Lilas Taha‘s novel Bitter Almonds explores the meaning of family in the Palestinian diaspora; unconventional, unrelated and unbound by blood ties. The narrative centres on Omar Bakry, a Palestinian born in 1948 Jerusalem, in the midst of a town massacre. The neighbours take Omar, his sister Fatima, his ailing mother and the midwife with them as they flee. Orphaned, Omar and his sister become part of the neighbour’s family, led by Mustafa and Mama Subhia. Refugees in Damascus, Syria, this family of eight lives in a cramped two-bedroom apartment and survives on Mustafa’s meagre salary from a wool factory.
Although the older siblings in the family alienate Omar and Fatima, especially as teenagers, this only puts into sharp contrast the way in which they are indisputably included by the rest of the family. At one point, Mama Subhia even explains that she wanted the orphans to take on the family name, but her husband insisted on the significance of carrying on their own Bakry name. The novel reveals how ties forged in the refugee diaspora supersede lineage based on blood. The refugee characters indicate the possibility of creating new alliances (not based on family or nation), evoking Edward Said’s argument for affiliative rather than “filiative” identification. Filiation is unquestioned and defines belonging in terms of biological continuity. Affiliation, on the other hand, is conscious and defines belonging in terms of institutions, associations and communities.
However, filial ties don’t merely indicate blood lines or subordination to the traditional authority of genealogy. Filiation also embraces the patrimonial aspect of national identification as inheritance or legacy, a matter of genealogical descent, mimicking “the unreflective assumption of ‘natal’ belonging.” So in the novel, not only are blood and filial ties surpassed by new forms of family-making, but relationships based on mutual respect and trust are privileged over national ties, as exemplified by Omar’s lifelong close friendship with Marwan, a middle-class Syrian.
The lines of familial identification are further blurred when the novel’s primary tension revolves around Omar’s desire for one of the girls with whom he grew up. Omar’s doubts and self-interrogation of his desires, as well as obstacles from the family and social milieu, are put into place, but the resulting tension doesn’t seem convincing. Omar is developed into such a flawless hero, it’s hard not to imagine him ultimately “getting the girl”, despite the socially transgressive relationship between him and the girl he was raised with.
Moreover, the novel galvanises the characters around gendered concepts of duty and honour, whose standards are met by providing for the family as a man and, more ambiguously gauged, representing the family with purity and dignity as a woman. The novel shows an understanding of the fragile and intricate nature of maintaining and upholding women’s honour in such a time and place, and there are moments in the novel when a character or an event does question some of these standards. Ultimately, though, it appears that the development of the narrative not only reflects but also supports these gendered conventions: teenage Omar becomes disinterested in a girl who flirts with the boy he was raised with while playing footsy with him under the table. Omar views her as problematic and flawed because he thinks she’s sexually available, which would suffice as a reflection of a particular society at a particular time. The author develops her character into a deceptive wife who schemes to taint the “purity” of her sister-in-law’s reputation and is eventually cast out of the family, suggesting feminine sexual desire as a prelude to a series of other moral flaws. Conversely, the young girl who walks around tensely clutching books to her chest as a young girl develops into Omar’s love interest and the heroine of the novel.
Lastly, the tone of the narration as well as the dialogue is inflected awkwardly with contemporary English vernacular that is anachronistic and out of place. For instance, when teenage Omar wrestles with the propriety of his burgeoning desires, he says to himself, “What the hell?” – in 1965 Damascus. Other contemporary idioms are both distracting and jarring for a novel set decades ago.
Despite structural flaws, the novel deals poignantly with both the issue of drawing the boundaries of responsibility along familial lines and, by extension, along national lines, in the sense that filial responsibility is tied to national identity. In doing so, it offers a hopeful glimpse into the possibilities of family-building and belonging beyond blood-bound ties, which has profound implications for developing the larger, social, global family.