Tag: Omar El Akkad

Canada Reads Along 2022: What Strange Paradise

Cover image for What Strange Paradise by Omar El Akkad

by Omar El Akkad

ISBN 9780525657910

“You are the temporary object of their fraudulent outrage, their fraudulent grief. They will march the streets on your behalf, they will write to politicians on your behalf, they will cry on your behalf, but you are to them in the end nothing but a hook on which to hang the best possible image of themselves. Today you are the only boy in the world and tomorrow it will be as though you never existed.”

When Syria is torn apart by civil war, Amir and his family flee to Egypt. But while his mother tries to rebuild their life, his uncle is still looking for a way out, a promise of better things. When he follows his uncle down to the docks late one night, Amir finds himself aboard a smuggler’s ship bound across the sea. On board that ill-fated ship are many passengers with disparate hopes for the future, if only they can get to a better place. When the ship sinks in a storm, Amir meets fifteen-year-old Vanna, a resident of one of the islands that the migrants try so desperately to reach. Pursued by the local authorities, Amir and Vanna go on the run, but tiny islands keep no secrets and have very few places to hide.

What Strange Paradise is broken into alternating Before chapters, which tell of Amir’s life prior to the events on the island, and After chapters, which follow his adventures with Vanna on the island. One final chapter is entitled Now. In the Before chapters, we learn about how Amir’s family lost their home in Syria, took refuge in Egypt, and then tried to escape across the sea. In the After chapters, Vanna tries to conceal Amir from the authorities and—with the help of the local refugee camp coordinator who does not want to see the little boy dragged into that system—tries to get him to an old dock on the far side of the island where a ferryman will smuggle him across the water. 

What Strange Paradise is short but powerful. I read it quickly, and then wished I had spent more time absorbing it as I sat with the ending. The book is open-ended and invites a wide range of possible interpretations. The opening image of a boy’s body washing up on the beach has clear echoes of the death of Alan Kurdi in 2015. But this little boy, Amir Utu, opens his eyes, and the story continues. How that continuation is interpreted is in the hands of the reader, but it is a haunting ending that more than one reader has found frustrating.

The villain of the piece is Colonel Kethros, a broken man who used to be a peacekeeper, only to realize that “peace keeping” meant watching a genocide and being able to do nothing to stop it. He lost not just his leg, but a piece of his humanity on that mission. The same man who will save a small girl from drowning will also throw a little boy into a refugee camp that lacks fresh water without a moment’s hesitation. His duality embodies the limitations and fickleness of human empathy, and the lines that we draw between “us” and “them.”

What Strange Paradise was defended on Canada Reads 2022 by entrepreneur Tareq Hadhad, who himself came to Canada as a refugee from Syria in 2015 with his family. Hadhad drew on that history in his pitch for why it is the one book that all of Canada should read this year. With millions of people just like Amir on the news every day, Hadhad argued that What Strange Paradise is the timely book Canada needs right now to foster empathy and compassion for refugees. Many of his fellow panelists seemed to agree that the book was effective at fostering this empathy, and several called out particular scenes from the Before chapters on the boat that spoke to them and highlighted the humanity of all the passengers, even that of Mohammed the smuggler.

The ending of What Strange Paradise repeatedly came under fire from Canada Reads panelists, an angle of attack which the book’s champion Tareq Hadhad indicated that he had expected. Mark Tewksbury in particular called it out several times, and even Malia Baker, who said that she likes a subjective ending, felt this one might go too far. Hadhad argued that the open conclusion is part of the power of the book, and pointed out that this is a feature it shares with Washington Black, the book Tewksbury is defending. The alternating chapters were also unpopular with some of the panelists, including Malia Baker and Christian Allaire. Baker noted that the character of the antagonist, Colonel Kethros, is much better developed than either Vanna or Amir, and we have much better insight into his motivations than anyone else’s.

The hopefulness of the book was also a point of contention that came up for discussion on the second day of the debates. Tareq Hadhad described What Strange Paradise as hopeful in his argument, and certainly it is a book about the hopes and dreams of immigrants and refugees, but none of the panelists seemed to agree that the book’s ending was hopeful. Some of the panelists, including Mark Tewksbury and Christian Allaire, questioned Vanna’s motivations and believability in her decision to aid Amir despite the serious potential consequences to herself and her family. In response, Hadhad noted that he had found his own Vanna in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, and argued that kindness does not need a reason.

When the ballots were cast at the end of Day Two, Malia Baker and Mark Tewksbury voted against What Strange Paradise, while Christian Allaire cast his vote against Scarborough by Catherine Hernandez and defender Tareq Hadhad voted against Washington Black by Esi Edugyan. In the after show, free agent Suzanne Simard noted that she struggled with her vote but felt that while the book had a Canadian face in many ways, it was the only book that did not have a Canadian setting. Her deciding ballot made What Strange Paradise the second book eliminated from Canada Reads 2022.

Catch up on Day One of Canada Reads 2022: Life in the City of Dirty Water

You might also like:

The Boat People by Sharon Bala

The Illegal by Lawrence Hill

American War by Omar El Akkad

Canada Reads Along 2018: American War

Cover image for American War by Omar Ell Akkadby Omar El Akkad

ISBN 978-0-451-49358-3

If we nod and smile while they parade some fantasy about this being a noble disagreement between equals and not a bloody fight over their stubborn commitment to a ruinous fuel, the war will never really be over…You fight the war with guns, you fight the peace with stories.

Sarat Chestnut is born by the sea, into contested territory between the Reds and Blues that are fighting the Second American Civil War. Her world is wracked by climate change, and by the South’s refusal to give up on fossil fuels. Much of the Southern US coast is now underwater, and out-of-control drones crawl the skies. When her father is killed in a bombing, Sarat’s mother and her three children flee to Camp Patience, a refugee camp on the North/South border. There they scrape together a life always on the edge of dissolution, and the children grow up with the question of what the future can possibly hold for them. It is here that Sarat meets the mentor who will shape her mind, and turn her to his own ends.

In American War, journalist Omar El Akkad paints a dark dystopian future in which the unreconciled shadows of America’s past rise up to tear the country apart once more. His protagonist begins as a child caught in the middle of that fight, and is irrevocably twisted and shaped by the horrors of war. We follow Sarat as she goes from refugee to fighter to war hero to wanted terrorist, perceptions of her swaying and turning depending from which side of the conflict she is being seen. We see her broken and remade, and broken again, and must inevitably follow her to the consequences of that final breaking. She is not a likeable character, and the reader is not necessarily supposed to sympathize with her actions, but it the author’s quest to make us understand her nevertheless.

American War is told with a frame narrative. It is many years after the Second American Civil War, and the Reunification Plague that followed it. In the far north of the Alaska Neutral Territory, someone who remembers Sarat, who knows who she was, and what she did, is dying. For so long the secret has been kept, but now the story will be told. Also interspersed through the book, at the end of each chapter, are documents that assist the massive feat of world-building that El Akkad has undertaken. The story covers a large swath of time, with a lot of alternate history that needs to be explained, and these excerpts help support that, but are inserted at natural breaking points rather than dumped into the main body of the text.

Although American War was extremely well conceived and written, there were three parts that stuck out which were difficult for me to reconcile. I was able to cope with the darkness of the book, but somehow I couldn’t handle the scene where a boy spying on Sarat in the shower was supposed to make her feel powerful. Fortunately this scene did not devolve into a sexual assault, but it was still a moment of exploitation, and unlike other such moments, the author chose to spin this one as empowering. Next, there was Sarat’s distaste for her disabled brother, who sustains a traumatic brain injury in the course of the book. Her love for her family is supposed to be one of Sarat’s only redeeming qualities, so this felt somewhat incongruous. Most of all however, I struggled with El Akkad’s choice to create a queer, black, female terrorist as the protagonist of his book, when so often these are the people we see become the victims of terrorism. The author failed to meaningfully engage with how these aspects of her identity might have interacted with her experiences to shape her trajectory.

American War was defended in this year’s Canada Reads debates by actor Tahmoh Penikett, who is best known for his work in science fiction television. In his opening arguments, Penikett posited American War as a novel that addresses a crisis of empathy in our society. Going into the finale, he asked his fellow panelists to be open to hearing the hard truths of this book, because listening is essential in order to find compassion and make healing possible.

Over the course of the week, the darkness of American War was repeatedly pitted against the themes of hope in Forgiveness and The Marrow Thieves, and the humour and levity of Precious Cargo. Greg Johnson in particular was adamant in his argument that the world is not as dark a place as it is painted in this novel, and Jeanne Beker was right there with him, having effectively used this argument against The Marrow Thieves as well. American War was voted against at least once every day of the debates, survived a tie breaker on Day Two, and received two more strikes on Day Three. By contrast, going into Day Four, not one panelist had cast a ballot against Forgiveness by Mark Sakamoto, making it evident that while American War was going to the finale, it would have a tough fight to win Canada Reads 2018.

One thing the panelists did find particularly effective about American War was the role reversal of empires. America has fallen into the civil war-torn state we see on the news of many other countries, while the Bouazizi Empire has risen in North Africa and the Middle East, to fill the role America once held in the world. The Empire and China now send aid ships to America. Mozhdah Jamalzadah spoke eloquently to this on Day Two, pointing out how this was effective against the North American tendency to block out what is going on in the rest of the world. Tahmoh Penikett continued to amplify this line of argument, suggesting that the book is so effective because it is set in our backyard. Occasionally, a panelist would try to raise the American-ness of the book as a strike against it, but this argument never gained much traction or serious debate. Darkness and revenge were the main sticking points.

The final day of debates focused on finding elements of the eliminated books in the remaining contenders, a persuasive line of attack given that the three free agents decide the competition. Tahmoh Penikett appealed to Mozhdah Jamalzadah, arguing that the refugee crisis of The Boat People is also represented in Sarat’s story. Jeanne Beker tried to relate Forgiveness to The Marrow Thieves, arguing that its message of learning from our elders and moving forward with an eye on the past was represented in her book as well. All of the remaining panelists were also asked to say what they liked about the remaining books. Tahmoh Penikett said he personally related to Mark Sakamoto’s description of loving someone who is struggling with alcoholism. Jeanne Beker praised Omar El Akkad’s writing, and his visual, cinematic style.

When it came time to vote, Penikett and Beker of course voted against the opposing book. After voting against American War for much of the week, always citing its American-ness as her reason, Jully Black moved on the final day to vote against Forgiveness. Greg Johnson—though he admitted he had come close to flipping thanks to Penikett’s defense—voted against American War for the third time. Canada Reads once again put Mozhdah Jamalzadah in the position of casting the final ballot, and her strike against American War made Forgiveness by Mark Sakamoto the winner of Canada Reads 2018.

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Check back tomorrow for my review of the winner of Canada Reads 2018! Meanwhile, you can catch up on my recaps, or tune into to replays on CBC.