Canada Reads

What Strange Paradise by Omar El Akkad

What Strange Paradise is a novel by Omar El Akkad.

Championed by Tareq Hadhad

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

Tareq Hadhad championed What Strange Paradise by Omar El Akkad on Canada Reads 2022.

Canada Reads took place March 28-31, 2022 The debates were hosted by Ali Hassan and broadcast on CBC Radio OneCBC TVCBC Gem and on CBC Books

More bodies have washed up on the shores of a small island. Another over-filled, ill-equipped, dilapidated ship has sunk under the weight of its too many passengers: Syrians, Ethiopians, Egyptians, Lebanese, Palestinians, all of them desperate to escape untenable lives in their homelands. And only one has made the passage: nine-year-old Amir, a Syrian boy who has the good fortune to fall into the hands not of the officials but of Vanna: a teenage girl, native to the island, who lives inside her own sense of homelessness in a place and among people she has come to disdain. And though she and the boy are complete strangers, though they don't speak a common language, she determines to do whatever it takes to save him.

LISTEN | Podcast on What Strange Paradise

In this introduction to the novel What Strange Paradise, discover what the book is about and why entrepreneur and former Syrian refugee Tareq Hadhad chose it for Canada Reads 2022.


In alternating chapters, we learn the story of the boy's life and how he came to be on the boat; and we follow the girl and boy as they make their way toward a vision of safety. But as the novel unfurls, we begin to understand that this is not merely the story of two children finding their way through a hostile world, it is the story of our collective moment in this time: of empathy and indifference, of hope and despair — and of the way each of those things can blind us to reality, or guide us to a better one. (From McClelland & Stewart)

Omar El Akkad is a Canadian journalist and author who currently lives in Portland. He is also the author of the novel American War, which was defended on Canada Reads 2018 by actor Tahmoh Penikett. What Strange Paradise won the 2021 Scotiabank Giller Prize. The $100,000 prize is the biggest prize in Canadian literature. 

From the book

The child lies on the shore. All around him the beach is littered with the wreckage of the boat and the wreckage of its passengers: shards of decking, knapsacks cleaved and gutted, bodies frozen in unnatural contortion. Dispossessed of nightfall's temporary burial, the dead ferment indecency. There's too much of spring in the day, too much light.

Facedown, with his arms outstretched, the child appears from a distance as though playing at flight. And so too in the bodies that surround him, though distended with seawater and hardening, there flicker the remnants of some silent levitation, a severance from the laws of being.


From What Strange Paradise by Omar El Akkad published by McClelland & Stewart. Copyright © 2021 by Omar El Akkad. Reprinted courtesy of McClelland & Stewart.

Why Omar El Akkad wrote What Strange Paradise

"It's a fable, or at least a repurposed fable. It's the story of Peter Pan inverted and recast as the story of a contemporary child refugee. It opens with the scene of a shipwreck on an unnamed western island. There's a small boy named Amir, who's the sole survivor of the shipwreck.

"From that moment onwards, the book splits into two halves alternating chapters. The chapters alternate between what happens once he arrives on the island and everything that led up to him being on the island in the first place. It is, in my mind, a repurposed fairy tale, and it is very much based on Peter Pan.

"But unless you have a very intimate familiarity with Peter Pan as a story, it doesn't come out overtly. A lot of the stuff is beneath the surface."

Read more of his interview with CBC Books

The Canada Reads 2022 contenders

Interviews with Omar El Akkad

Tareq Hadhad champions What Strange Paradise by Omar El Akkad

3 months ago
Duration 1:29
Tareq Hadhad argues that Omar El Akkad's novel humanizes the experience of refugees in a cynical time.
Omar El Akkad in conversation with Shelagh Rogers about his novel, on What Strange Paradise.
80 million people were displaced worldwide by mid-2020 — and as novelist Omar El Akkad sees it, that number will grow as climate change worsens. He joins Piya Chattopadhyay to discuss his latest novel What Strange Paradise.
80 million people were displaced worldwide by mid-2020 — and as novelist Omar El Akkad sees it, that number will grow as climate change worsens. He joins Piya Chattopadhyay to discuss his latest novel What Strange Paradise.

Book trailer: What Strange Paradise by Omar El Akkad

3 months ago
Duration 1:10
Omar El Akkad's novel will be championed by Tareq Hadhad on Canada Reads 2022.

More about What Strange Paradise

Other books by Omar El Akkad

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