Canada Reads·Q&A

'The collision point of two fantasies': Omar El Akkad and Tareq Hadhad discuss What Strange Paradise

Ahead of the Canada Reads debates, What Strange Paradise author Omar El Akkad sits down with his champion Tareq Hadhad.

Tareq Hadhad will champion What Strange Paradise by Omar El Akkad on Canada Reads 2022

Omar El Akkad's novel What Strange Paradise will be championed by entrepreneur and former refugee Tareq Hadhad on Canada Reads 2022.

The book follows Amir, a 9-year-old Syrian boy who is the lone survivor on a ship of refugees. The book alternates chapters between Amir's dangerous ocean voyage to his new reality on a tourist island that is hostile to him.

Hadhad was one of many Syrian refugees to land in Canada in 2015. He and his family settled in Antigonish, N.S., where they founded the chocolate company Peace by Chocolate. His story has been shared as a book by journalist Jon Tattrie and as a film, both titled Peace by Chocolate.

Ahead of the debates, Hadhad and El Akkad discuss What Strange Paradise, and why it's important to document the stories of refugees. Watch their conversation above, or read the transcript below.

Canada Reads will be hosted by Ali Hassan and will be broadcast on CBC Radio OneCBC TVCBC Gem and on CBC Books

Hadhad: Hello, Omar, how are you doing? 

El Akkad: I'm doing well. How are you? How are you holding up during the Canada Reads intense spotlight? 

Hadhad: Oh, I'm surviving. You know, it gets really intense at some point, but I'm really enjoying it.

The reason I chose to defend this book is because I felt the personal connection to everyone in the book. I'm 20 years older than Amir at this point, but I can absolutely relate to his experiences for me and my family, having to flee everything behind, being in the unknown and living through uncertainty for years and years of our lives. So that's really why I chose to defend it on Canada Reads.

So, Omar, just tell me a little bit about why you wrote this novel? 

El Akkad: First of all, thank you so much. Can't tell you how much that means to me. It's something I'm deeply grateful for.

You know, a long time ago, I was back in Egypt, I was still working at the Globe and Mail at the time, and I was covering the aftermath of the Arab Spring. And at the time, there started to be this exodus from Syria, and a lot more Syrians were in Cairo. My friend was basically explaining to me how, if somebody showed up and you knew that they had to flee, you could essentially exploit them. You could charge them three times as much for rent, for fruits and vegetables, for everything. 

I mean, we both come from the same part of the world. We've heard Arab leaders over and over again talk about our Syrian brothers and sisters, our Syrian brothers and sisters, and then there's what's actually happening on the ground. There was a huge chasm between what people were saying and what was actually happening. Once I started thinking about that, and just how easy it was to be so cruel and so exploitative, that I decided to write about the ways in which we've structured societies to take advantage of whoever becomes most vulnerable in any given moment.

A man in a long-sleeved black shirt holding a book.
Omar El Akkad is the author of What Strange Paradise. (CBC)

And so that was in 2012. I spent years thinking about the structure of the story, [before] I started writing it. Over the course of the years that I was writing it, I saw the other side of that cruelty, which is just how easy it is to forget about entire groups of human beings without any consequence at all. I was trying to write a book, I think, to do the opposite of forgetting. I wanted to dwell. Whether I succeeded or failed is an entirely separate story. But that's what I was thinking about when I started putting the book together. 

Hadhad: That's a really incredible cause, Omar. I think that having even the ability to translate what you have learned 10 years ago into a book that's going to live for generations and generations to come.

One of the hardest moments for me, as well, in my family when we arrived in Canada is we did not want people to forget the reality of refugees 10 years from now, 20 years from now. We don't want people to think that refugees left for the luxury of tourism in Europe, right? We don't want people to misunderstand the reality and the horror of the war. And I think you have captured all of these moments really perfectly. 

El Akkad: Thank you. That's very generous of you.

I think one of the strange things about writing the book is that some of the parts of it that feel the most fictional are taken from real life. There's part of the book where there's this politician, this Greek politician on TV is talking about, why do they all have cell phones? If they're in such trouble, why do they all have cell phones? As though having a cell phone isn't a prerequisite of modern life. This notion of expecting people to have absolutely nothing and to be destitute in every way possible, and then if you have the slightest means of having any human dignity, you're somehow privileged now. All of that stuff was taken from real news reports, from things that I saw happening. And yet, when you put them on the page, they're so cruel that they feel fictional.

I think that was one of the difficulties of putting the book together was just, you try with fiction to intrude on reality and sometimes you find that reality is intruding on the fictional. It's a hard thing to deal with as a writer.

Do you remember, if you don't mind me asking, when you first arrived in Canada, do you remember what the biggest source of shock was? 

Hadhad: I was lucky enough to arrive in Canada, and, you know, almost it's like that... my story is like the fairy tale of immigration. I was on a Royal Jordanian plane from Beirut to Oman, then from Oman to Toronto in 2015. It was when every single Canadian was involved in sponsoring a refugee or knowing someone in their family or their household who was sponsoring a refugee. So I think I came in the golden time of that whole campaign of bringing Syrian refugees to Canada.

When I arrived in Toronto, I remember going around and my phone was ringing and I had that Arabic song on my phone still, the ringtone. And a person, just like a woman  I think she was in her 50s or 60s, and she said "Go back to Turkey where you came from and put this song on." She didn't like the song so she asked me to go back to Turkey. 

I'm like, "Hey, I'm sorry, I have never been to Turkey, you know that?" So she thought my Arabic song was like in Turkish.

Tareq Hadhad receives a Canadian flag from Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Marco Mendicino at the Oath of Citizenship ceremony at The Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 in Halifax on Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2020. (Riley Smith/The Canadian Press)

It was absolutely hilarious because I did not face any like, you know, very significant challenges arriving here. I landed at the airport, was greeted like I am the prime minister. Everyone's asking me if I spoke a few words of English. I said, yes. I did not speak very well English at that time, but I survived and I shook the hands of the Governor General.

The day after I arrived here in Nova Scotia and there was a group of people in a town called Antigonish who had come together to sponsor a family,  and I was the lucky one with my family to be chosen. So we had the house, the committee for education, a committee for integration, a committee for employment. Everything was set up for us. We did not have to suffer after we landed in Canada because of the kindness that we have really found in the people here. 

We did not have really to suffer after we landed in Canada because of the kindness that we have really found in the people here.- Tareq Hadhad

But at the same time, I knew, although I have made it, there are millions of people that have not. There are millions of people, whose applications are still in the inbox or in the doors of the officers at the embassies everywhere around the world. I knew I was privileged and I was lucky and I was fortunate. I really wanted to make the best out of this experience.

There were many elements, there is some, you know, racism here and there, when people don't know you. I think people are always afraid of the different people around them, right? Like, if you don't know somebody, then you will have assumptions and prejudices. I think my main mission when I arrived in Canada was to clear that side. You know, for me, a person coming from Syria, what am I to them? A lot of people had questions. It's like, am I a book? Am I my faith? Am I my background? Am I my skin colour? Who am I, right?

And then I start working on levelling up, not to their expectations because really, I didn't want to lose my identity and who I am, but also really a leveling up to, I think, a mutual ground of communication between us. And that's when Canadians really started to connect to my own story and knew that I'm not an alien.

WATCH | The trailer for Peace by Chocolate

From my experience, so far, I've faced fear, not in Canada specifically, but when I left my country, Syria, to Lebanon, when people were really afraid for their jobs, for their social security, for the promise and the future of their own country. Millions of refugees were coming in. What's going to happen next? All of that.

So I think Omar, I think my point is, what do you think is the relationship, as we have seen in the book, between fear and empathy? 

El Akkad: I think it's a fascinating question. I mean, for me, a lot of the book takes place at the sort of collision point of two fantasies, you know?

There's one fantasy that's pointed at the part of the world where you and I grew up, which says that all these people coming from over here are barbarians at the gate, and we need to keep them out and they'll destroy our society if they get here.

And then there's a fantasy pointed in the other direction, that certainly I saw a lot of my relatives believe in, which is this notion that if I can just make it to the West, everything will be OK and everything will be perfect. And the book takes place at the collision point of those two fantasies.

I think particularly in this part of the world where we live now, empathy gets a bit of a bad rap because it's so tied up with individual agency. This notion that it's important to understand how someone else is feeling and, if you understand it hard enough, you can change the world as a result. There's this sort of element of individualism that creeps into empathy. And I think a lot of the empathy that runs through the book is sort of stripped of individualism. It's this notion that, even if it doesn't change anything, you are obligated to at least try to understand where somebody else is coming from, what they're feeling, why they feel that.

And I think there's a similar sort of flip side with hatred, where so much of hatred depends on exactly not understanding, on deliberately not understanding. The characters in the book are constantly running into people in positions of power, people who get to decide how the world works, who are intent on not understanding the experience of another human being. 

Omar El Akkad wins the 2021 Scotiabank Giller Prize for his novel 'What Strange Paradise', at a gala in Toronto, Monday, Nov. 8, 2021. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press)

Hadhad: Do you think that people are born knowing how to hate, or is it something that we outsource from our surroundings? 

