder in sync with Ahmed’s secure position in his university first as an outstanding pupil and then as a research scholar are brilliantly rendered and the stark contrasts between the two lifestyles are completely haunting.

Finally, his personal dilemmas at having fallen in love with a gorgeous Jewish American student and the antagonism and disapproval of his family mired under layers and layers of prejudices and old-fashioned, ill-informed and patriarchal viewpoints offer much food for thought to young and old readers alike, who can appreciate this ongoing conflict in all its intricacies and perhaps relate to the everyday angst and woes of those who continue to suffer on a daily basis for no fault of theirs.

Michelle_almondtreeThe most prominent chord that is omnipresent throughout this novel is the emphasis on the human suffering acting as a constant reminder on the futility and pointlessness of warfare and civil conflicts. Particularly gut-wrenching is the part in the end when a bunch of school children encountered by Ahmed and his wife Yasmine at his nephew Majid’s school in Gaza have so nonchalantly accepted physical deformities as a part and parcel of their normal lives. Here is an excerpt to illustrate this:

‘Majid pointed to a group of tents next to the flattened school. “That was my school last year.”…”Yo Fadi,” Majid called to a boy his size. The left sleeve of his worn blue sweatshirt hung empty. The boy came over and Majid put his arm around his shoulder. “This is my aunt and uncle from America.”

“Nice to meet you.” Yasmine’s voice was choked.

“A missile from an F-16 fighter plane blew off his arm,” Majid said matter-of-factly.

“If you give me a shekel I’ll show you my stub,” Fadi said…Majid and Fadi laughed, but then Majid coughed and tried to regain his serious demeanour. He glanced over at the tents, and spotted a little boy of six or seven.

“Amir!” Majid called. The boy came over. “This is my uncle,” Majid said. “He’s from America.”

His left eye scanned Yasmine and me. The right one didn’t move.

“Show them your eye. Yasmine gasped and the kids laughed. The empty socket was pink and fleshy.’

This and many more such poignant scenarios make ‘The Almond Tree’ a compelling analysis of how a war is never won by any particular side and suffering, misery, pain, torment and agony are the only remains of the war-tainted days. Interestingly, by shifting the novel from an Israeli village to a large city-based university and then on to New York, the author has managed to weave a potpourri of mixed characters who present the conflicting viewpoints of Arab Jews and the Palestinians, thereby making it easier to decipher the political conflict in a holistic manner, minus influences or biases.

Added to that, the rich prose and the generous use of adjectives and metaphors enable the reader to embark on this journey with Ahmed as a pillion rider and actually smell, taste, hear and experience every meal he partakes, every ritual or ceremony he performs, every passionate encounter he undertakes at immensely close quarters. The vivid descriptions of Palestinians’ local culture, celebrations, lifestyles, attires, and so on offers a deep insight into this race, which has endured much suffering and yet does not allow its strength of mind to be drowned or its energy silenced.

The almond tree which has stood the test of time along with the protagonist Ahmed has stood as a metaphor for his courage, his strength of will and the power of his dreams to overcome all obstacles and never to stop and ponder even for a moment. He and his little siblings climb upon its branches as tiny tots and through his binoculars peer across the Jordanian border in the hope of breaching the miseries of their tyranny and emerging into a better life. Just as the almond tree has stood the test of time and remains alive and offers its bounties to Ahmed’s family throughout his lifetime, Ahmed too stands victorious at the end and looks back at where he first commenced his voyage wading through oceans of sweat, bloodshed, torment, oppression and prejudices but always with affirm self-belief and the fire to go on.

‘The Almond Tree’ offers much optimism in spite of the violence, mayhem and melee and speaks to each of its readers through its lucid narrative and easy to follow plot and storyline. Beauty, it is said, lies in the small details and the author has painstakingly been faithful to every minute detail, thereby fulfilling the reader’s canvas of imagination with a vivid tapestry of multi-hued warp and weft in her compelling story.

Monica AroraMonica Arora is an observer – of people, places, events, movies – and is nit picky to a default, hence an editor. Besides, she loves to read, sip coffee and gossip. And is addicted to yoga and long walks.

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Author: Zafar Anjum

I am a writer based in Singapore.

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