Migrants wait to register at the Kokkinotrimithia refugee camp on the outskirts of Nicosia, Cyprus. CNS photo/Yiannis Kourtoglou, Reuters

Glen Argan: We have options, choose yours well

  • November 25, 2021

Omar El Akkad begins his novel, What Strange Paradise, with this sentence: “The child lies on the shore.” That beginning calls to mind the photo of the dead three-year-old refugee Alan Kurdi whose body was washed ashore on a Mediterranean island in September 2015. The photo sparked heightened global concern for Syrian refugees and an upsurge in donations to help migrants and refugees.

But unlike Kurdi, El Akkad’s boy is the sole survivor of the wreck of a fishing boat crammed with refugees seeking a better life. The boy, nine-year-old Amir, slowly awakes. When he sees two men in white containment suits rush toward him, Amir races away into the trees. The chase is on.

What Strange Paradise, which earlier this month won the Scotiabank Giller Prize, is a bleak account of escaping refugees and a world which wants nothing to do with them. Not only does it show humanity at its worst, the novel also reveals glimpses of humanity at its best.

Central to that story is Vanna Hermes, the 15-year-old girl who rescues Amir as he flees from the soldiers who pursue him. Vanna has no apparent reason to help the boy, but she immediately shelters him and advocates on his behalf. She stays with Amir for days as he awaits passage to safety.

Although Amir and Vanna have no language in common, he eventually mouths her word for “thank you.” She has never been the recipient of gratitude “and it feels good, feels cleansing.”

Small and large acts of generosity — a piece of orange handed through the floorboards of the fishing boat, a bureaucrat who finds a possible route of escape for Amir and a young soldier who refuses to take him captive — provide signs of the largeness of the human soul.

Mostly, however, the refugees are treated as human garbage. Emblematic of that tendency is the cynical Mohamed, “the smuggler’s apprentice” who oversees the doomed fishing boat. “Conscience, brother, is the enemy of survival,” he tells those on board.

Later, a bookish shipmate tells Mohamed, “Books are good for the soul. Books will ween you off cruelty.”

Mohamed responds: “And what will you be left with then?”

To those with idealism and hope about life in the West, he argues for a moral equivalence between the capitalist West and the brutal regimes from which they have fled. “‘You sad, stupid people,’ he said. ‘Look at what you’ve done to yourselves. The West you talk about doesn’t exist. It’s a fairy tale, a fantasy. …’ ”

The world is divided not into the good and the bad, but into those who are engines and those who are fuel. The refugees, Mohamed said, can change their names, their accents and even the colour of their skin. But those in the West “will always be engines and you will always, always be fuel.”

El Akkad divides his story into 30 brief chapters, alternating between events before Amir’s appearance on the shore and those afterward. Those after the shipwreck are perhaps not so crass and brutal, but the same dynamic prevails. An army colonel assumes the role Mohamed had on the boat. He views refugees who wash ashore on the island as “illegals” and strives to preserve the local tourist industry from the unpleasant feelings caused by those dead bodies on the beach.

The reader is left to wonder whether Mohamed is wrong in his cynical assessments and how much we are like the indifferent tourists who just want to spend a quiet two weeks on a sunny beach with no unpleasant distractions.

It is ironic that the novel’s most saint-like character is a teenage girl who cannot get along with her parents but who has an instinctive desire to help a boy with whom she has nothing in common. That is an act of conscience, and it is key to the boy’s survival. He’s not her problem, but she helps him anyway.

Like those crammed into the beat-up fishing boat, human beings do share a common fate. We also have options. We can remain true to our consciences, or we can maintain that people are either engines or they are fuel. Or, like those at the resort, we can be indifferent to the suffering of others. Even if we avoid the callous second option, it doesn’t mean we have chosen the first. Indifference remains the unspoken preference for those who constrain their outlook to the tight horizons of the self.

(Argan writes from Edmonton.)

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