El Akkad: My sense is that the way we've structured a lot of society renders that question almost moot. The kind of society that constantly pits people in competition against one another, and constantly tells you that if you want to get ahead, somebody else has to fall behind, that it's a zero-sum game.

So long as we've ordered society this way, it doesn't matter if I have an innate capacity to hate or not, I'm going to be pulled in that direction constantly because I'm being pitted against other human beings in every conceivable way.

And so when I write these books, they're very individual in terms of the characters, in terms of the situations, but the things that they're talking about, the injustices, the ways in which a society might be broken are all systemic. I'm very much concerned with systemic wrongdoing as opposed to individual wrongdoing. 

Hadhad: Let me ask you this, Amir is only nine years old and Vanna is the teenage girl who helps him to safety. Why did you focus on young people to tell this story? 

El Akkad: A lot of the interaction between Vanna and Amir comes from my childhood memories about meeting another child and you know that they speak a different language. And so, you immediately start to revert to sign language of "I'm five years old. How old are you?" and that sort of thing.

A lot of that was part of my upbringing because I grew up in a place where everybody was from somewhere else. For the longest time, I assumed that was normal. I assumed that everywhere was like this, that you were constantly surrounded by people who are very, very different than you. And of course, it's not the case in a lot of the world. But a lot of that bleeds into the interactions between these two children.

So I was drawn to childhood, I think, because the way that you move through childhood seems to be the exact opposite of the way that these very broken societal levers that we've created operate. So I wanted to collide these two things. 

Tareq Hadhad is championing What Strange Paradise by Omar El Akkad. (CBC)

Hadhad: What did you personally take from the experience of writing this novel, Omar? 

El Akkad: You know, it's funny when I write... I mean, for me, anyway, it's an incredibly painful experience to sit down and write because you face your own insecurities and anxieties. These thoughts that are crystal clear in your head, somehow in the translation process go horribly awry by the time they land on the page. And so, it's never been an easy process for me to write anything.

Over the course of this book, a lot of my views on the world changed. But one of the fundamental ways that it did was in relation to home. I'm one of those people who doesn't have a very good answer to that question, "Where are you from?" Left Egypt when I was five, grew up in Qatar, came to Canada, I lived in the U.S. All the rest of that right? 

Hadhad: Do they ever ask you, "Where are you from from?"

El Akkad: Yeah, I had it happen once I was in Louisiana and I was talking to this guy and he said, "Where are you from?" And I said, "Canada."

And he said, "No, no, no." Then we did that little song and dance where we move backwards. Finally, I said, "Egypt." And he said, "Oh yeah, I could hear the Egyptian in your accent." I was like, "No you can't."

What happens when home is forced away from you? What happens when the land becomes uninhabitable?- Omar El Akkad

So I write about home a lot, what home means and the various ways that home can be taken from you. I used to think of that in only one way, which is that, when home is taken from you, it's because you are forced from home. In the context of the way the world was changing while I was writing this book and the way that it's going to continue to change, especially for my children when they become adults, the world is going to be a very different place in a very literal sense because of climate change. The world that I grew up in is going to be unrecognizable to them. Qatar, where I grew up, might be uninhabitable. It might be so hot as to be uninhabitable.

So I started writing, thinking about the idea of displacement as someone being forced from home, and I finished the book thinking about that as only one half of the equation. The other half being, what happens when home is forced away from you? What happens when the land becomes uninhabitable?

Tareq Hadhad settled in Antigonish, N.S. about a year after his arrival, in 2016. (Stephanie Blanchet/Radio-Canada)

So we talk about the Syrian Civil War. We rarely talk about the drought that preceded it and the number of people who needed to move because their farmland became essentially untenable to live on. We are going to see a lot more of that when the islands in the Pacific that are low-lying get inundated with sea level rise.

And so I started the book thinking about the movement away from home, as a person moving away from the land. And now I think about it as that being one half, and the other half being what happens when the land moves away from the person? 

Hadhad: The theme of Canada Reads this year is, One Book To Connect Us. I like the idea that people are going to connect and share their thoughts about the book together, and I actually started getting messages already about the book from people from around the country and book clubs and libraries, so God be with me.

El Akkad: Brace yourself. It's going to be a bumpy few months. 

Hadhad: It's going to be certainly fun. 

El Akkad: I've never once predicted the winner of Canada Reads. It's so chaotic that I can never tell who's going to win this thing. But the fact that you stepped into the fray to talk about literature, to talk about books is something for which I am deeply, deeply grateful, regardless of how the actual week turns out.

Hadhad: Yeah, well, I'm in it to win it. So we're going to tell the real story of What Strange Paradise. I will be defending it with my blood, sweat and tears. 

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

The Canada Reads 2022 contenders

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