Losing a sense of our shared humanity

The mirror offered to America by What Strange Paradise, the latest novel by Omar El Akkad

The latest book by author and journalist Omar El Akkad, What Strange Paradise, offers a tale that digs deeper into the human element of refugees and immigration than most accounts in the news media.  The book is essential reading for anyone who wants to enhance their understanding of the dynamics reshaping the world and politics in America and Europe today.  

Just a few weeks after the Taliban swept into power in Afghanistan, the debate about Afghan refugees has been pushed to the sidelines in America by other issues, even though thousands remain in limbo and their long-term status is still uncertain. Most of the migrant children separated from their families at the border during the Trump administration years ago have yet to be reunited eight months into the Biden administration.  America’s overall immigration policy remains a mess. 

The bigger picture in the world looks bleak.  Millions of people are on the move in the world today, fleeing conflicts and deteriorating living conditions and seeking a better life.  It’s a tale as old as human history, but it’s one that has grown both in its sheer numbers of people leaving their homes and also the political firestorm the debate has generated in America, Europe, and other countries that many of these people are trying to reach.  

The latest estimates put the figure of 82.4 million people forced to leave their homes, including 26.4 million refugees who cross borders and 48 million who are internally displaced with their countries.  Seven in ten of these people come from just five countries: Syria, Venezuela, Afghanistan, South Sudan, and Myanmar, and 42% of those displaced are children. 

These numbers are constantly changing and now growing due to recent events in places like Afghanistan.  In addition to fleeing conflict and persecution, new pressures from climate change and natural disasters add to the numbers of people leaving their homes in every region of the world, including closer to the United States in the Western Hemisphere.  

The one thing that’s often missing in the discussion about these numbers is the human story – what drives people to uproot and risk their lives to reach a new place.  Refugees and migrants (a much larger category of people estimated at 281 million in 2020) have become such a hot button issue wrapped up in the politics of immigration that we sometimes forget one of the most basic things – that these are real people who are often victims of circumstance and the changing conditions in the world today.  That we’re in the same boat together.  

What Strange Paradise by author and journalist Omar El Akkad is a work of fiction, but it is based on the appalling reality that’s been playing out every day for millions of people over the past decade, one that continues today.  The novel centers on the story of nine-year-old Amir, a Syrian boy who survives a shipwreck off the coast of a Greek island, and a teenage girl Vanna who lives on that island and does what she can to save him.  The book alternates between two chapters, before Amir’s journey and what happens after, and it offers perspectives from a younger generation that is trying to make sense of the changes happening in their lives.  

It’s a powerful follow up to his debut novel, American War, about an imaginary Second Civil War in America that breaks out in 2074 while a deadly plague and climate change devastate the population.

In addition to offering a glimpse of what the world today looks like through the eyes of millions who are seeking a better life in a new country, this latest novel at times serves as a mirror for America and European countries that are increasingly the targeted destination of people trying to escape other places.

A harrowing journey through the eyes of refugees

What Strange Paradise paints a picture of the conditions and forces that tear apart people’s lives and impel them to leave their homes – death, repression, fear, and indignity. These dynamics in the homeland aren’t the main focus of the book, but the references it makes to the destruction of families, collapse of decency, and broader societal disintegration in Syria help explain what makes many people leave.

One emphasis of the book, in the “before” chapters, is the treacherous passage refugees take – made all the more dangerous by unethical smugglers who cut corners, load up rickety boats with far too many people, and demand an exorbitant price for passage.  The young Syrian boy Amir, the central figure in the novel, sees what just a few days on the open sea packed into a boat without many of the basics, does to the sense of shared humanity, when pleas for help are met with silence:

“In their silent reticence was evident the reality that somewhere along the journey they’d passed the point where human goodness gave way to the calculus of survival.  Passengers who a day earlier had shared with Amir a sip of canned orange juice or a bag of sunflower seeds or a bite of stone-hard baklava, or had simply smiled in his direction, now looked straight through him.”

The cruelty of the smugglers making money off of some of the least fortunate people in the world sets a tone on a boat, when combined with the deteriorating conditions, causes people on the boat to become more indifferent to each other and look to take care of their own and those around them.  In a sense, the boat operates like a metaphor for the state of much of the world these days and how people increasingly view the plight of the “other.”  

In one of the “after” chapters when Amir and Vanna are fleeing Greek authorities on the island, Vanna witnesses another group of refugees who made the passage safely – and one of the first things she sees at night on the deserted beach where they land is the glow of cell phones searching for a signal.  

“Hands held high, they struggle to find a signal, a means of calling their families back home, confirming they’ve survived the passage, confirming they’ve lived.”

