I decided to once again take a hiatus from book reviewing, but I inadvertently chose a difficult book to end on: Omar El Akkad’s What Strange Paradise.1 While I think I did well within the confines of a 150 word review to as clearly as possible express the truth as I knew it, I also understand important limits of doing so while making enough sense of things to make my criticism useful, meaningful, within that space. And so I felt a need to expand these ideas in an attempt to create something that’s hopefully a bit more useful, a bit more meaningful, in the end, which is what I’ll try to do here.
I suspect at least some people who have read the book will be a bit surprised at a suggestion that What Strange Paradise is a difficult book, because it doesn’t appear as such from the outset, the truth doesn’t reveal itself until fairly close to the end, and the revelation itself proves to be obscure. El Akkad’s story involves the wreckage of a boat filled with Middle Eastern and African migrants washing up on a (presumably) Greek island,i and Amir, a Syrian child, is the sole survivor. The plot is broken up into chapters alternating between the events leading up to the incident (labelled as Before chapters)––explaining what brought Amir and the others there––and the aftermath (After chapters), where the native-born, teenaged Vänna attempts to help Amir evade the soldiers tasked at keeping undesirables out of the country. It was honestly about halfway through my first reading when I recall struggling to understand what the point of the story was and who this was directed at, whether the explanation was as simple as an author attempting to humanize refugees and other migrants or if there was something else I was missing. Having been blown away by El Akkad’s previous work, American War,2 I knew he had the ability to do something phenomenal with a story. And also knowing that he had experience as a journalist reporting on the war in Afghanistan and Arab Spring, I expected something more—some important insights into the refugee crisis, for example. But What Strange Paradise was coming off as something common, something that could have been written by someone lacking his writing skills and firsthand experience. And then I got to the end,ii and I was simply confused.
The book ends with a dead child being lifted and separated from a number of dead by a masked and gloved worker on a beach. Because of the description of the locket on the recovered body, we know it’s Amir. I re-read the final chapter multiple times in an attempt to understand it. Initially, I wondered if the ferry that he and Vänna took to the mainland in the previous chapter had capsized and they had perished after everything they went through but, on reassessment, this didn’t make sense. El Akkad appeared to be describing the beach from the first chapter, where Amir was the only survivor of the wreck, except this time he also died, and that just added to my confusion. I had to put the book down and I sat and thought about it for a while before I could even begin to make some sort of sense about what this meant and what the author was saying by ending his story this way. Thankfully, with time and effort the fog began to clear.
Part of the explanation is laid out right near the end of the book by the chief antagonist of the After story, colonel Dimitri Kethros, the head of the aforementioned soldiers attempting to round up and detain illegal migrants. When he finally catches Amir and has a moment alone with him, Kethros suddenly speaks in Arabic––flawlessly and with an accent exactly as those from Amir’s country and city speak it––and he tells Amir that he’s “been reduced to chasing ghosts,”3 going on to inspect Amir’s bell-shaped locket. This all comes immediately after Kethros relates a story of a superstitious British doctor tying bells to the toes of a number of corpses. Taken together, this creates a suggestion that the bell signifies death, that Amir is in fact dead, and that the ending was actually a glimpse of the truth where the After story was not. But, to what end? What does it all mean? Once again, Kethros gives the reader some idea, some direction, later in the same conversation:
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.4
From this, we can begin to appreciate what I’ll argue El Akkad was attempting in What Strange Paradise, largely in the After story: criticizing members of the Western public’s hypocritical beliefs about themselves and the way these beliefs cause an ineffectual response to humanitarian disasters.iii And, with this in mind, it should become clear that the After story is a fantasy that serves to represent these ideas that the author is criticizing.
El Akkad’s After story paints a picture of how the Western public commonly views itself: that people generally want to see themselves as good and caring, that they commonly believe that humanitarian disasters like the refugee crisis are caused by specific “bad elements” and not average people, who attempt to do good, but that these “bad elements” render most of the public helpless in their attempts to make a difference. This portrayal begins early in the story, when Vänna first sees Amir fleeing from members of the coast guard and decides to intervene because she finds it “grotesque to simply watch him, to watch whatever comes next, and do nothing.”5 This is in line with what we come to understand of Vänna’s character as the story progresses. She goes on to hide Amir, find him food and new clothes, and protect him without expecting anything in return and with little regard to the consequences to her or the sacrifices she must make to do so. She is shown to be clever and resourceful, and she firmly resists the pull of bad influences that could divert her from her clear, moral course, including her father’s attempts at emotional manipulation and the general encroachment of consumerist culture. She stands up against threats courageously, and willingly abandons her life as she knows it and all the worldly comforts that go with it to accompany Amir to the mainland, maintaining her position as kindly friend and protector to the young boy.
