In conversation with Michelle Cohen Corasanti

The following interview with author Michelle Cohen Corasanti was published in Times of India (Online)

Book: The Almond Tree
Author: Michelle Cohen Corasanti
Publisher: Fingerprint/Prakash Books India
Pages: 352

Intolerance is a human being’s biggest weakness and finding peace, his greatest strength. This journey from intolerance to peace is the search for freedom. In her debut novel, ‘The Almond Tree’, Michelle Cohen Corasanti excavates a history that continues to grip the socio-political reality of the Israeli-Palestinian struggle even today. Here, author Michelle Cohen Corasanti answers a few questions on her book ‘The Almond Tree’.

Excerpts…

Qs. Based on some of the reviews online, I realised that a white woman’s perspective on freedom struggles and resistance movements (in this case the Israeli-Palestine conflict) is scrutinised sharply to an extent of dismissing it as a skewed viewpoint, a portrayal, which is away from the truth. Why do you think it happens, is it a fair assessment in so far your book is concerned? Susan Abulhawa, for instance, says it’s “neoliberal white supremacy cloaked in sympathy and pseudo-solidarity” (I have read your response to her as well) Do you feel a white woman’s voice lacks ’empathy’?

Ans. I had to combine the answer to the above question, with the following question for they are inseparable.

Qs. Significance of the almond tree in the book: it’s witness to the atrocities but stands mute and silent. Could silence be ever an answer to violence?

Ans. For me, this conflict is not about one’s skin color, nationality, or religion. It’s about being human. I am the almond tree.I wrote about the burden that comes with awareness that I carry with me every day. I am a witness and I wrote this novel because silence should never be an answer to violence. I put myself in the shoes of the many Palestinians I grew up with and loved during the seven years I lived in Israel and the years afterwards. I witnessed and heard their stories. I have never forgotten their voices; their stories are a part of my story and helped me to write ‘The Almond Tree’.

I returned to the US after living in Israel for seven years during high school and college, my innocence shattered, desperate to stop the needless suffering caused by the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. At the time, no one cared or even believed me. I thought, as an American, I would re-acclimate easily into US life, but that wasn’t the case. Having witnessed what I had, it was hard to talk about guys, what to wear and what parties to attend. After a year in graduate school, I still hadn’t met a friend I could relate to until I met Ahmed (not his real name).We had graduated from the same college in Jerusalem. We knew many of the same people and had lived in the same dorms. I was doing my masters and he, his post-doctorate in chemical physics jointly with a Nobel Prize winner and his Israeli professor. I finally felt at home. We had come from the same world, or so it felt at the time.

Ahmed, whose father went to prison when he was a child and wasn’t released until he was in graduate school, became the breadwinner at an early age, picking fruit to support his family. He was the oldest of nine and so brilliant that he could attend school infrequently and still graduate and receive a needs-based scholarship to Hebrew University. Yes, Israel does give scholarships to Palestinians inside Israel. In fact, the Koenig Report that was leaked to the press in1976 revealed recommendations to encourage Palestinian intellectuals in Israel to study the sciences so they would have less time to dabble in nationalism. With degrees in science, it would be easier for them to find work abroad and nearly impossible for them to find high-level scientific jobs in Israel since military service is almost always a prerequisite. In fact,I met and was friends with many Palestinian post-docs from Israel both in the US and in Europe.

Ahmed was from a world far different than the one I grew up in, but it was a world I understood, that continues to shape the woman I am today. We were married in Ahmed’s village and lived there for the summer. I had been to many Palestinian villages before, but as his wife I was one of the family.

In writing The Almond Tree,I focused on the glimmer of hope in his story: Ahmed and his Israeli professor who worked together. I didn’t write Ahmad, my former husband’s story, but it was a seed for my novel. The Almond Tree is influenced by the many Palestinians lives I witnessed and stories I heard. I didn’t write about the West Bank. I never lived there. I lived inside of Israel like my characters.

