By Hyacinth Mascarenhas
“So it is good to eat bitter almonds because they make the sweet ones taste even better?”
This simple unifying thread weaves its way through Lilas Taha’s new book ‘Bitter Almonds,’ enriched by the gripping story of Palestinian exiles in Damascus and, in many ways, her own experiences of loss and displacement.
Born in Kuwait to a Palestinian father and Syrian mother, Taha was visiting her brother her in the United States when she heard that Iraq had invaded Kuwait in 1990. Like many at the time, she didn’t know what was going on and had lost all contact with her parents. In an instant, she says, the world she grew up in wasn’t there and the great life she had set was wiped away.
“I experienced loss even though I didn’t experience war,” said Taha, an electrical engineer by training. “I couldn’t get any documents out of Kuwait to prove that I had an engineering degree. My past was wiped away and I had no means to create a future either.”
Taha says she went through a very difficult process until her family immigrated to the U.S. and she finally managed to get her master’s degree from UW Madison.
“We write what we know,” says Taha. “Even though that’s the easy way out, the emotional part has to show up in my writing.”
Filled with struggle, compassion and resilience, ‘Bitter Almonds’ exemplifies the power of the human spirit.
Skillfully capturing characters, scene and the region in a way that goes beyond the usual media rhetoric, the beauty of Taha’s writing shines through her characters’ vulnerability coping with daunting conditions, complex social customs and the universal power of love and hope.
Taking a step back to Jerusalem in 1948, the novel chronicles almost 20 years in the lives of Palestinian exiles, displaced by violence, living in a refugee community in Damascus. Born on the eve of the Naqba in Palestine, orphaned Palestinian Omar is taken in by his mother’s best friend’s family. But when he falls in love with their daughter Nadia, his life takes a complicated turn amid the heart-breaking turmoil of displacement and exile.
Taha says the book started out as a way to connect and engage with her father who was displaced three times in his life since 1948. Attempting to capture the myriad emotions and thoughts he experienced, Taha emphasizes that the book is not a true story about her father, but about a journey that he, like many Palestinians, took in his own life.
In many ways, the male characters competing for Nadia’s affection in the book – Omar and Marwan – mirror her father’s character. Pairing Marwan’s emotional side with Omar’s extreme honesty, dignity, high moral standards and the desire to keep going, Taha says her father identified with the desire to get back home to the point where he lost everything and keep going at the same time.
Sadly, her father passed away just months before Taha signed her deal with Bloomsbury.
Her first book, Shadows of Damascus, was as a way for her to express her emotions when the uprisings in Syria first began. Bitter Almonds, however, was her way of showing how the problems started in Palestine, still conveying the story emotionally, rather than politically or literally.
“For a lot of people who focus on the events happening now, whether in Palestine, Syria or the entire region, very seldom do they go back and see where the roots are and how did the problem start,” said Taha. “I wanted to shine that light and say this is how it started and what you see around you now is stemming from that point. In order to solve the problem, you need to know how it started. I think that’s the engineering part in me showing up.”
Having spent most of her summers in Syria as a child, Taha’s book is a mosaic of rich history and old cultural traditions peppered throughout the story, right down to who should be served the first cup of qahwa during a marriage proposal.
“I wanted the reader to be there. Those who are familiar with the culture, I wanted them to say ‘Hey I’ve been through that’ or ‘I know someone who’s been through that,’” said Taha. “For those who are not familiar with the culture, I wanted them to know about the important parts of the culture, not just the restrictions, and how they form our behavior. I truly believe that culture has way more influence than religion in people’s lives, because culture goes so deep in so many ways.”
Taha lovingly describes the setting in her story, from the Damascus market and the narrow alleys to “the smell of onions and pomegranate syrup” in the sfeeha — inspired by the places she visited in Halbouni, Syria near the Al-Hamidiyah Souq.
Although she did not want her book to be driven by politics, Taha says its key role shaping events, emotions and cultural set-up in her book was inevitable.
“I think it’s inevitable because that’s the climate,” said Taha. “Once you’re a Palestinian, you’re always tuned in to politics. You can’t distance yourself. You’re always identified as Palestinian.. But I kept it in the background as something that’s happening and this is how people are dealing with it.”
And why pen a second love story entrenched in regional conflict?
“Because I love love stories,” she coos with a smile. “I think love is in every situation, in every element, in every environment. You can’t escape those feelings. No matter how difficult the situation, the feeling is there whether you act on it or not. I wanted to write a love story that gives a little bit of hope, but at the same time, is anchored to reality.”
Can she change the way the world views Palestine and its people? Taha says that might be too ambitious, but if she can encourage people to “open their minds just a little bit and start thinking, maybe not accepting, but thinking,” she will have fulfilled her goal.
In fact, one man in her writers critique group who was a firm supporter of Israel came up to her after she went through her character development saying, “You created a problem for me. You’re making me care about this Palestinian person.”
Taha is already working on her third novel about first-generation Palestinian-Americans with ties to Kuwait – with an embedded love story, of course. Despite the emotionally exhausting writing process and doubts writing in her second written language, she hopes readers will identify with her characters and perhaps dig a little further, learn more about their culture and politics, and perhaps, connect with them.
“Everybody has had trouble in their lives. Very few people are born with golden spoons and have life set for them,” says Taha. “A lot of people experience these setbacks but if you only focus on the setbacks, it’s very difficult to move forward in life. It is the difficult situations in life that make you appreciate the good ones. The only way to differentiate between bitter and sweet almonds is by taste. They both look the same and come from the same source. When you bite into that bitter one, it’s really a very, very repulsive taste. But when you compare it to the good ones, it brings their sweetness to life.”
Bitter Almonds (Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing) is out now.