Excerpted from Harbor by Lorraine Adams. Copyright © 2004 by Lorraine Adams. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Lorraine Adams is a novelist, critic, and Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist. Her novel Harbor won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for First Fiction, was a finalist for the Orange and Guardian First Book prizes, and was selected as a New York Times Best Book, as a Washington Post Notable Book, and as Entertainment Weekly’s Best Novel of the Year. She is a regular contributor to The New York Times Book Review and Bookforum and was a staff writer at The Washington Post for eleven years. She lives in New York City.
A Conversation with Lorraine Adams
Q: Before writing Harbor, you worked as a reporter for the Washington Post for 11 years. Is it true that Harbor grew out of investigative reporting you were doing for the Post?
A: Yes. I was assigned by the Post to cover the FBI and Justice Department in 1999. As part of that beat, I wrote about a terrorist plot planned by Algerians in Canada near the turn of the millennium. That conspiracy involved an Algerian who came over the border near Seattle with a trunkload of explosives he intended for Los Angeles International Airport. The FBI believed that the plot was wider than this young man, and they launched what was then the largest counterterrorism investigation on American soil. The Post assigned me to investigate the FBI probe. It was to be an anatomy of a counterterrorism dragnet.
I began by looking for Arab Americans who had been arrested by the FBI in the weeks after the young man’s arrest. I immersed myself in the Algerian communities of the United States and Canada. I wrote a story focusing on one Algerian who had pled guilty to conspiracy to support terrorism, using his case as a way to explore how the FBI handled counterterrorism investigations. The FBI was overly dependent on technology such as wire-tapping instead of human intelligence. Its rudimentary understanding of Muslim and Arab politics often led it to place innocent people under surveillance while the guilty, too difficult to track, went undetected.
Q: Tell us about your protagonist, Aziz.
A: Aziz flees to the United States as a stowaway in desperate circumstances. He is one of the people in America that we see but don’t think about much–he gets by as a gas station attendant, a dishwasher, a house painter, a deli worker. He has the usual grab bag of immigrant deficits–no English, no legal identity, a homeland lost, a permanent sense of dislocation. What makes his story unlike others about exile is terrorism. Terrorism drove him out of Algeria; it finds him in the presumed sanctuary of America. I don’t want to get too deeply into the plot, so I’ll leave it at that.
What I can say is that I began writing Aziz’s story after the Sept. 11th attacks. He grew out of my frustrations with the conventions and limitations of newspapering. So much of what I knew about the Algerians I had met was a radical departure from the prevailing journalistic narratives I had read about young Arab men drawn to terrorism. I had a childhood friend die in the twin towers, and I saw the World Trade Center burning in the minutes just after the attacks, so I was also motivated by a desire to try to understand what to so many seemed beyond understanding.
Q: How did your work as a reporter help you as a novelist?
A: Journalism has permitted me to invade people’s privacy. It opened worlds otherwise closed. I was schooled in the experiences of other people in a way that was distinctive. When you know a friend, you can’t report out their lives, interview their critics and admirers, check what they say against written records. You don’t get to say, “Hey, you said this, but your brother says something else.” Reporting is a circling over time that acquaints you with what someone wants to believe about who they are and what they appear to be to others. My reporting often elicited confessions and confidences that people did not want published. I honored them; those unwritten disclosures accumulated in me.
Most of the young men I tracked for the terrorism project were distrustful at first. I was too. There were language difficulties. There was prejudice against women. One told me later he thought I was an undercover FBI agent. But I drank enough tea on living room floors and hung out enough at kitchen tables, gas stations and front stoops that I began to see them, and they me, in ways neither of us expected. I started taking Arabic classes; their English developed. So much–their intonations, the suits they shoplifted, the women they loved, the poetry they read–I saw or heard. Word traveled in the Algerian community that I wanted to hear their stories, not only about how the FBI treated them, but what they left in Algeria, and who they believed among them were terrorists and who was not. I got calls from federal jails, pizza parlors, pay phones–as far away as Vancouver and as close as Brooklyn.
Q: Harbor opens with Aziz hiding in a tanker hold from Algeria to Boston for 52 days, jumping into the icy waters of the Boston harbor and swimming to shore. The title refers to the Boston harbor–is this common in real life? What is life like for Algerians to make them choose such harsh conditions to flee?