Vänna shares a lot of virtuous traits with the only other person on the island who provides any major support to Amir, the only other virtuous character we see with enough depth to be able to come to more broad conclusions of her character: Nimra El Ward. Nimra is a retired French teacher who started volunteering with aid and translation at the island’s “hastily built migrant camp,”6 where she eventually took on more responsibility until she came to oversee the facility, and through this bit of back-story readers discover that she shares Vänna’s selflessness. In addition to showing her extreme empathy and kindness through her interaction with Amir, we see that she has the reputation of following the rules, doing everything properly, by the book—even when those in power make doing so exceedingly difficult for her—and she’s strong and assertive in the face of authority, facing direct, actionable threats against her unflinchingly, never losing sight of migrants’ humanity in the process.
Both Vänna and Nimra serve to represent the overly positive view members of the Western public hold of themselves, but this view isn’t just concerning an exceptional few. Midway through the story, Vänna sneaks into a hotel room to steal clothes for Amir, but the two encounter a member of the housekeeping staff in the process. Rather than catching or reporting them, the woman gives them food, water, and toiletries, and tells them where Amir can shower undisturbed. And she doesn’t cooperate with the pursuing soldiers when questioned shortly after. The implication from this seems to be that there is a belief that the average person cares and will do what they can to help.
But if the average person is generally good and trying to help, why aren’t these crises resolved shortly after they develop? What prevents a compassionate public from making a difference? El Akkad provides examples that are commonly held to be barriers to constructive progress. Even though the average person is thought of in this positive way, the public still believes in a sizeable population of “deviants”—those who for whatever reason lack the default compassion of the public at large. For some of these deviants, the public simply understands that they’re morally bankrupt people—selfish, as the tourists are portrayed throughout the story, or ignorant, such as the representative of a nationalist party arguing on the television—and no further explanation is needed.iv Vänna’s parents fall into this, though in different ways. While her mother, Marianne, is presented as an unabashed xenophobe, her father, Giorgos, may be lacking a similar, simple hatred, but his flaw is a lack of courage and conviction that the good people of this story are shown to possess, and this prevents him from standing up for what’s right. We’re also given a bit of insight into how these negative traits came to develop in Vänna’s parents, in that they are shown to have a poor relationship with each other and Vänna and both appear to be generally dissatisfied with their lives,v but for the most part we’re left with a sense that they’re simply bad or flawed.
The main “deviant” who gets an explanation as to why he is the way he is happens to be the one who needs it most: Kethros. Kethros is shown to be strong, smart, observant, charismatic, courageous, driven—all positive traits. Unlike the previous examples, it can’t just be readily accepted that all these positive traits exist alongside his cruelty. Readers need something more to make sense of it and, in the case of Kethros, we’re exposed to snippets of past trauma to get us there. Of course, it had to be, and was, a significant, extraordinary trauma, because that was the only kind of trauma that could justify the strongly discordant positive and negative traits in a satisfying way. Kethros was haunted by his time serving in a warzone, where he sat by helplessly witnessing a genocide, unable to do anything to protect those being slaughtered, and then lost his leg in an explosion, from a mine likely laid by those he failed to protect—all of which provides sufficient justification for the corruption of even an upstanding individual. But on top of all that, a basic aspect of Kethros’ character also makes him susceptible to dehumanizing the migrants: his military service. The military is seen by the public as another force that prevents the average individual from effectively making a difference, in part because the public’s default compassion is seen as being killed by or absent from the military,vi but also because it possesses the power and resources average civilians lack. This is also in line with the public perception that Western systems, and not most people, are at fault for the sorry state of the migrants. This is most clearly presented during our time with Nimra at the migrant camp. Here, Nimra doesn’t trust the system to act in Amir’s favour, instead sending him and Vänna on their journey to the illegal ferry.vii El Akkad goes on to describe the migrant camp in a way that mirrors this negative view, as “the place where those who survived the passage were taken to wait while, slowly and with well-honed inefficiency, the system considered their appeals for asylum.”6 And this system apparently designed to dehumanize and degrade is held up by uncaring bureaucrats and ignorant politicians, backed by the power and resources of forces such as the military, which all blocks the compassionate Western public’s attempts at effective action.viii
In a story with both significant representative elements and social commentary, like What Strange Paradise, it becomes difficult to distinguish between these various aspects. For example, though I made a suggestion above that El Akkad’s description of the migrant camp implies something about the public’s perception of Western systems, it’s also possible that the author’s critical voice was coming through in this passage, that El Akkad is directly criticizing Western systems here. And so this is all vague—murky, ambiguous—and open to interpretation, but it’s important to remember that not all interpretation is created equal, and an interpretation that follows internal consistencies of the story should hold more weight than one that ignores such threads. When attempting to identify What Strange Paradise’s deeper commentary, it’s possible to spend time and energy speculating over details, wordings, and interesting passages, but it may not yield anything useful if these cohesive threads aren’t found.
