I purchased What Strange Paradise a few years ago, shortly after Omar El Akkad won the Giller Prize for writing it back in 2021. When he wrote it, he likely didn’t assume many readers would already be familiar with the book The Boy on the Beach by Tima Kurdi, the real-life account of what his work of fiction is clearly inspired by. Because I have now read both, I found the work of fiction hitting me even harder, an emotional punch to the gut that’s still lingering even days after I finished it. I remember feeling the same way after reading Akkad’s other work of fiction, American War. He’s a writer I like to follow, because I enjoy how effortlessly he ties the political and emotional together, although it usually takes me a few days to recover from his books.
Nine-year-old Amir has washed up on the beach of a small island, miraculously surviving the crossing from his homeland across the sea. He is the only survivor of this particular passage, and quickly realizing he is in danger, runs into the forest to escape the soldiers chasing him. A teenage girl, Vanna, discovers Amir, and although they do not speak the same language, she realizes he is yet another refugee coming from across the sea, and needs her help. Together they seek shelter and food away from the roving soldiers intent on rounding up all migrants who land on their shores. Chapters alternate between the Vanna and Amir’s travels, and the ‘before’ of Amir’s life; how he came to be on the small fishing boat floating away from his family, and the harrowing trip across the sea that ends with a beach littered with bodies. The opening image of the book introduces Amir as a lifeless body, lying facedown on the beach. The placement of his body is reminiscent of The Boy on the Beach, that haunting image that continues to act as the horrific reminder of the refugee crisis still playing out in many other parts of the world. But this book gives Amir a second life, Akkad imagining what would happen if he was a survivor, rather than a victim.
Despite the weighty subject, this book is surprisingly short at only 233 small pages. Vanna and Amir don’t have much time together, but we briefly learn about Vanna’s isolation on her own island, feeling as though she has never belonged, so the appearance of Amir lends her a temporary respite from this lonely life she leads. We occasionally get glimpses of the tourism industry her island still depends on, adding an almost unbelievable juxtaposition of life continuing on for some vs. life ending for others. For example, the beach has to close to tourists at the nearby resort when boats and bodies keep washing up, which is framed as an inconvenience for tourists and an ongoing stressor to those in charge on the island. This bizarre clashing of cultures is also discussed by the boat’s passengers as they search for land, discussing what their life could possibly look like if they survive the journey. Even the boat itself is not immune to the divisions of class and race; one boat passenger points out how much darker everyone’s skin is below decks which was the cheaper ticket, and everyone comments on how “The Africans” are down there. These observations, both on and off the island, remind the reader of how unfair life can be for many people, each navigating their own set of challenging circumstances.
Akkad is a journalist, which explains his ability to write about such difficult subjects with humanity. And like any good journalist, he writes about both sides of the conflict; in this book, we are offered an additional perspective; the army general so intent on tracking Amir down, and placing him in the holding area with the other refugees. Other ‘villains’ are also focused on throughout the story, including the men who sell passage on these boats fully knowing the lifejackets don’t float, and the boats are barely seaworthy. By illuminating these different perspectives and giving voices to all the small components of the problem, Akkad successfully depicts a geopolitical with all its complicated details. He begins with an image (the boy lying facedown on the sand) and from there, builds out the tangled web of intentions that led us to that point. Moments before the situation unravels on the boat Amir is travelling on, his uncle urges him to listen to his final piece of advice:
“Whatever happens, you have to promise me you’ll do whatever you have to. Whatever kind of person you need to be – quiet, loud, violent, invisible – you be that person. Promise me.”-p.195 of What Strange Paradise by Omar El Akkad
Ultimately, this advice is what most characters in this book are doing – they are simply surviving in the only way they know how. Judgement is easy to pass on those we know nothing about, but when Akkad so brilliantly breaths life into all his characters, the previously black and white situation becomes muddled, yet striking. This is a difficult read, but a necessary one, inviting us to see the humanity behind the headlines we are too often becoming immune to.