A: It was common for Algerians during the 1990s to stowaway on tankers headed for Boston harbor. Youth unemployment there had reached 41 percent. Aziz’s was a generation of ennui, disappointment, and disenchantment. After more than a century of rule by France, Algeria became independent in 1962. Algeria, like Egypt and other Arab countries in the post-colonial period, devolved into one-party rule under a corrupt elite. In the face of economic misery, the government failed to provide basic social services. It was in this atmosphere that Islam, which was a unifying force during the revolution against colonial rule, reemerged. Its attraction was a practical one at first: it was the mosques that subsidized food and housing. The devout and increasingly impoverished middle class, betrayed by the ruling elite, gravitated to a new Islamic party. Drawn too were urban and campus youth–Aziz’s contemporaries. The governing class, to pacify growing unrest and demonstrations, legalized the party. The party began modestly by winning local elections, but then in 1991 national balloting, a strong showing led the military to intervene, outlaw the party, and postpone the second round of elections, which the party was predicted to win.
A decade of civil war followed. With party leaders in exile or imprisoned, the remains of the movement advocated violence, arguing democratic means had failed to bring change. The military government responded in kind. As in any civil war, civilian casualties were rampant. The government called these attacks terrorism. The militant Islamic elements accused the government of torture and murder. Women, children and the elderly were the victims of atrocities committed by both sides. Amnesty International has documented human rights abuses committed by security forces, armed groups and militias armed by the state. The government acknowledges that between 100,000 and 150,000 civilians died between 1992 and 2003, but restrictions on information have made it impossible to confirm details about the identity of the victims or how they died.
Q: Why is the story set in Boston, where the suspected terrorist cells in the novel are located (instead of New York or D.C. for example)? In what time period is it set in relation to the actual terrorist attacks of 9/11/01?
A: This is a work of fiction, so there is no exact date for the events described, but they are set sometime between 1993 and early 2001. Boston is the setting for several reasons. I think of Boston as the cradle of liberty, a hallowed place in the idealized American history of the nation’s founding. Boston harbor is familiar to every school child as the location of the Boston tea party, a protest against colonial subjugation. These young men jumped into the same harbor out of a desperation for freedom not unlike the motivating spirit of the American experiment.
Q: In probably the first novel of its kind since the terrorist attacks on 9/11/01, Harbor delves into the lives of suspected terrorists–where and how they live, what they think of America, among others. What is life like for them in America? Do they find it better than Algeria?
A: There are Algerians from many strata of society in the United States. Some are stowaways. Some are petty criminals. Some are middle class, highly educated and have stable jobs and families. One of the goals of Harbor is to avoid generalizations in favor of the individual. There are many young Muslim Arab men depicted in Harbor; they are each singular. They create the life they lead. They are not inexorable victims of circumstance. The imaginative force inherent in anyone constructing a life is more bluntly revealed when someone is a refugee, but is common to all of us. Having said that, one of Harbor’s central predicaments is that what these young men fled in Algeria finds them in the United States.
Q: Is this the goal of the novel–for the reader get a unique view of the people we call "terrorists"? (In other words, you show them in a much different light than we've ever seen them before–what are you hoping the reader takes away? Personally, as I read it, I sympathized with almost all of the characters–and found the ending quite ironic, especially that the circles around the subway stations translated into, for the FBI, targets for terrorist attacks.)
A: My goal is not to defend terrorists, but to attempt to give voice to the interior lives of young Muslim Arabs who may or may not become terrorists. It is something of an exploration, yes, of that set of common essences people tend to call “their humanity” when talking about marginalized and despised populations. Some excommunicate terrorists from the human. But terrorists, as the cliché has it, are made not born. They are with us and among us. I believe in the value of trying to understand that which threatens us. Understanding is not a substitute for action. It is, however, part of any enlightened rational mind.
Q: Without giving too much away, a part of the story centers around a U-Stor-It locker. Could you sum up why this is so important in the novel?
A: In the simplest terms, the U-Stor-It is where the characters stockpile what they need to conceal. Its contents are alternately and simultaneously comical, sinister, plain to the eye and unknowable. You’ve heard of a cabinet of wonder–the 17th century forerunner of the modern museum, a repository of oddities. We are even more aware of the Freudian subconscious, a storehouse of unexamined, unsocialized repressions. The U-Stor-It of Harbor incorporates these ideas. It functions also as the presumed locus of all the answers to the characters’ questions about who they are, who their friends are and who their enemies might be.
From the Hardcover edition.