In this story, the most apparent way that the commentary shows through the fantasy without becoming inconsistent with the story at large is through two characters: Kethros in the After story, and Mohamed, the smugglers’ apprentice, in the Before story. Both are textbook examples of “bad elements” in the eyes of the Western public—the former as part of the harmful system previously described, the latter profiting off human suffering and a perceived driver of the refugee crisis from the “other side”—and this is significant for a couple of reasons. For one, the superficial fantasy cultivates biases in readers that influence who they deem trustworthy. As such, readers don’t want to trust characters like Kethros or Mohamed, and so it takes a lot of work to break this preconception, therefore allowing the commentary to hide in plain view. Secondly, simply by placing this “truth” in the hands of such “bad” characters, El Akkad makes an important implication: These aren’t the people we should be blaming. And other pieces of the story support this idea.
With Kethros, there are passages where he speaks openly and critically about the public at large,ix but his main important contribution to the story’s commentary concerns the interplay between what he says and what goes on around him. Earlier in the story, we’re left mostly with Kethros’ comments in isolation, so it becomes easy to see it all from the perspective of the “deviant” that he’s shown to be and judge him accordingly.x But, later in the story a number of important things happen in short succession, as more migrant boats begin to land. First, Kethros is approached by a local woman, who anxiously attempts to press him for information about the migrant boats, then cautiously tells him, “It feels like it’s every day now.”7 Around the same time, his cell phone starts ringing and doesn’t stop. He ignores it, but he wonders “which of [the callers’] own uncertainties and anxieties they think he might alleviate[?]”8 And immediately after, he considers the changing habits of migrants approaching the coast, noting that “the number of vigilante boats prowling the coast has increased, and it is becoming more and more difficult for the migrants awaiting rescue to tell good ships from bad.”9 This leads us to a few conclusions: that others aren’t welcoming to the migrants, but they’re afraid to admit so openly; others derive comfort when people like Kethros act and deal with these “problems”; and others are bypassing Western systems, though not in order to help the migrants—doing much worse things than Kethros to the migrants, in fact.xi Taken together with Kethros’ earlier comments, El Akkad’s criticism of the Western public begins to take shape. We start to understand not only that Kethros isn’t alone with these views, but that he acts with the consent of a larger population than will readily admit it, who don’t admit so largely out of fear of what it will do for their image or from an inaccurate belief in “the best possible image of themselves.” We also can see the counterpoint to the view that Western systems are a source of harm to migrants, that they are in important ways helping and protecting them.
As for Mohamed, most of his time in the Before chapters are spent maintaining order on the boat and lecturing the migrants about the world they’re entering. With regard to the latter, his advice goes mostly ignored, mainly because the migrants see him as a “bad element,” much as the Western public does. But it’s more than ignoring him: The migrants look down upon him as an inferior, lacking their morals, their principles. He warns them throughout that this is based on misconceptions they hold onto, that he’s no different from them, and that they’ll see it when these flimsy beliefs fall away. By the time the Before story reaches its conclusion, he’s proven wrong in a surprising way: Mohamed is shown to have principles, and he holds onto them even when things grow desperate. The same can’t be said of the migrants, including those who were acting as paragons of virtue previously.xii
Throughout the Before story, Mohamed tries to warn the others of the “real” West. He tells them repeatedly that, to even have a chance, you need to abandon everything about you that seems alien to a Westerner. But, even then, the migrants will be hated by Westerners, and the best anyone on that boat can hope for is to be a second-class citizen in this “promised land.” There are multiple passages in which he shares these views,xiii but the moment where he speaks with the greatest clarity is likely right after his confrontation with Umm Ibrahim, the pregnant woman who looked after Amir and treated him kindly through most of the journey. Filled with rage, Mohamed addresses all the passengers around him:
The West you talk about doesn’t exist. It’s a fairy tale, a fantasy you sell yourself because the alternative is to admit that you’re the least important character in your own story. You invent an entire world because your conscience demands it, you invent good people and bad people and you draw a neat line between them because your simplistic morality demands it. But the two kinds of people in this world aren’t good and bad—they’re engines and fuel. Go ahead, change your country, change your name, change your accent, pull the skin right off your bones, but in their eyes they will always be engines and you will always, always be fuel.10
And Mohamed doesn’t just describe a fantasy the migrants create. This passage also does a lot to help us understand what El Akkad’s describing and criticizing in the After story.
