I read What Strange Paradise at the same time as I came across the story of Yusra Mardini, whose biography was made into the Netflix movie, The Swimmers. That the stories parallel one another (with the exception of the outcome) was fascinating to me, and reinforced the reality behind each narrative. I’d never read much about people describing their journeys as refugees leaving North Africa or the Middle East, and their journey across the Mediterranean Sea for Europe. I was quite startled with how poor my imagination had been about what so many people had gone through.
What Strange Paradise, by Omar el Akkad, won the Giller Prize, Canada’s highest award for literature. The story is told in alternating chapters, going back and forth between the journey young Amir takes from his home (unnamed North Africa) and across the sea to Europe, and a second ‘escape’ he makes on dry land in Europe, away from local law enforcement, with the help of a local who tries to bring him to safety. Even knowing from the outset of the story that Amir is the sole survivor of the boat crossing doesn’t diminish from the power of experiencing the journey along with him. I actually found that the most powerful parts of the book were the conversations between the people on the boat during their journey. Using a variety of characters – a pregnant religious Muslim, a secular Palestinian intellectual, a selfish older man, and a real-politick smuggler – the author surfaces the struggles between East and West, social and economic hierarchy, kindness and deep selfishness.
I found the story itself powerful and impactful, and it expanded my emotional and empathetic universe. It also gripped me towards the end, to find out how the story ended. However, I found the writing a bit choppy, with the kind of literary flourishing that detract, rather than add to the narrative. Still, it’s very much a book worth reading, for those who are not that well informed about this struggle.
Just Because I Liked It:
- Take a look at this incredible Kiddush Hashem!
- A few weeks ago I recommended an article by Dr. Marc Herman. Following this I started to listen to his series on the Rambam’s Sefer HaMitzvot, which is excellent. It requires concentration, and I’d probably retain more if I had the source sheets in front of me (you can download them from Spotify). That said it is scholarly in the best sense: wise, insightful, comprehensible, and relevant. It’s certainly worth listening to.