From past experience, I knew that if I told the truth, that it would sound too incredible. People would say I was making it up. I needed to be able to show, yes that really did happen. It is a story I carried in my heart for over a decade before I found the strength and the way to tell it. During the seven years it took me to write the novel, I revisited my days in Israel during the first Intifada, my marriage, the stories my Palestinian friends had shared with me and those I had seen, I drew fromall of these real events for the novel.

President Obama told an auditorium of Jewish Israelis that the conflict would not be resolved until they could put themselves in Palestinian shoes. Why? I believe because he knows it creates empathy. And in writing The Almond Tree, I have tried to walk in their shoes so as to help my readers do the same.

Qs. Was it a deliberate attempt on the author’s part to represent the two brothers Ahmed and Abbas in stark contrast in terms of their political ideas? Was it a case of the ‘Good’ Palestinian (Ahmed- the math prodigy who wins the Nobel) vs the ‘Bad’ Palestinian (Abbas- the freedom fighter and lives in abject poverty)? Ahmed’s easy acceptance of the oppressor’s society is hailed but Abbas’ rejection to be part of the same is criticized. Why?



Ans. The brothers, though very different in character, were virtually inseparable until an Israeli cripples twelve-year-old Abbas, leaving him in chronic pain – and angry at the people who caused his disabilities. Abbas fills an important role in The Almond Tree providing a context for why some Palestinians choose a life of resistance, risking death, injury, torture and imprisonment. I have not written about abstract ideas in Palestinian families’ lives. They are facts of life that touch and have touched every family. Abbas is not a bad person. He’s a freedom fighter as opposed to Ahmed whose genius opened doors for him that were not available to Abbas. Ahmed chooses another path, partly out of a moral indebtedness to his father, which is established early in the story and runs throughout the novel,and partly because he naturally possessed something that could act as a bridge between him and the world beyond his Palestinian village.

Of the two brothers Abbas is much more dedicated to the cause of resistance and freeing his people. Ahmed is more concerned with his immediate family’s survival and fulfilling his promise to his father. Neither of the brothers is bad and their relationship is crucial to the story.

As far as “easy acceptance of the oppressor’s society,” I wouldn’t call life in the diaspora easy even for those Palestinians who have lived and prospered in it. No one with a conscious can forget what he knows, where he comes from or the people left behind. I don’t think those burdens will lessen until the conflict is over. I neither hail nor criticize my characters’ choices in the book, I simply show how humans may behave in real life, and at times how brothers can grow apart, when each is convinced of his “truth.”.

Qs. Nora vs Yasmine: Who makes the better wife according to you and why?



Ans. There are actually three loves of Ahmed’s life.The counterpart for Nora in The Almond Tree wasn’t Yasmine, but rather his first love, Amani, a beautiful and brilliant Palestinian woman.

How can one compare Ahmed’s first and second loves who were forced out of his life before they were faced with the daily realitiesof the pressures of life, the way one does in a long-term marriage? Ahmed found his first two loves on his own. In such relationships, first comes love, then comes marriage. It is no wonder that his relationship with, Yasmine, an arranged wife, is different. It would seem to me that it would be harder to be in love with a woman who is still essentially a strangerat the time of your marriage. In those circumstances, you marry and then, ideally, find love. In Ahmed’s case, there was also the fact that by the time he met Yasmine,he had had his heart broken twice and didn’t believe he could love again. I think Ahmed’s parents were right when they chose Yasmine for him. But, Ahmed doesn’t realize that until later. He neither knew her nor could he see her because his heart was broken. It is for the readers to decide who makes the better wife.

Perhaps the question of who would make a better wife should be posed to the male readers. Who is more appropriate: a wife they choose or one who is chosen for them? And is it better to marry someone who comes from your world or from a different one?

Qs. Do you think a ‘two-state solution’ is only means to resolve the conflict? Would creation of independent states restore peace?

Ans. In order for there to be peace, there first must be awareness of the truth because awareness leads to understanding and understanding leads to change. Also, there must be justice for there to be lasting peace. We cannot have justice without knowledge of the truth. Resolution of the conflict can take the form of the two state solution or the South African model of a one state solution, with one person, one vote or variants on either model.

Qs. India has become host to a number of literary festivals. Do you plan to come to India anytime soon for your book launch or a session, perhaps?