I find it exciting to follow such threads and work to piece together what I see as such important social commentary intelligently weaved into a story like What Strange Paradise, but there’s also a big problem I see with the way the author chose to do so. Because the commentary is hidden from view and takes effort to uncover, it’s plausible that it will pass people by. If the commentary passes people by, it’s likely that they will view What Strange Paradise as a straightforward story, as I did partway through. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t suggest that this was a problem, but remember in this case that El Akkad is criticizing harmful beliefs largely through representing those same beliefs as they exist, and then showing us that these beliefs are harmful through his commentary. In this way, missing the commentary will expose readers to a story that effectively confirms these same beliefs, and likely perpetuates the problem.xiv Once I worked my way through the process of writing this essay, it began to feel like the author was making a parallel mistake as those he was criticizing through the cultivation of a group of readers who missed the point and still believe in their own moral superiority in these sorts of humanitarian disasters alongside another group of readers who got it and now believe in their own moral and intellectual superiority compared with those who didn’t get it. In the end, nothing is solved.
I still feel that What Strange Paradise was intelligently written, but it would be a stretch to call it well-written, because I really feel as though the author more-or-less undermined his own goals because of his presentation. And it’s too bad, because I think El Akkad’s message is something that we all need to hear.
i. The boat was trying to get to the Greek island of Kos, though it’s never expressly stated that it actually got there. Whether it reached its intended destination or not, it sounded like it reached some sort of Greek island from its descriptions and the Greek-sounding names of the few, named residents.
ii. The final chapter is the only Now chapter.
iii. I had the impression that the Before chapters involve a greater fidelity to reality, that here we’re exposed to something approximating what migrants may actually go through. However, there were reasons to suspect that there’s more going on than that. As examples, some passages appear to provide more clarity to readers regarding the Western public’s fantasy as described in the After chapters, while others seem to implicate Eastern migrants in the general problem described through similar issues with their preconceptions. I’ll touch on both concepts.
iv. Note that a counterpoint is given in each example. Multiple people express disapproval of the selfishness of the former, perhaps best encapsulated by the aforementioned housekeeper after she rescues a mostly unfinished meal to give to Amir: “These people…”11 With regard to the latter, a clearly exasperated reporter vehemently opposes the politician’s ignorant comments. In both, the suggestion is apparent: These views aren’t held by the average person.
v. I got the sense, from Vänna’s observations, that Marianne came to hate her family because she blamed them for the compromises she made in life that got her to this place that she despises, and this seemed to explain a general, outward hatred that grew alongside it. As for Giorgos, it seemed that things like fighting with Marianne or other things the reader doesn’t get to see gnawed away at him to the point where he gave up, instead finding comfort in self-pity and drink.
vi. Kethros makes it clear to Nicholas, the one soldier to show hesitancy carrying out his duties, that compassion in the military is not possible. When Nicholas asks why they’re chasing the migrants, Kethros answers: “[Y]ou can either ask that question or wear that uniform, but you can’t do both.”12 Nicholas also provides a counterpoint to the other soldiers to show the public belief that compassion is the “natural” state, and that the average person will revolt against the cruelties the military will force them to perform.
vii. As Nimra says to Vänna: “He stands a better chance that way.”13
viii. Because a few good people succeed in getting a migrant to safety, it suggests that through hard work and cunning the average person can still make a positive difference in spite of all these barriers. Because they only succeed in helping one person through great difficulty, it suggests a belief that, though the average person can make a positive difference, only a tiny difference is possible, a drop in the bucket, all because of these formidable barriers.
