On Sept. 2, 2015, the world woke to a photo of 3-year-old Alan Kurdi dead on a Turkish beach. The child and 11 other refugees of the Syrian civil war had drowned in the Aegean Sea while trying to reach the Greek island of Kos.

For a moment, the international refugee crisis, which ensnares more than 80 million people, had a face too precious to ignore. The whole planet seemed united in revulsion and resolution.

But then that moment passed, swallowed up once again by new waves of apathy, xenophobia and political cowardice.

Omar El Akkad, a journalist and fiction writer born in Egypt and raised in Qatar, won’t let us forget or fall back on resigned platitudes about the intractable nature of the refugee “problem.” His riveting new novel, “What Strange Paradise,” opens at sunrise on a small Mediterranean island. A storm has passed. “The beach is littered with the wreckage of the boat and the wreckage of its passengers,” El Akkad writes. “Dispossessed of nightfall’s temporary burial, the dead ferment indecency.”

The scene is impossibly peaceful, which makes it all the more horrific. Men in white contamination suits creep among the corpses, pocketing jewelry as they go. One of the shipwreck victims is a small boy whose head is pointed toward the waves, “his feet nestled into the warmer, lighter sand that remains dry.”

But just as that description invokes the heartbreaking image of Alan Kurdi, this small boy opens his eyes. And runs.


What a fraught act of poetic license, and it won’t be the last in this surprising novel about the plight of displaced people. El Akkad’s little hero is not Alan, but it’s impossible not to succumb to the story of a refugee child who doesn’t drown.

This is no fantasy, though. Beyond that initial gift of survival, El Akkad provides only a sliver of hope. The sweet Syrian boy who awakens on the beach is 9-year-old Amir. Before washing up on shore, Amir and his family flee their bombed-out village to reach Damascus, where their own countrymen accuse them of fabricating violence. Amir learns early that to be homeless is to be considered both pathetic and suspect. And El Akkad makes painfully clear that in addition to everything else they carry, refugees must also bear the blame for their needs, their numbers, their very existence. They live lives of interminable waiting and incremental change.

From Damascus, Amir’s family makes it to Alexandria, where they face even greater disdain. And finally, Amir sneaks onto a dilapidated fishing boat, named Calypso, that is supposed to carry his uncle to Kos and then the legendary benevolence of the West.

But the moment Amir wipes the beach sand from his eyes, he knows he hasn’t arrived at any such paradise. He sees only another baffling threat. The soldiers who shout after him resemble the soldiers who have been shouting at him for most of his life. He runs on instinct.

Cover courtesy of Knopf

That, in essence, is the heart of this simple plot: the panicked flight of a young refugee as he tries to evade capture. But “What Strange Paradise” vibrates between parable and particular. While the story is soaked in the sweat and blood of millions of wasted wanderers, it comes to life in the experiences of this one boy. In a system of brutality and pitilessness, he finds a few people capable of extraordinary kindness, particularly one local teenage girl.

The simplicity of their friendship belies the novel’s true complexity – the way El Akkad has wrapped an adventure in a blanket of tragedy. With each chapter, the narrative switches between the boy’s frantic sprint across the island and the doomed voyage that brought him here. Episodes detailing his close calls with soldiers are interspersed with scenes on the old fishing boat crammed with people exploited by a network of smugglers. The scenes of their disastrous passage at sea are drawn with gorgeous and horrible strokes, sometimes Melvillean in their grandeur. In this way, the book functions on several levels at once, critiquing the West’s indifference while interrogating the refugees’ blended cynicism and naivete.

Except for Amir, the characters on the Calypso are effectively dead without knowing it. Again and again, despite everything they’ve already endured, these poor passengers imagine that if only they can attract the attention of a white person, help will inevitably follow. If that means Westernizing their names or wearing a crucifix, they’re willing. It falls to the man nominally in charge of their drifting wreck to disabuse them of these delusions. But trapped in a system woven from terror and ignorance, their hopes remain tragically afloat.

The contemporary focus of “What Strange Paradise” is a marked switch from El Akkad’s previous novel, “American War.” That powerful apocalyptic tale takes place about 50 years in the future. Following the trendlines of our nation’s current acrimonious debates about economics and science, the story presents a wasted land, decimated by biological weapons and broiling with ongoing battles.

With this new novel, El Akkad implicitly acknowledges that it’s not necessary to look so far into the future to see conflicts that destroy whole societies and send helpless refugees swarming in desperation. Nothing I’ve read before has given me such a visceral sense of the grisly predicament confronted by millions of people expelled from their homes by conflict and climate change. Though “What Strange Paradise” celebrates a few radical acts of compassion, it does so only by placing those moments of moral courage against a vast ocean of cruelty.

Comments are no longer available on this story

filed under: