Omar el Akkad’s newest novel, “What Strange Paradise,” takes place largely on an island in the Mediterranean that has served as a landing place for people fleeing from their homelands. The main characters are children trying to navigate the inhumanity of our world, and instead finding solace in each other. Omar el Akkad joins us to discuss the novel.
This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB, I’m Dave Miller.
Four years ago the Portlander, writer, and journalist Omar el Akkad bounded onto the global literary stage with his debut novel American War. It was a dystopian and frighteningly realistic conjuring of a second American Civil War. It was set in the future.
El Akkad’s new novel could be set yesterday or tomorrow. Two children are at the center of the story. One is a Syrian refugee. He’s a nine year old boy, the only survivor of a boat crossing from Egypt to a Greek island. The other main character is a 15 year old Greek girl who tries to help him. The novel, which is heartbreaking and elegant and does not seem to have a single unnecessary word is called “What Strange Paradise”
Omar el Akkad, welcome back to Think Out Loud.
Omar el Akkad: Thank you so much for having me.
Miller: I thought we could start with a reading from near the very beginning of the book. I don’t think it needs too much of a setup.
el Akkad: No, it’s just a short passage from the first chapter.
“No one can remember exactly when they first started washing up along the eastern coast. But in the last year, it has happened with such frequency that many of the nations on whose tourists the island’s economy depends have issued travel advisories. The hotels and resorts in turn have offered discounts. Between them, the coast guard and the morgue keep a partial count of the dead, and as of this morning it stands at 126. But this number is as much an abstraction as the dead themselves are to the people who live here, to whom all the shipwrecks of the previous year are a single shipwreck. All the bodies, a single body.
Three officers from the municipal police force pull a long strip of caution tape along the breadth of the walkway that leads from the road to the beach. Another three wrestle with large sheets of blue boat cover canvas, trying to build a curtain between the dead and their audience. In this way, the destruction takes on an air of queer unreality. A stage play bled of movement. A fairy tale upturned.”
Miller: What was your starting point for this book?
el Akkad: I think we talked about this last time when we spoke about American War, which is one of the privileges of being an author is that you get to, after the fact, come up with a very clean starting point for how the book came about. You know, this happened, this happened, then I wrote a book.
In the case of “What Strange Paradise”, there were two memories in particular that first started me thinking about the things that would eventually congeal into this novel:
The first was a trip back to Egypt, where I was born. I was back there in 2012 on assignment. I was still working as a journalist at the time. I was covering the aftermath of the Arab Spring. And I was driving around town with a friend of mine, an old high school buddy, who was complaining about rent, rent had gone up. And so I asked him at one point, “Well, what’s the rent for an apartment in your building?” And he said “Do you mean the Locals’ price? Or do you mean the Syrians’ price?” I said, “What the hell’s the Syrians’ price?” And he said “We’ve had this influx of people coming into the country recently, and they don’t have much choice. They have to be here. So you can charge them about three times as much, because what are they gonna do, go somewhere else?” And it became apparent after that that this wasn’t just an apartments thing. If you went down to buy fruits and vegetables at the stall down the street, you were getting the same treatment.
I was thinking about this in the context of all the Arab leaders of the time, talking about “our Syrian brothers and sisters,” which was nonsense. The reality was, on the ground, there was a population that could be exploited, and so it was going to be exploited. So that was one of the first instigating events.
The second was a few years later. I was reading a story about a migrant shipwreck in the Mediterranean, and the details were about as horrific as you would expect. But what was really horrifying and fascinating after the fact was that this story generated immense outrage in this part of the world for about 24 hours, and then everyone moved on. And so this novel, I can’t tell you if it’s good or not, but it is very much written against that privilege of temporary forgetting, against the privilege of simply looking away.
