Book Review: ‘What a Strange Paradise’ by Omar El Akkad

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WHAT WEIRD PARADISE
Omar Al-Akkad

In his first novelAmerican WarOmar Al-Akkad gave a full account of the violence and misery he witnessed as a correspondent for The Globe and Mail in Canada, covering Afghanistan, Guantanamo and the Arab Spring, with a long-running civil war in the future America upended the world order.

In his new novel, Ne Garip Cennet, he brings this dystopia closer to reality (and to the comfort zones of the West), setting his narrative against real events, wars and revolutions and revolutions in the Middle East. migrant crisis following. Similarly geopolitics, nativism and climate change are a big canvas, but this time, Al-Akkad keeps its plan and focus tight, rather than unveiling a multi-generational epic. The story, told from the perspective of two children on land and at sea, so brilliantly reveals the us-them-dynamics of our divided world that it deserves to be an instant classic. I haven’t loved a book this much in a long time.

The story begins with the haunting, familiar sight of a shipwreck and corpses washed up on a beach on a Greek island. Among them is Amir, a 9-year-old Syrian boy who seems to be the only survivor. Blinking, he is alert and instinctively avoiding the uniforms that come to clean up the crime scene. In a nearby villa, she is being kept by a 15-year-old girl named Vänna, the granddaughter of Scandinavian transplants whose dreams of running a seaside inn were ruined by the Greek economic crisis.

[ Read an excerpt from “What Strange Paradise.” ]

Vänna and Amir do not understand each other’s language, but they are both stranded and alone, the good and innocent children of this fairy tale. Feeling alienated from both the island and her difficult parents, it is not surprising that Vänna helps Amir avoid arrest and tries to reach a ferry that can take him to safety on the mainland.

Episodes range from “Before”, the story of Amir’s escape from Syria with his family and his accidental voyage in a cramped and overloaded migrant boat across the Mediterranean, to “After”, which chronicles the chases of Vänna and Amir. by one-minded, one-legged Colonel Kethros and his soldiers at every turn.

These are twin journeys of obstacles and hardships, of chance and the kindness of strangers, with characters as complex as the human condition itself. Episodes swing from side to side like a pendulum between refugee and local, foreigner and guest, distressed and on vacation. “Two opposing scenarios come to life on a common stage,” reflecting each other like mirrors and echoes.

Both the immigrants on the boat and those on the island talk, complain and wonder about the “other”. Al-Akkad cleverly alternates between the reflections, prejudices and past stories of the two groups, effectively dispelling assumptions of good and evil, superiority and inferiority. Aboard Amir’s boat, Mohamed, a corrections officer who posts his despise of immigrants’ hopes as menacingly as he uses his gun, is later shown to be just as scared and angry as Colonel Kethros, feeding his own frustration and PTSD.

The most devastating is Al Akkad’s accusation of indifference. Vänna and Amir find the world hostile, unfair and unfeeling. At one point, they are walking along a tourist beach where other children “run around, build sand castles and play”. Islanders dismiss immigrants as “mosquitoes”: “These people don’t think, they don’t plan.” But immigrants also find it difficult to find mercy, especially when storms shake the boat and voyage frays their nerves. “So what, is the fish better to catch?” A man asks as he takes off a dead old man’s socks. None of them cares what’s locked in the barn below; When a torn wooden hand reaches out, Amir is the only one who sees it and gives him half a tangerine.

Wisdom abounds, but as strict observation rather than comforting sermon or advice. “There is no such thing as conflict. There is only scarcity, only need,” says Amir’s father, before he disappears into a Syrian prison. An optimistic English literature student from Gaza says, “You should try to believe in something, even if they disappoint you later on. “Mohamed gives us all a hard reality check when he tells his passengers, “The two kinds of people in this world are not good and bad – they are engines and fuel.” One will always use the other.

Al Akkad must have started “What a Strange Paradise” before Covid reintroduced us to our own vulnerability and arrogance, but it reads as a parable for our time. “We are all selfish and stupid,” Amir’s uncle says. “We are all cowards,” Colonel Kethros admits. At the moment of drowning, on the border between death and life, Amir suddenly realizes everything: All our love, ambition, hopes and failures are unleashed in one passage of such a beautiful piece of writing that I would have quoted it all here if I hadn’t written it. I don’t want people to experience the joy of reading it fresh on the page.

Having such a revelation, according to Vänna, “the bridge turns to the sky, the earth to the air.” El Akkad also wants to subvert the reader in order to reverse the liberal concepts of sacredness and sacred individualism. This remarkable book carries a message not from a stereotypical hope, but from a greater universal humanism, the terrifying idea that, after all, there is no special distinction between us, that we are all in the same boat.

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