So even as the bonds people on the boat break down during an unsafe passage, one of the first acts people undertake is to reconnect with the families and loved ones they left behind, a very human instinct that endures despite it all.

A changed dynamic within the countries serving as a beacon of hope 

The book primarily serves as a window into seeing the world through the eyes of those people who are moving to another place in the world, but it also offers some important insights into how the sought-after destinations in Europe and America, how they are changing as a result, and how some on the journey begin to see them differently.

For the past decade, a gated community mindset has started to reshape America’s relationship with the rest of the world, some of it driven by the immigration question and deeper divides over America’s national identity. 

Some of the most interesting insights in El Akkad’s book come from how it depicts those living on the Greek island where Amir lands and how it shapes the way those societies operate.  The human tragedy washing up on the shores of the islands bring all sorts of complicated responses – bureaucrats in a system set up for processing refugees, a new nationalist politician on the television blaming refugees the country’s economic problems, a hotel owner worrying about what impact the human tragedy washing up on their shores would have on foreign tourism, and a number of people serving in security agencies of the home country that tax the humanity of people working for those agencies in many ways.  

In describing soldiers dispatched to the island to round up refugees, El Akkad points to a challenge that faced hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops sent in post-9/11 wars – how to toggle between the role of being a warrior, what they trained for, and also safeguarding and caring for the security of the refugees.   It’s almost an impossible task:

“It has been more than a year since these young uniformed men arrived on her side of the island. Like all soldiers, they were trained for warfare but, once dispatched here, what they found was not what most of them thought of as war.  To become soldiers required they be rid of a certain kind of human reticence.  The pulling of a trigger was in the end a rote, mechanical movement – anyone could be taught it.  The difficult thing, the necessary thing, was to first kill off the instinct not to pull it.  A person freed of this instinct requires the full theater of war, its protective mythology, without which this particular absence of restraint descends into sociopathy.  But no such theater exists in these (refugee) camps.  For years these soldiers have been taught to wield hammers, only to come to the island and find not nails, but glass.”

The fact that countries have been changed by this new era of global refugees and migration is plain to see – the reemergence of the politics of fear and “us versus them” nativist identity politics in America and Europe over the past decade happened as more people were fleeing the conflicts and impacts of climate change around the world.  If what we’ve experienced over the past few years is a trickle compared to larger waves of global population displacements, it should give us pause about how future waves might change all of us.

One voice in the novel, an apprentice smuggler named Mohamed, in reaction to criticisms of what a poor job he’s doing on the journey, repeatedly lashes out and tells the people who paid him to make the journey things they don’t want to hear about the places where they are headed:

“You sad, stupid people… Look what you’ve done to yourself.  The West you talk about doesn’t exist.  It’s a fairy tale, a fantasy you sell yourself because the alternative is to admit that you’re the least important character in your own story.  You invent an entire world because your conscience demands it, you invent good people and bad people and you draw a neat line between them because your simplistic morality demands it.  But the two kinds of people in this world aren’t good and bad – they’re engines and fuel.  Go ahead, change your country, change your name, change your accent, pull the skin right off your bones, but in their eyes, they will always be the engines, and you will always, always be the fuel.”

Earlier on in the journey, Mohamed responded to a tense situation by firing a pistol in the air and reminding the passengers of their predicament:

“Whatever lives you’ve told yourself about the kindness of Westerners, you need to forget that bullshit right now, because I promise you they will do anything they can to make sure you go back where you came from, or else die out here.”

In an age when the value of human life has plummeted in global affairs, this smuggler tries to tell it like it is to the refugees as he sees it unvarnished.  The basic instinct of these Western countries that the refugees see as a beacon of hope is to reject them and send them back.  He advises a torture victim to share the graphic details when he arrives because it will help the case for getting in, reassuring the victim that “No, one of this stuff make them feel uncomfortable… It makes them feel enlightened.”

These refugees are used as props in the internal debates of America and European countries, but that’s about all they are, Mohamed reminds them:

“But you should know what you are… You are the temporary object of their fraudulent outrage, their fraudulent grief.  They will march in the streets on your behalf, they will write to politicians on your behalf, they will cry on your behalf, but you are to them in the end nothing but a hook on which to hang the best possible image of themselves.  Today you are the only boy in the world and tomorrow it will be as though you never existed.”

America, consumed by many of its internal battles and less certain about its role in the world, now only engages episodically in the broader human security challenges unfolding in the world.   El Akkad’s latest book provides human insights into how refugees are changed by their journey and how the countries where they seek refuge are changing as well – the story offers an important opportunity for introspection about what America stands for and what it’s willing to do to live up to those ideals.