Miller: I want to go back to the first instigating moment, when you heard from your friend about the two sets of prices for local Egyptians or other people, and for Syrians. In what way did that fact that you learned make its way into the fiction you created?
el Akkad: There’s a scene fairly early on in the novel. The novel is structured as two parables, effectively. There’s alternating chapters, the “after” chapters and the “before” chapters. And so you begin the story with a boy washing up on the shores of this western island, the only survivor of a migrant shipwreck. And then the after chapters show everything that happens after he shows up, and the before chapters show you how he ended up there in the first place. And in one of the earliest before chapters, this child’s mother, this Syrian refugee to Egypt, is sitting around at home in this apartment in Alexandria, and she’s watching Egyptian soap operas. She doesn’t give a damn about the plot. She doesn’t like these shows at all. What she’s trying to do is learn the accents of the actors, because she wants to mimic them. Everything else she can fake, she can fake looking like an Egyptian, she can sort of learn the neighborhood, but her accent gives her away, gives her away as Syrian. The same way if I started talking to you right now in Arabic, every Arabic speaker in the world would instantly know that I was born in Egypt. It’s a very distinctive accent. And so she’s trying to learn because she’s trying to fake her way into an easier life. Which is something that you see is certainly not not unique to the part of the world in which I grew up. It’s something you see pretty well in every society, people trying to fake the mother tongue, whatever that may be, just to get by.
Miller: Or code switch their way into the dominant culture in some way.
el Akkad: Mhm, exactly.
Miller: One of the characters we meet, she’s only on a couple of pages, but she is very significant in propelling the plot forward. Her name is Madame el Ward. She’s a longtime resident of this Greek island, but she’s originally from an unnamed Arab country, and she’s been tasked with running the refugee camp. You put us inside her head when she sees this boy who has survived the shipwreck for the first time. You write this:
“She has seen so many over the last year alone, malnourished, orphaned by war or by sea, made into the undercurrents of themselves, broken in ways that render them unable to continue as children, and yet a part of them left childlike forever. She has seen so many. And every time, the sight freezes her in terrible reverence.”
If you were in your old writing job as a journalist, and you went to a refugee camp, as you did in Afghanistan, I imagine that you would go to somebody who had this woman’s job and watch her and talk to her. But what’s your process as a novelist? How do you create a Madam el Ward?
el Akkad: The novel is in many ways a repurposed fairy tale. It’s the story of Peter Pan reinterpreted as the story of a contemporary child refugee. But it’s written in such a way that if you aren’t intimately familiar with the original Peter Pan, you don’t necessarily see that on every page. “Nimra el Ward” Nimra is an Arabic corruption of the word tiger, and then alward, flower. She’s my Tiger Lily from Peter Pan.
One of the one of the interesting things about that character is that when we first meet her, she is dealing with this really unfortunate situation where the company that is tasked with bringing drinking water to the to the refugee camp has used the same tanker that previously had held oil, and they didn’t clean it in between the oil and the water transfer. So she’s on the phone trying to get somebody to at least acknowledge that it is deeply problematic to give tainted drinking water to these people.
That’s a real detail. That’s something I saw when I was researching the refugee camps in a lot of European locations that the migrants were ending up in. Almost everything I write in my fiction begins as a form of an unanswered question from my journalism. Either the 10 years I spent as a full time journalist, or the journalism that I do much less frequently now. Journalism by definition is about answers. If you don’t have a who, what, where, when, how, you don’t have journalism. Fiction is where I go for questions, and nothing I write in my fiction is prescriptive. There’s no answers there. I’m quite happy to leave the questions unanswered in that world, and in that sense, they become antagonistic muscles. They become two forms of writing. One enables me to do the other one better, I think, or hope, anyway.
Miller: What are questions about this migrant crisis that you couldn’t answer as a journalist? What does a novel give you license to try to reckon with?
el Akkad: It’s a really fascinating question. The immediate answers that come to mind are, for example, why we were calling it a “migrant crisis”. When we’re talking about this, particularly in those years, around 2015, when this was in the news all of the time, we were talking about it in the context of Europe. “Look, this really prosperous society is facing a migrant crisis.” Well, no, they weren’t. Lebanon was facing a migrant crisis, as a country that had far less resources and was taking in far more refugees. But the rich place where white folks live was facing an influx of a few thousand, and that was enough to make it front page news for years and years and years.
Dealing with how we got to the place where we were using that terminology and that phrasing left me with a lot of unanswered questions. But beyond that, you’re also dealing with trying to move from the system to the individual. A lot of what enrages me the most are systemic issues rather than individual issues. But the brunt of the misery that is felt as a result of those systems are felt by individuals. And so I’m trying to sort of bridge that gap, and that’s a really difficult place for me to operate. My heroes, my writing heroes, manage to do it far better than I can. James Baldwin, Naguib Mahfouz, Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, all these writers that I think of as being profoundly capable in that alchemy of making something deeply human and individual out of a corrupt system. I wish I had that talent. I don’t. But I’m trying to reach for it.
