'What Strange Paradise': Omar El Akkad's new novel is about a refugee's quest for survival

The writer reveals how his journalism career has impacted the writing of his new book

Writer Omar El Akkad. Photo by Michael Lionstar
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Omar El Akkad was a journalist before he became a published novelist, but that former profession is not entirely a closed chapter. His fact-based fiction revolves around and shines a light on current global concerns and upheavals.

“A lot of what I write is deemed political fiction,” he tells The National. “But it’s not because I enjoy writing the political – it’s because the political intrudes on my writing. I write what I feel is necessary for me to write, and quite often that intersects with what makes me angry.”

El Akkad’s first novel, American War (2017), traces a woman’s journey from tolerant and wide-eyed youth to militarised, radicalised terrorist. It is also a compelling depiction of a bleak new world, namely a US ravaged by conflict, riven with social and political injustice, and transformed by climate change. He says his intention with the book was to invert a trope employed by western media.

“Just about every James Bond or Jason Bourne movie I’ve seen has at least one scene in an exotic Moroccan bazaar or a Caribbean island, and it’s fully understood that those places are simply the setting. The actual story being told is someone else’s. I wanted to do that to America, make it the setting for a narrative that, if you strip it of its overt geography, is much more of a Middle Eastern story than an American one."

I wanted to take a comforting fairy tale that westerners have been telling their kids for a hundred years and use it to tell a different kind of story
Omar El Akkad, writer

El Akkad has settled in Portland, Oregon, after many years spent moving around. “Since the age of five, I’ve been a guest on someone else’s land,” he says. “That’s how old I was when my father relocated our family from Egypt, the country of my birth and ancestry, to Qatar, in the mid-1980s.”

El Akkad later moved to Canada where, for a while, the culture shock was considerable. “It felt as though every experience I’d had for the first 16 years of my life was completely irrelevant.” He soldiered on, though, finishing his studies and starting his journalism career, during which he got to “witness history first-hand.”

“Over the years, experiences in places like Kandahar, Guantanamo Bay and Cairo shaped my view of what institutional violence looks like, and what it does to human beings who get in its way,” he says. “I think almost all the fiction I write is concerned with that collision between amoral systems and moral beings.”

El Akkad reveals that his novels contain many residual effects from his journalistic assignments. “Some of it is very direct. There was, in the Nato airfield in Kandahar, a waste water ditch nicknamed Emerald Creek, which I copied wholesale in American War. Some of it much more abstract, such as the miserable way I saw Syrian refugees being treated in Cairo when I was reporting there in the aftermath of the Arab uprisings.”

A Syrian refugee’s quest and survival is the subject, and the driving force, of the follow-up novel to El Akkad’s acclaimed debut. What Strange Paradise charts the plight of a young boy called Amir who endures a calamitous passage across the Mediterranean on a decrepit fishing boat overloaded with fellow migrants – scared and desperate people who at one point appear “in transit from themselves”.

Amir washes up on the shore of an unnamed island, the sole survivor, and immediately finds himself with a new ordeal: going on the run with the teenage girl from the island who comes to his rescue, to escape capture and detention from a colonel hell-bent on hunting down and rounding up every “unregistered illegal”.

“I wanted to take a comforting fairy tale that westerners have been telling their kids for a hundred years and use it to tell a different kind of story,” El Akkad says.

“A lot of it is about the collision of duelling fantasies – the western fantasy that refugees are essentially a horde of barbarians at the gates, and the fantasy so prevalent in the part of the world where I grew up, that the West represents a panacea of sorts. In that sense, it is a novel concerned with what almost all literature is concerned with – the lies we tell ourselves in order for the world to make sense.”

Mohamed, a people smuggler in the book, delivers some broadsides about the West in general and America in particular. “You think the black market is bad?” he tells his human cargo. “Brother, wait till you see the white market.” El Akkad makes it clear his creation doesn’t speak for him. “I live a somewhat antagonistic life as a writer, in part because I disagree with almost everything my characters have to say.

“Mohamed is one of the novel’s two central villains, who also happen to be the two most honest characters in the whole story,” he says. “One of the defining aspects of this novel, for better or worse, is that all its worst people are completely honest with themselves, whereas all the morally upright characters have to constantly lie to themselves just to make it through the day.”

With luck this powerful and moving work will be as well received as its predecessor. American War was a huge critical success. One accolade stands out: the BBC selected it as one of the 100 novels that shaped our world.

“I don’t feel worthy to be listed alongside so many novels that, whatever impact they may have had on the world, certainly changed my life,” says El Akkad.

“Of course I brag about it whenever I get a chance, but mostly it’s just a very rewarding reminder that the moment your book goes out into the world, it no longer belongs to you, and whatever life it goes on to live will be endlessly surprising.”

Updated: July 12, 2021, 5:02 AM