Ans. I would love to come to South Asia for a book tour in the future and participate in literary fairs there.

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16 thoughts on “In conversation with Michelle Cohen Corasanti

  1. Pingback: Interview on "It's Only Words..." with Michelle Cohen Corasanti - The Almond Tree

  2. Just to be clear, criticisms of “The Almond Tree” have nothing to do with the author’s ethnicity or national or religious background. If you read Susan Abulhawa’s review carefully and really pull apart the layers of her argument, you’ll see that the issue is *how* Palestinians are represented in this novel. It is clear, for example, even in the interview above, that Corasanti uses language that gives her position away: she says she lived in “Israel” not even “Israel/Palestine”. The issue is about her point of view and not about her skin colour. As someone who lived and taught in Palestine for quite some time I can assure that it has nothing to do with that whatsoever.

    Just try to imagine altering Corasanti’s novel just a bit in an Indian context. Imagine that her view (with Israelis as British of course) is an acceptable one. This is the only colonial context where the colonisers are somehow excused although their behaviour is no less excusable than any other imperial agent. Writing novels that portends there are two equal sides is deeply problematic in Palestine or any other colonial context around the world.

    • Thank you for your comment, Marcy. Susan’s review is definitely trying to deconstruct the questions and problems that Michelle’s novel puts forth, but to say that the review is completely divested of considering the author’s position as a ‘white’ woman is a little hard to believe. When we talk about Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’, we do talk about the ‘white man’s burden’ and we are also aware that Shakespeare’s ‘Othello’ is racist. The point, like you have aptly cited in your comment is to ‘argue’ and not ‘attack’. Sympathy vs. Empathy is an age-old debate. Interpretations and perceptions are many, it is important to tell, re-tell, discuss, debate, voice and articulate. Michelle’s novel attempts to bring forward all narratives, stories and versions. It gives us a chance to break our silence and speak, it initiates an argument, forces us to rethink and re-establish and that is commendable, don’t you think? And, language seems inadequate, at most times. Michelle would be able to answer better on your query about her usage of language and what it implies.

      Thanks for writing in and stopping by.

    • “Writing novels that portends there are two equal sides is deeply problematic in Palestine or any other colonial context around the world.”

      i completely agree. in the almond tree the protagonists family lives in hell, has their home bulldozed and blown up, the bother pushed off scaffolding permanently maimed, 2 sisters killed, the father imprisoned, just one horrible event after another. there was never any pretense the ‘sides’ were ‘equal’.

  3. One of the major inaccuracies in Abulhawa’s article is that my protagonist is from the West Bank which he is clearly not. For more than the first hundred pages, my protagonist’s village is under Israeli martial law. The years are 1955 – 1966. Israel didn’t occupy the West Bank until 1967. The vast majority of Palestinians inside the 1949 armistice lines lived under Israeli martial law until 1966. I refer to the area inside the 1949 armistice lines as Israel to distinguish it from the territories it occupied in 1966. Did you feel I should refer to that land as Israel/Palestine? I think that could be confusing. I have pointed out Abulhawa’s inaccuracies in the following article.
    http://thealmondtreebook.com/2014/02/04/readers-deserve-truth-almond-tree/ I think the point that should be stressed is the unfairness that because I am Jewish I was allowed to live in Israel or inside the 1949 armistice lines and Ms. Abulhawa was not allowed to live in what should be her homeland. I was able to witness on a daily basis their treatment for seven years. Ms. Abulhawa was never allowed to live inside the 1949 armistice lines so she did not witness what I saw. I was married to a Palestinian and was part of his family. The Huffington Post and The Daily Star and other publications say The Almond Tree can be a game changer. Isn’t that what we want to see? With all the crimes being committed against the Palestinians, I don’t understand why she would target me, someone who is creating awareness.