A Note from the Author About Writing HARBOR
I write out of necessity. There is no technique. I have no schedule. I believe in nothing about the hows and whys of writing other than the organizing clarity of desire. What does that feel like? For me, it is first fierceness about a story’s importance and then, over time, a self-abnegating allegiance to a story’s being told. It is also an awareness that a story will sink into the dark if I don’t record it. I am partial to orphans. The planet is overpopulated with stories already retold, competent books birthed and well-parented because the writer needed them to assume the identity of a writer. The best story is the one no one wants to hear until after they’ve heard it.
I write about others. Memoir scares me. Autobiographical fiction is my idea of a footless hands-tied purgatory. So where did my first novel come from? Harbor is an act of imagination. I made it up. It’s that simple and yet, there are footnotes. I was a journalist, and I reported on a terrorism plot that resulted in a Washington Post Sunday magazine story. My editor at the time, himself an accomplished non-fiction writer, felt the piece should focus on one individual. Including a second would break with a journalistic convention that one “character” is more powerful and comprehensible for the reader than two. It was not in my interest to argue, but I did, forcefully. My editor cut the second man out.
The excised man stayed with me. He became one of the signposts that pointed me away from journalism. At night, after working on reviews, essays and reported articles, I started putting down his story. I intended it to be concealed writing, a pointless project for only my eyes. It was not quite fiction, not quite fact, not quite polemic; it was a cry.
This unnamed writing at night was like a forbidden lover. It was on my mind all day. I couldn’t wait to get back to it. I became a new person when with it. I had no fixed ideas about what it was or where it was going. All I knew was I felt such unbidden sympathy for the characters. Compassion, taboo in daily journalism, was my guiltiest pleasure. I had started with one man’s untold story. After a while, there was a second, a third, a fourth, a fifth–a world. Soon, the original excised man was only inspiration, quite different from the written character Aziz.
I endowed him with what I crave in fiction I read. Aziz is a moral creature with an inner life. He is what Isaiah Berlin calls an untamed human being, “with unextinguished passions and untrammeled imagination.” He is an example of no one thing. He cannot be reduced to an object of derision, satire or scorn. He is conscious, with all of the mysteries and presentiments that brings.
I put Aziz in a novel I would like to read—one that can be read many ways, as Albert Camus put it, “at the same time both obvious and obscure.” I wanted it fleet—no dragging around in sociology, political analysis, cultural critique or brand names. I wanted it generous—a big fat raft of religious faith, farce, sadistic violence, tenderness, nobility and desperation. I wanted prose that took risks. I wanted to be surprised.
These inclinations are with me as I write my second novel. The fierceness, the allegiance—they’re here. I’m not sure completely where the writing is going but I still have the sensation that I can’t help but go.
1. The title Harbor connotes many different meanings in this novel. Is there one in particular which stands out as the reason Adams selected it?
2. For his first months in America, Aziz understands not a word of English, and, as time progresses, he begins to piece together awkward phrases. For example, several months after arriving in Boston, Aziz observes a woman in the bar and thinks: “She made him remember giraffes” [p. 52]. Adams uses this awkward phrasing instead of the more typical, “She reminded him of giraffes.” What techniques does Adams employ to effectively convey Aziz’s language barrier? How does the author convey his complete ignorance of American culture and customs? How else is Aziz disconnected from his new surroundings?
3. Aziz observes “this way that Americans had, of being soft but hard; nothing difficult, nothing easy; nothing good, nothing bad” [p. 45]; Rafik later describes this attitude to Aziz as “matter-of-fact” [p. 52]. What does this observation about American cultural behavior imply about the Arabs? How does this simple observation exemplify the seemingly impassable cultural chasm between the Muslim Arabs and the Americans?
4. Aziz thinks of his mother before he confronts Rafik in the nightclub: “But wait. His mother’s hand rested on his shoulder. We are to be kind” [p. 63]. Also, Heather is a mystery to Aziz: “The riddle of Heather’s father preoccupied Aziz, but after trying to solve why a man of such seeming stature would speak ill of his wife in front of strangers, and allow his daughter to live in a dwelling so ragged, on a street so dismal, with a man so underhanded, he realized there was so much of his new existence that was unknown to him, outside his English, or kept from him deliberately, or not yet anything he had ever experienced, so that recognizing it would have been like remembering a man he had never met” [p. 65]. From these thoughts of Aziz and from descriptions of his family life back in Algeria, what can we conclude about Aziz’s sense of morality and values? How does Aziz’s upbringing affect his success or failure in the United States?
