Thursday, 22 May 2014

Almonds and Academics

Some weeks ago now, a friend whose taste in literature I trust, recommended a book to me. Her recommendation was so passionate I ordered it immediately, and Amazon outdid themselves by delivering it within 24 hours.

The book in question is "The Almond Tree" by Michelle Coren Corasanti and it's a fictional life story of a Palestinian man born and raised in the West Bank.

While I was waiting for it to arrive I did a silly thing. I read the reviews:

Just the briefest glance at that will give you an idea of how divided opinions are on this book, and there's very little middle ground, readers either loved it or hated it. And, of those who hated it, reasons varied.

Much of the literary criticism is quite fair, I'm just not sure how much I would have noticed had I not been alerted to it. There are actual errors that an editor should have pointed out, and a lot of "beginner" writer mistakes that were rather annoying. But let's overlook all of that, because it's not what I'm here for.

The more important objections were that it was biased and/or historically inaccurate. The problem with this is that if you ask 12 people who actually live in the area concerned, you get 13 versions of "what really happened".

At the same time I was reading this book (very slowly, I've been very busy with many different things lately) I was also taking an online course "The Emergence of the Modern Middle East". This is the second course I've taken on this part of the world, and while I don't claim any sort of expertise, I have some facts at my disposal that come in quite useful when examining events.

The problem with facts regarding the history and social issues of an area in conflict such as this, is that they are interpreted very differently depending on one's own personal biases and attitude. I was therefore very happy that in one course the professor was Muslim, and in the other, an Israeli Jew. As academics they both did their level best to offer a neutral balanced view, nevertheless I was happier to have both to cross-check minor details.

And then of course, there is the media. How can we ever be sure, this far away, that what we are being shown is a fair and accurate representation of what's going on?

One forms one's own conclusions, taking everything into account. Increasingly, however, observers from outside are coming to the conclusion that something is very rotten there.

The idea behind the state of Israel was a "land without people, for a people without a land". Of course, this was complete nonsense as there were plenty of people already living on the land in question, which is why all of the subsequent conflict arose. In hindsight it was a Really Bad Idea, but it's too late for that now. What of the future?

Let's go back to the book. One of the main objections was how saintly Baba - the father or our hero - seems to be. Despite losing children, homes, being imprisoned (and treated very badly) for 13 years, he is all about love and forgiveness and trying to get along with his oppressors. It is certainly hard to believe anyone could be that forgiving, but the author seemed to use him as a tool to make a point, and I think it's this point that the critics hate. They hate the idea that love and forgiveness and getting along is presented as the solution to decades of conflict, oppression, injustice, death, destruction, and bitter hatred.

It seems childish and simplistic to even consider it. And so the character who embodies this is singled out, and the concept is ridiculed.

And I ask, what else have you got?

What alternative to love and forgiveness and getting along would you like to suggest that will bring peace to a place that has known no peace for generations?

Everything else has been tried. None of it works.

Things are changing, slowly, but it's two steps forward and one back. If the Israeli government and Hamas can both get their heads out of their arses long enough to stop making things worse instead of better, there are enough ordinary people who are fed up with conflict and who are willing to give love, forgiveness, and getting along a shot.

However, there are also far too many people outside looking in who are STILL taking sides after all this time, who STILL can't tell the difference between authorities (legitimate or otherwise) and regular people, who STILL don't understand cause and effect, who STILL can't grasp in particular the effect that generational oppression has on people, who STILL think it can all be fixed by men in suits signing papers, and who STILL use ancient mythology to justify it all.

The purpose of the book, according to the author, was "to bring about peace between Palestinians and Israelis" and to show that "we are all human beings and we're all equal."

I think it's awfully naive to think one book can do that, but I will absolutely not criticize anyone for wanting to do it, no matter how ham-fisted the attempt.

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