    Artículo: http://www.huffingtonpost.es/guillermo-fesser/en-la-piel-de-los-palestinos_b_2945533.html

    Obama arrived in Jerusalem and shared, before a packed auditorium of youth, a concern that no president in the White House had dared to publicly mention before:

    “There will be no peace until you can put yourselves in the Palestinians’ shoes and try to see the world through their eyes.” This, which could have been a comment in a speech of paternal protocol, is a step for humanity greater than Armstrong’s step on the moon. It’s a sincere invitation to review the history and see that the Palestinians were there before the official creation of Israel and have a legitimate right. The Palestinians can’t sit down and negotiate a land swap, when the proposal is 9-1 in favor of the other. Details of each side’s negotiating positions are rarely mentioned in Israel. In America the details are completely unknown. It is precisely in this context that lies the courage of Obama’s speech.

    America is the most pro-Israel nation on Earth. Even more than Israel itself. And Israel is the country that receives the most US aid out of any country annually. Three billion U.S.dollars for a country with a per capita income similar to Spain. An amount greater than the sum of all U.S. aid allocated to the rest of humanity. And with better terms. The U.S. administration gives the Jewish state the total sum in the first month of the fiscal year. Unlike the other nations, whose aid reaches them in installments, quarterly, and almost always leaving for last the largest two thirds.

    How do they manage to get so much help? The first reason is religion. Is it the Jewish religion? No, the Christian. United States is deeply Christian and has large pockets of fundamentalist population. Anyone who has walked into a Baptist church in Georgia or Texas knows what I mean. Millions of people accept on faith that God gave the land to the chosen people of Israel and nobody has the right to take it away. Or, what amounts to the same thing, that while the U.S. is a staunch ally of Israel, the nation will remain blessed by divine grace.

    The second reason is the Israel lobby in the U.S: AIPAC. The powerful American Israeli Public Affairs Committee has convinced politicians, media and ordinary citizens, that the interests of Israel and the U.S. are exactly the same. A masterfully cultivated distortion due to the ignorance of the American people about the history of Palestine. AIPAC preaches in the US that the Palestinians will never have peace, because they do not want it. So AIPAC creates threats. And Hamas is declared a terrorist organization so that when Americans see CNN live on the bombing of Gaza they don’t feel bad. And AIPAC feeds the winds of war with Iran because, while staff at the borders are fixed, there is no time to analyze what’s really happening inside.

    Many U.S. politicians continue to eat from the hand of AIPAC and until their constituents do not demand a changed agenda, they are unlikely to change position by choice. Not that AIPAC directly funds their campaigns, but important wealthy Jews do. AIPAC relies on a large core of the American Jewish population, which curiously is notable for having a very liberal political orientation in all areas, but is reluctant to voice even the slightest criticism of Israeli policy. There are historical reasons well known and very respectable to understand this conspiracy of silence. Emotional blackmail also influences a large section of the press; tending to forget that conflicts are usually always two sided. And in fact, you can read much more critical items about Bibi Netanyahu in the Israeli daily Haaretz, than in U.S. newspapers.

    And so the situation will never improve unless the Americans try, as suggested by their president, to put themselves in the Palestinians shoes. Americans must also try to understand that Palestinians aspire to live in a democracy like America where every person has one vote and equal rights and where their children go to bed at night knowing that they will not lack education, nor food, nor shelter, nor a roof over their heads.

    And the situation will continue as long as U.S. voters don’t lobby their president and congressmen and senators to demand that the government of Israel stop the occupation of territories that do not belong to them. Americans need to encourage their president and congress to pressure the Israeli government to sit down and negotiate with the Palestinians on equal terms. Unfortunately for the Palestinians and for the Americans and America’s standing and reputation in the world, Israel gets from the U.S. public a green light to do what it wants in Palestine and uses the US aid that flows annually from Washington to Israel for this purpose. Not too long ago, America had a similar relationship with South Africa. The Reagan administration considered Nelson Mandela a dangerous terrorist and the white Afrikaner government a close ally. The Apartheid government of South Africa knew that they would never have to dismantle their Apartheid system of control and discrimination unless the United States told them to do so. For South Africa, it didn’t matter that the rest of the world condemned Apartheid and called for democratic reforms to take place. As long as the United States did not complain, South Africa ignored the rest of the world.

