Bitter Almonds

Written by Lilas Taha
Review by Viviane Crystal

Omar is orphaned at his birth and then exiled from his beloved Palestine after the Israeli Stern and Irgun presence becomes life-threatening. Omar and his adoptive family are exiled to Damascus. Now it’s 1961, and readers are invited to share the familial world of Mamma Subhia, Uncle Mustafa, and their five children, some natural and some adopted. Still, Omar has reminders that he is not the real son of the family, a state paralleling the loneliness of all exiled Palestinians.

Readers will expect this story to focus on the Israel-Palestine conflict. Instead, what we get is a very different account of religious and cultural practices in Palestinian families: rules for interaction both at home and outside, rituals performed after a child’s birth, courtship and wedding practices for the families of both bride and groom, women’s family roles, and men’s roles to ensure all customs are fulfilled and that the family’s honor is always kept intact and in the forefront of neighbors’ attention. Omar is madly in love, but those familial duties and his lover’s desire to be more than wife and mother – to have an education –  thwart Omar from declaring himself to Nadia. While waiting, he fights in the Six-Day War between Israel and Egypt and then serves in a secret Palestinian military action, but how he is treated later on is astonishing.

Bitter Almonds is a poignant exposition of Palestinian Arabs living in perpetual exile from their homeland. This is another historical fiction story on a subject contrary to what readers usually hear and read about from this war-torn corner of the Middle East, where residents are currently being forced into exile again. Recommended reading!