5. Why did Aziz leave Algeria? Is the reason he gives to others the same one he admits to himself?
6. Aziz constantly mistrusts his own instincts, and yet his instincts seem extremely acute. He reminds himself to “be awake to the Rafik situation. . . . Rafik would never change” [p. 23]. Why does he not trust his own instincts? Is it because of his upbringing? His army experience? Does Aziz make poor decisions or choices because of this self-doubt? While it is purely speculation, how might Aziz’s life have turned out differently if he had not stayed with Rafik?
7. How does Aziz’s life change after Ghazi’s arrival? Why is Ghazi so interested in finding out what Rafik is hiding in the storage room?
8. Who is Dhakir, and what role does he have in Ghazi’s fate? What happens to Ghazi, and why does he turn to Kamal and Rafik [see p. 255]? How is Ghazi’s character different from Aziz’s character? Aziz realizes he did what was necessary to survive in Algeria because “the bright dust of being alive could not be shook out of him” [p. 247]. Is this desire to survive what motivates Ghazi, or is it something else?
9. What kind of a person is Heather, and what makes her attractive to the Algerian men?
10. How does the character of Hank Bridges and his early appearance in the book affect the reader’s perceptions of the American government agents?
11. How might a reader initially respond to the way Rafik, Heather, and Aziz use Linda and her husband’s insurance to hospitalize Aziz [p. 49]? Might the reader’s feelings about their behavior change later in the novel when they repay Linda, especially given the circumstances under which they repay her [p. 273]? What do these actions demonstrate about the lengths the Algerian and other Arab Muslim members of the community will go to help each other [see, for example, pp. 71—75]? When Aziz discovers Rafik’s criminal involvement, Aziz tells Ghazi, “He [Rafik] saved us. . . . I will not be the one who sends him” [p. 96]. Is the loyalty the Algerians show each other unique to Muslim Arabs, or is it a characteristic of many immigrant communities? What other actions by the Algerian friends might also be initially misinterpreted by the reader?
12. What values seem to be universal Islamic values that Aziz shares with Ghazi, Rafik, and his other friends in the United States? What values are unique to Aziz?
13. What role does religion play in Aziz’s and his friends’ life in the United States? What role does the Qur’an play?
14. The epigraph at the beginning of the novel is from a poem by Farid ud-Din Attar, the author of the book that the old Yemeni from Brooklyn gives Aziz as a parting gift [p. 229]. Farid ud-Din Attar lived in Persia (now Iran) from approximately 1119—1220 A.D. where he was an herbalist and spiritualist. His masterpiece, the Manteq at-Tay–translated as The Conference of the Birds–describes a group of human souls in the bodies of birds who search for their spiritual master. Why did Adams select this epigraph for Harbor? What do the passages sited in the novel mean to Aziz [pp. 229—230]?
15. Aziz reflects on his life: “The one clear thing was running. Running from his unit, running from Antar, running from Sellami and Benane, running from his family, running from ship’s police, running from Algeria. . . . He had made a world where there was only one person beside himself: a person to run from” [p. 230]. How does Harbor question our assumptions about innocence and guilt? About human rights and the government’s role in protecting human rights?
16. In an interview published online at Powells.com, Adams states: “My goal is not to defend terrorists, but to attempt to give voice to the interior lives of young Muslim Arabs who may or may not become terrorists. It is something of an exploration, yes, of that set of common essences people tend to call ‘their humanity’ when talking about marginalized and despised populations. Some excommunicate terrorists from the human. But terrorists, as the cliché has it, are made not born. They are with us and among us. I believe in the value of trying to understand that which threatens us. Understanding is not a substitute for action. It is, however, part of any enlightened rational mind.” Does Adams accomplish this goal in Harbor? Does Adams’s portrait of Muslim Arabs break down or uphold any of the stereotypes of Muslim Arabs in the United States?
17. What is your reaction to Aziz’s punishment? What about the punishments of the other Algerians in his circle [p. 292]? How is the investigation portrayed, and how are the investigators portrayed? Did the counter-terrorist agents have other options? Did the American agents treat the Arab suspects the same way they would have treated non-Arab Americans?
18. In the aftermath of 9/11, how would a reader, having inevitably formed images and opinions of the terrorists that perpetrated the attacks, find these images and opinions challenged by Harbor? What questions does Adams force the reader to ask? Does Harbor provide any answers to these questions?