WDET reporter and producer Nargis Hakim Rahman recently hosted an event for the National Writers Series with journalist and author Omar El Akkad about his Scotiabank Giller Prize winning book, “What Strange Paradise,” which explores the story about a 9-year-old Syrian refugee named Amir Utu who washes up shore on a Greek island only to find Vanna Hermes to help him. The story explores the refugee crisis from the eyes of children.
“It’s the story of Peter Pan reinterpreted as as a story about a contemporary child refugee. The opening scene is of a shipwreck, a migrant shipwreck on the shores of an unnamed Western Island and the sole survivors a 9-year-old boy named Amir. Amir opens his eyes, he sees the authorities, the soldiers, security officials, sort of who believe everyone is dead, but they see him and they come running towards him. He gets up and starts running, runs through a nearby forest and on the other side of the trees, sees the home where this 15-year-old-girl named Vanna is doing chores out in the yard. They see each other, she decides in that instant to help them out because she can hear sort of these officers running and from that point forward.”
“I wanted to give it that feel of like a dreamlike journey, but at the same time, I didn’t want to look away from the specific details of what happens on these journeys in real life.” –Omar El Akkad
He says he was inspired to write this story when reporting on the Arab Spring in 2012, and the ongoing refugee crisis.
“Over the years … there were these images that were sort of seared into my head. Of course, Alan Kurdi is the famous photo of the child on the shore. There’s also a photo of a man and his daughter trying to cross into this country, having drowned in the river. And one of the things about these images, besides the sort of harrowing nature of them, is that they in the age of social media, they came wrapped up in these bubbles of outrage. How could we let this happen?”
El Akkad says “those bubbles of outrage lasted about 24 hours. And then we all moved on to the next thing to be outraged about. And what I wanted to do was the opposite of that. I wanted to dwell and so I wanted to pick a particular fictional story and not look away for a while. I think a novel is a pretty good staging ground for that kind of thing,” he says.
El Akkad, who grew up in Egypt and Qatar and now lives in the United States, drew on his experiences from childhood and his reporting from world conflicts for this book.
“I wanted to give it that feel of like a dreamlike journey, but at the same time, I didn’t want to look away from the specific details of what happens on these journeys in real life … you have these life jackets, the smugglers are selling the migrants life jackets, and they’re full of foam. They’re shot. … If you fall in the water, they do the opposite of what a life jacket is supposed to do. That’s not a detail. I made up. That’s that’s a real thing.”
El Akkad is also the author of “American War,” an international bestseller that was translated into 13 languages.
As a journalist, he’s covered the invasion of Afghanistan, the Black Lives Matter movement in Ferguson, Missouri, and military trials in Guantanamo Bay. He earned a National Newspaper Award for Investigative Journalism and the Goff Penny Award for young journalists. His work has appeared in the Guardian, GQ and many other newspapers and magazines.
The National Writers Series was founded in 2010 by reporter Anne Stanton, New York Times bestselling author Doug Stanton, and attorney Grant Parsons. NWS has hosted nearly 200 authors. The program was created to inspire Raising Writers program, providing students with literary writing opportunities and connect authors to readers.
Listen: Omar El Akkad shares the inspiration behind “What Strange Paradise.”