ix. Aside from Kethros’ conversation with Amir in Arabic near the end, the most apparent passage where he overtly criticizes the public involves the concept of “inflation.” During his confrontation with Nimra, he tells her:
Remember, a few years ago, when it was enough for them to say that the secret police had sent them a threatening letter or two, that a big man in dark glasses had looked at them funny when they were crossing the street? Now the going rate for suffering is higher. Now everyone has to claim they’ve been raped, tortured, their whole family wiped out, down to the pet dogs and the goldfish.14
Here, he explains how jaded the public has become over time through increased exposure to this kind of suffering, and so the suffering has to be more extreme just to trigger a compassionate response from the public.
x. A number of his comments appear designed to cement his “deviant” status in the eyes of readers. As an example, again during his confrontation with Nimra, she compares the migrant camp to hell, to which he responds, “…if you do believe in hell, Nimra, then you must also believe no one ends up there who doesn’t belong there.”15 This struck me as an implication that those who wind up in the camp deserve to be there and, by extension, deserve to be degraded. Another example involves his discussion with Lina Eliades, an official responsible for tracking and documenting migrants. Shortly after Kethros agrees with the nationalist on television—immediately after the politician makes some irrelevant points, even—he tells Lina: “Your bosses are letting them colonize us.”16 Not all Kethros’ dialogue will likely be considered as extreme, though it is all consistent with his character. Once more, during his confrontation with Nimra, he says: “That we are in a position to be fled to and not fled from is because we have systems, rules, proper ways of doing things. You want to see what it’s like without systems? Hop on the next one of those boats that runs around here and take it in the opposite direction.”15 This is very much in line with the thoughts of a character with a negative view of the migrants, but I suspect that this sentiment will come across as more reasonable to readers than other things he says—even though it’s arguably as ignorant.
xi. And try not to lose sight of the scale of it all. In the story, we witness exactly one migrant helped in this way, while we’re briefly exposed to the idea that many others are harmed in this way.
xii. The change that Umm Ibrahim undergoes when they approach land is the most obvious and jarring here. She suddenly abandons her niqab despite previously scolding the impious, and she suddenly ignores and abandons Amir despite previously scolding those who treated him unkindly. Before this, however, was another telling passage involving her principles: She verbally assaults Mohamed and spits in his face for not providing an old man who dies mid-journey with a proper Muslim burial that Mohamed was in no position to provide, and yet she has no harsh words for Walid, the other migrant who stopped their makeshift funeral to loot the body.
xiii. A telling passage occurs when a freighter appears on the horizon partway through the Before story, causing great commotion and chaos amongst the migrants. After Mohamed creates calm by firing his pistol into the air, he tells everyone to keep quiet until the ship passes, warning, “Whatever lies you’ve told yourselves about the kindness of Westerners, you need to forget that bullshit right now, because I promise you they will do anything they can to make sure you go back where you came from, or else die out here.”17 Another passage worth mentioning comes when Walid insults Mohamed. After being called a liar and a thief, Mohamed responds, “And when you finally get over there to the promised land, and you see how those dignified, civilized Westerners treat you––when you find out what they expect of you is to live your whole life like a dog under their dinner table––I’ll wait for you to come find me and apologize.”18
xiv. A great example of this comes from the top review of What Strange Paradise on Goodreads at the time of writing. After showing the quote from Kethros’ Arabic conversation with Amir ending, “Today you are the only boy in the world and tomorrow it will be as though you never existed,” Angela M writes:
No . Not to 15 year old Vanna whose courage and goodness and empathy make her want to save this little boy . Vanna, herself a child, with a moral compass, we wish for , “And only after she’s made sure of this will Vanna return to her own home and face the consequences of what she’s done.”19
To Angela M, the story is straightforward, and because a good person like Vänna succeeds in spite of the formidable barriers she’s up against, Kethros is proven wrong and, therefore, his comment is discounted.
- El Akkad, Omar. What Strange Paradise. McClelland & Stewart, 2021.
- El Akkad, Omar. American War. McClelland & Stewart, 2017.
- El Akkad, Omar. What Strange Paradise, op. cit. p. 229.
- Ibid., pp. 230-231.
- Ibid., p. 23.
- Ibid., p. 99.
- Ibid., p. 184.
- Ibid., p. 198.
- Ibid., p. 200.
- Ibid., p. 179.
- Ibid., p. 141.
- Ibid., p. 183.
- Ibid., p. 101.
- Ibid., p. 115.
- Ibid., p. 116.
- Ibid., p. 153.
- Ibid., p. 119.
- Ibid., p. 162.
- Angela M. “Angela M’s review: What Strange Paradise by Omar El Akkad.” Goodreads, 5 Jul 2021. https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/3702476167?book_show_action=true&from_review_page=1. Accessed 17 Sep 2021.