What Strange Paradise
War correspondent Omar El Akkad talks refugees, writing with NWS Nov. 18
By Anna Faller | Nov. 13, 2021
When asked where he’s from, author and journalist Omar El Akkad doesn’t have a clear-cut answer. Born in Egypt, El Akkad grew up in Qatar before moving to Canada at age 16.
Though he is now a United States citizen, he describes himself as “anchorless.”
“I was born in one place, but my cultural education is from the other side of the planet,” he says. “I’ve been moving around my entire life, so I can’t really point to an actual location.”
He has, however, found “home” in something: writing. “For me, fiction was a much safer place, because you could alter the contours of your made-up world to fit whatever your experience happened to be,” says El Akkad. “That’s been the case since I was a kid, and it’s also the case today.”
He says he’s been honing his skill for “making stuff up” since he was about five or six years old. “I wrote my very first short-story for the school’s anti-littering newsletter,” he says. “I was hooked.”
That passion didn’t abate by time El Akkad reached college, so when he found an opportunity to write for the student-run newspaper at Queen’s College in Kinston, Ontario, he went for it. “It was called the Queen’s Journal,” he says. “It was this run-down, dinky little place, but I could be part of something. That idea really appealed to me.”
More than merely a chance to see his words in print, writing also offered El Akkad a place to belong — even if it meant rebelling against what everyone else expected of him.
“I come from a particular background and grew up in a particular culture where becoming some kind of artist for a living was not really something that anyone did,” El Akkad says. What was expected was a more stable career — law, engineering, medicine, or the like.
Initially, El Akkad pursued a sensible career path: computer science. But he quickly discovered it wasn’t for him. “I found out from pretty well the first day that I was useless at it,” he says.
So in lieu of actually attending class, El Akkad quietly pursued his passion and threw his efforts into building a portfolio that ultimately clinched the writing position of his dreams. “The national newspaper in Canada is called The Globe and Mail,” he says, “and it’s where I spent the next 10 years of my life.”
It’s also where El Akkad received the kind of writing education that university classes alone couldn’t provide.
“I got a firsthand view of a lot of history,” he says, “and that was my formal writing education.” As a reporter for The Globe and Mail, El Akkad covered major moments in world and U.S. history, including the NATO invasion in Afghanistan and the Guantanamo Bay military trials. “I was [even] in Ferguson, Missouri, the night they decided not to indict the guy who killed Michael Brown,” he says.
El Akkad’s unique, up-close view and reporting on such events made the “news” and public response he witnessed on social media somewhat jarring to the young but passionate reporter. “So many of these stories showed up on my social media feed wrapped in a veneer of outrage,” says El Akkad, “but only for about 24 hours. Then everybody moved on to the next thing.”
It’s a phenomenon El Akkad calls “instantaneous forgetting” — and it’s one his foray into fiction writing takes aim against. “I wanted to write a book that dwelled,” he says. “One that took a made-up instance of this suffering and just stayed there for the duration of the novel.”
The result is his second book, “What Strange Paradise.” Inspired by the aftermath of the 2012 Arab Spring, the book takes as fuel the sense of outrage El Akkad himself felt himself when he saw that during the migrant crisis that followed the uprisings and chaos, Syrian refugees were paying three times what local Egyptians were for the same goods.
“I feel like in every society, there is a communal understanding of who it is OK to exploit without any real repercussions,” he says, “and I was struck by just how casual that exploitation and that victimization was.”
Rather than firing off tweets, however, El Akkad sat with that anger and built a story around it.
“What Strange Paradise” follows Amir, age 9, and Vanna, the teenage native who saves him, after his ill-equipped migrant ship crashes. It’s the honesty of this central relationship — the kind that kind that only children possess — that El Akkad focused on to set “What Strange Paradise” apart. “To me, childhood is the time where every interaction with the world is honest,” says El Akkad.
And if he’s being honest, El Akkad is still angry — both at the systemic injustice we’ve come to endure, and at the fraudulent structures that keep it in place. “I write about the things that feel necessary to me,” he says, “so I end up colliding the fundamental honesty of childhood with the fundamental fraudulence of the systems that grown-ups have invented to run the world.”
The award-winning author and journalist Omar El Akkad will join the National Writers Series for a virtual event at 7pm Thursday, Nov. 18 to discuss his bestselling second novel, “What Strange Paradise.” Guest host for the event is celebrated Bangladeshi-American writer and journalist Nargis Hakim Rahman. Born and raised in Metro-Detroit, she is a reporter and producer for WDET 101.9 FM. For information, ticket sales, and registration, please visit nationalwritersseries.org.
AND STILL MORE
If you’re interested in delving deeper into issues about migration and refugees, don’t miss the free International Affairs Program virtual event Tuesday, Nov. 16 at the City Opera House with Anthony Wayne, who served as ambassador to Mexico between 2011 and 2015. Wayne will discuss Mexico, the Northern Triangle, and migration issues.