And so it puts me in a place where I don’t have easy answers that I can put on the page. As soon as I get to that place, I need to retreat into fiction, because if I try to do it in the form of journalism, it’s going to be very bad journalism
Miller: You said that um something that enrages you the most is often systemic. Is rage helping to propel, to fuel your writing?
el Akkad: Oh absolutely. There’s writers who are talented enough that I will read them on any topic. I’ll read Toni Morrison on anything. I go back and read James Agee’s film reviews, I love the writing so much.
I am not of that caliber of talent. What I write about is what feels most necessary, and that almost always directly overlaps with what makes me angryist. But the thing about that is that you have to be careful with it, because it’s a fire; it lights up the room, but it can also burn the whole place down. You can sort of see it both in “American War” and “What Strange Paradise,” and all the short stories I write, the places where I lose control of it a little bit, where the fire gets a little beyond my ability to rein it in.
And I have to operate in that place. That’s just what feels necessary for me. It doesn’t mean I have the right to do it. It doesn’t mean that I’m any good at it. It just means that this is where I’m drawn to when I start writing fiction.
Miller: I’m hoping you can read us another section of the book. This is about the soldiers who are patrolling the refugee camp on this Greek island:
el Akkad: “It has been more than a year since these young uniformed men arrived on her side of the island. Like all soldiers, they were trained for warfare, but once dispatched here, what they found was not what most of them thought of as a war. To become soldiers required they be rid of a certain kind of human reticence. The pulling of a trigger was in the end a rote mechanical movement. Anyone could be taught it. The difficult thing, the necessary thing, was to first kill off the instinct not to pull it. A person freed of this instinct requires the full theater of war, its protective mythology, without which this particular absence of restraint descends into sociopathy. But no such theater exists in these camps. For years, these soldiers have been taught to wield hammers, only to come to the island and find not nails, but glass.
Miller: What did you want to explore with the various soldiers who you portray both as individuals and as members of a system?
el Akkad: I was thinking a little bit about a memory I have from a long time ago. I was down in Guantanamo Bay, I was covering the military trials there. I had many sources of education as a journalist on various forms of violence, and when we think of war, obviously, the first thing we think of as the overt physical violence, the bombs and guns and so on and so forth. But there are so many layers holding that up, layers of other kinds of violence.
One of them was a kind of linguistic violence. We were in the camps one day, in the Guantanamo detention camps, and we were being given a tour of the place. I was asking the officer giving us the tour, I was asking a question and I said something like “So, when do the prisoners-” and as soon as I got to the word prisoners, one of the soldiers immediately stopped me and he said “We don’t have prisoners here, sir. We have detainees.”
It occurred to me at that moment that it was incredibly vital to this soldier’s worldview, to his view of his place in this entire endeavor that there be no prisoners here, because prisoner implies a prison sentence, and a prison sentence is a defined thing. A detainee you can hold forever. In the same way that it was desperately important for him that there be no accidental killing of civilians, only collateral damage. No torture, only enhanced interrogation. In Guantanamo, they don’t even use the word interrogation, they use “reservation”, as in “The detainee has an 8:30 pm reservation.” That means they’re going to be taken into a room and interrogated.
Miller: You know what’s totally fascinating about about what you read into this is it it seems like it’s one thing for Donald Rumsfeld at the time to correct a reporter asking about this in a kind of legalistic way, but what you saw here was what was at stake for this individual soldier, who didn’t come up with these terms and probably didn’t have a legal degree. But still, something was very important to this person, that you noticed.
el Akkad: Yeah. His view of himself was tied up in the endeavour. So he needed to leave a certain set of things, and that’s what I carried into the novel. All the soldiers, particularly the young ones in this novel, need to believe in a certain kind of world just to get through the day. And they’re going to believe it, regardless of how much it clashes with reality.
Miller: Mhm. I wonder if you could read one more section for us. This is from a part where an army colonel named Kethros who is basically hunting for this nine year old boy who survived the boat and has fled with the help of this girl, Vänna. He is talking, this colonel, with a government bureaucrat.
el Akkad: “Kethros watches the tourists hurrying back to the hotel grounds. ‘Our mistake was getting into the nice business,’ he says.