    The bad news is that, for Americans to put themselves in the Palestinians’ shoes, it will take a miracle. The good news is that the miracle is already happening. Peace will not result from any political negotiation table, neither in Madrid, nor Oslo. The miracle is happening thanks to a work of fiction; a novel that I predict will become one of the biggest bestsellers of the decade. This is the first novel of a Jewish New Yorker, Michelle Cohen Corasanti, and is titled The Almond Tree. For the time being it is only in English, The Almond Tree can be bought on Amazon.com. It is an epic novel, a drama of the proportions of The Kite Runner, but set in Palestine. A beauty. A story that grabs you from the first page and makes your heart go out to the Palestinians without pointing a finger at anyone, without transmitting hatred. A proposal to live in peace and democracy for all. An adventure that brings you into the magical world that travelers used to cross on horseback or camel towards Beirut, Amman or Cairo. A land where Christians, Muslims and Jews shared their traditions for centuries. Where the children inherited the land, generation after generation, and the clans stayed together. Where modesty was a way of life and a man was nothing unless he stood up for his family. Where courage was not the absence of fear, but the absence of selfishness. Where children learned a fundamental principle of life: decency.

    The Almond Tree is the saga of a Palestinian boy who, when he encounters obstacles must look inward and understand that soldiers are only human beings and that war is merely politics. From a boy who must discover that success is not in never falling, but in rising every time you fall. Because it is impossible to go back in time and change the beginning, but you can always start over and change the ending.

    This book has the potential to ignite a thirst for greater knowledge and understanding. If Americans can find the time to read it, I believe that they will be inspired to ask questions and surf the internet for answers. I also believe that the next time they watch CBS, FOX, NBC or CNN, instead of anonymous terrorists, they will see the faces of women with children, grandparents with grandchildren, parents with brothers … Going to work, returning from school, shopping in the market …People who can’t pick their own oranges from their trees because the Israeli military have blocked them off. Youth who can’t accept their scholarships to Harvard or Yale because Israeli authorities don’t allow them to leave Gaza. And then, those same Americans who today are silent through ignorance, will ask questions. Change their voting intentions, demand to know the fate of their donations … Because Americans do not take in a lot of world news, but read novels and watch movies. And listen to songs. And through art they can step into the shoes of the Palestinians. Then we will begin see a glimmer of hope in solving a conflict that weighs on us all.

    http://archive.thedailystar.net/beta2/news/a-case-for-palestine/
    http://www.gulf-daily-news.com/NewsDetails.aspx?storyid=348528
    http://www.dawn.com/news/1084257/the-almond-tree-a-book-review
    http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/hear-the-other-side/
    http://thealmondtreebook.com/bookreviews/mondoweiss-review/
    http://thealmondtreebook.com/2012/09/03/what-did-les-edgerton-my-editor-have-to-say-about-my-book/

  4. I’d also like to agree with Marcy that writing novels that suggest in any way that the Israelis and the Palestinians possess equal power are deeply problematic. I don’t believe that anyone who has read my novel could believe that is what I suggest or portray. What I do portray is that my Palestinian protagonist is smarter than all of his Jewish peers. This Palestinian reviewer understood that. http://electronicintifada.net/content/novel-hollywood-potential-exposes-israels-lies/12218

    Marcy, have you read my novel or are you just commenting based on an inaccurate review you read?

  5. Pingback: Corasanti describes inspiration for novel, 'The Almond Tree'

  6. Hi Michelle, I haven’t read your novel. I’ve read Susan’s review, someone who I admire and respect greatly and my friend Githa Hariharan’s review of your novel (http://www.githahariharan.com/the-politics-of-making-peace.html). Based on these reviews (although I did also read the one in Electronic Intifada), I chose not to read your novel. I’ve spent too much time studying and witnessing the deeply flawed idea of normalising relations between coloniser and colonised. As a result, I cannot read such works any longer. My book has a chapter on the dangers of coexistence or normailsation, if you’re interested: http://www.amazon.com/The-Politics-Teaching-Palestine-Americans/dp/113738736X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1396256754&sr=8-1&keywords=marcy+jane+knopf+newman

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