‘We thought tourism would be easy money. The sea is already here. The sand is already here. What’s left but to be nice? What’s easier than to be nice?’
Lena points to the Zenios Hotel. ‘A few hundred fishermen on this island who have nothing left to fish can still put food on the table because of the nice business.’
The colonel shakes his head. ‘For now, maybe. But you can bet your future on work that requires the coming together of people. Not now, not with the world the way it is. The days of people coming together are ending. This is a time for coming apart.”
Miller: That exchange seems to get to a tension that’s threaded throughout the book, and echoed in different kinds of conversations. It’s about the limits of kindness, or even maybe the honesty of kindness, the authenticity of kindness, in times like ours of conflict and scarcity. What did you want to explore with these conversations?
el Akkad: A lot of the book is about this collision of two fantasies: the fantasy that a lot of people in my part of the world back in the Middle East have about the West, which is that it’s a cure for all ails, “If you just get here, everything will be fine.” And then the fantasy headed in the other direction, which is “all these people trying to come here are barbarians at the gate and we need to block them at any cost.”
All of this is built in so closely to the fundamental notion of self interest. “Whatever helps me the most is what needs to take precedence.” I remember growing up in Egypt, my father worked in the tourism industry, he was an accountant at one of the bigger hotels in Cairo. And there was, and I suspect there still is a special branch of the Egyptian security forces that is dedicated to protecting tourists. And at the expense of everyone else in the country, because everyone knows what’s putting food on the table. And I suspect that no matter how much we wreck this planet, no matter how much we allow things to get out of hand, there will always be that last sliver of self interest that’s going to dictate how things are going to be done.
So in this book, a lot of it takes place on this island, and right to the very end, the thing that matters is making sure these tourists are okay. That they continue spending their money at the bar, that they continue showing up. Because everybody in this book, regardless of their moral orientation, understands exactly what their self interest is.
Miller: The colonel is contemptuous of the relationship, the friendship between Vänna, this Swedish, Nordic/Greek girl, and this Syrian boy. Are you contemptuous of it? Is this a real friendship to you?
el Akkad: In my mind, it’s a real friendship that is nonetheless asymmetrical. Vänna who is in fact, at least I wrote her to be half Swedish, half Greek, is deeply concerned with what it means to be a good human being. And so she’s helping this child, who she can’t even communicate with; they don’t speak the same language. She’s helping him, and she’s doing her best to get him to safety. But the fundamental reason for that, even if she won’t admit it to herself, is because she wants to be a good person. And so, the child’s well being, while deeply important to her, is secondary to her being the sort of person who does the right thing.
One of the things I realized about my writing recently, and this is probably something I should be taking up with a therapist rather than a radio interview, is I believe the villains in my stories. They resonate with me much more, the people I disagree with the most of my novels resonate with me more than any other characters. The thing about Colonel Kethros is that he’s honest about his xenophobia, he’s honest about his racism. He doesn’t have to lie to himself. Whereas all of the principled good characters in the novel desperately have to lie to themselves just to get through the day.
Miller: It seems like you’ve just described something that is either closely tied to being a journalist or often associated with being a journalist. You’re talking about a certain kind of skepticism or cynicism. Is that a fair way to put it?
el Akkad: I think so, yeah. The other thing that’s tied into this that ties closely to the journalism aspect of it is this notion that, when you’re writing these things, no matter how much you try to train the empathy muscles, no matter how much you build up an internal framework for why you need to do this, you are at the end of the day, a tourist in somebody else’s misery. And when I was a journalist, I struggled with this. And now as a novelist, I struggle with this. You have to convince yourself that there is some necessity to the piece of writing on the other side of this very temporary excursion into somebody else’s permanent pain. And I don’t know how to keep convincing myself of that.
You think that these things are going to come out into the world and they’re going to change people’s minds and they’re going to get people to finally care, and so on and so forth. And all evidence is to the contrary. And so you’re left trying to make sense of A) Whether you had the right to do this at all. And B) Whether you can continue doing this knowing that there’s a good chance it won’t achieve anything that will cause the conditions whereby I wouldn’t have had to write this novel in the first place.
Miller: Well, I hope you’ll write more, nevertheless.
el Akkad: Thank you so much.
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