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  • Harbor
  • Written by Lorraine Adams
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  • Written by Lorraine Adams
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Written by Lorraine AdamsAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Lorraine Adams

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On Sale: December 18, 2007
Pages: 304 | ISBN: 978-0-307-42616-1
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

A New York Times and Washington Post Notable BookEntertainment Weekly's #1 Fiction Book of the YearA tremendously acclaimed and exquisitely realized novel of literary suspense, Harbor recounts the adventures of Aziz Arkoun who, at twenty-four, makes his way to America via the hold of an Algerian tanker and the icy waters of Boston harbor. Aziz soon finds himself a community of fellow Algerians, but their means of survival in this strange land begins to remind him of the dangerous world he was desperate to escape. As the story of Aziz and his friends unfolds, moving from East Boston and Brooklyn to Montreal and a North African army camp, Harbor takes us inside the ambiguities of these men's past and present lives. When Aziz discovers that he and his circle are most likely under surveillance, all assumptions, his and ours, dissolve in urgent, mesmerizing complexity.  

Excerpt

1

Water never warms in American harbors. They had told him. Shivering, on the high deck of a groaning tanker, told more. He made out a far field of whitecaps many feet below. By the prow, the wind was pulling back the flags into flat, clear pictures. His beard whipped past his face; his overlong hair flew east. His hands and neck burned from insulation he had torn from a crate in the hold that most likely, he realized, after a few days of scratching skin to bleeding, was asbestos. He willed himself to stop but woke to blood caking his shins, under his nails, ridged in his ears. The cold tightened him into a pain that killed sleep.

Aziz could sense there might be other stowaways. On his second try, one he had befriended turned him over to ship’s security, who beat him with mallets, rowed him from the anchored vessel, and deposited him in the care of the harbor police, who pistol-whipped him into unconsciousness and three weeks in a dirty hospital, where his mother cried at his pillow and his brothers brought armloads of food she had cooked, sheets she had washed, an amazing pair of cotton mittens, soft as new white feathers, for his slowly oozing hands. He never saw the informant again, but his brother told him the miscreant had died, not violently but all on his own. He had disappeared for days until his friends found him dead in an alley. It turned out the betrayer had fallen and hit his head.

Now, on his third try, his eyelids were blistered. Some kind of wet kept coming from his ears, which were stoppered, as if someone had poured india rubber into them. After fifty-two days in the hold, his eyes, so long in dark, had just this moment adjusted to the blaring morning. And so he jumped.

He hurtled down in the air for long seconds to the ocean’s surface, whacking into a cold all his preparation had not prepared him for, plunging what seemed to be too far. He tucked his elbows against his rib cage, kicking, and kicked more and farther, all of him roaring up, up, get up. His head popped into the wind and he opened his eyes, locating the pier. He had not gone too far. Stroking across the surface, his arms wore ice sweaters, mercifully insulated from any feeling. On they went, arms of his, down and back, down and back, heavier, heavier, his arms so heavy he wanted to sleep. So he did. He let himself rest, into the deeper water, feeling the weight of it, hoping for its relief. There was something about the possibility of light that came to him. It was like the lamp his mother read beneath. He saw her bent head.

Someone else had jumped with him. He could feel hands at his neck. Maybe more than one. They were choking him. He fought, and at the surface he gurgled out the water in his lungs and saw he was alone. It was then fear found him. He swam in a screaming whistle of panic. There were no thoughts now, just the pumping of his heart. He had been swimming, he guessed, for three hours, or maybe three minutes. He looked a little—squinted, really—and saw he was nearly at the pier. Once there, a ladder, rubberized steel, was slipping from his hands, but then he realized it was grooved this rubber, or was it rippled steel, and his hands were too numb to think they could hang on. So he imagined that they could, and his hands then obeyed this concept, and up he went, peeking over there and down that way to make sure he was alone.

He was. He ran. His jumpsuit, stolen by his father to match the uniforms of the crew, was sopping. Again the command went to his body: You are not cold. Again the body conformed with this idea, and his thinking cartwheeled into the next necessity. There it was—near the Boston train tracks—an abandoned signal booth.

He stripped and started wringing out his clothes. The uniform was canvas, rough and punishing to his blue hands. It is nothing, he told his hands. You are here to function this way, for me, for the future. He had gotten the first of the water out when his hands began to bleed. He dropped the uniform. He would die here, asbestos sickened, ears and eyes mortally infected, the cold finishing him. He pictured his body, stiff across the tracks, as if he had died in the act of trying to gain a conductor’s attention. Then he saw them.

Across the tracks flutters of newspaper pages, hundreds of them, touched down and rose up like kites. He ran toward them in his putrefied underwear with his stretched socks flapping at his ankles. There were so many that even the wind could not keep all of them from him. He gathered them in his arms, scooping and diving like a gull. When he thought he had enough, he sprinted back to the booth and carefully put them inside, securing them with a rusted loop of wire in case the wind gusted in through the door. He pulled off the socks and briefs and laid them and the uniform on the gray stones along the tracks. He closed what was left of the door. The window had been broken, but only slightly, and he began pulling the newsprint toward a slant of sun on the floor, where he lay, building a frail tent that eventually settled into layers of his own heat to warm him.





“He’s drunk.”

“No, he’s a homeless.”

He heard them. With no English, he didn’t know what they said, but he saw in their faces that he was frightening. Back in the signal booth, he had decided what he would say—or, rather, be. He would say nothing and pretend he was deaf. That is how he acted, that is how he was thinking of himself, and that was how this family he had just passed should see him. There were two toddlers, both boys, and their mother and father, getting out of a car. He had tried to hurry past them, but he had discovered it was impossible; his legs would not accommodate his idea of hurrying, and instead he had to be satisfied with a shuffle.

He moved into the blocks of the city, to the skyscrapers, the corridors of shadows so cold, so mean. The sun was out near the water, but that was not where he could find anyone or anything that might warm him. He imagined he would find a church. That was what he was looking for—they allowed people inside, come what may, and he would sleep there, maybe under the altar, or maybe he would find a heavy silk robe in a back room and wrap himself in it, and a priest would happen on him. He was imagining the priest, kindly and old, a face that beamed and was mostly a face of love. How he needed such a face. As he was constructing its possibilities in his head, someone said “Brother.” And so did another one, this time emphatically: “Brother.” They were speaking Arabic to each other. He stopped. The two men, standing near a cart, a cart selling sweatshirts and mugs that said boston, kept talking. The conversation in his head went silent for the first time since he had said goodbye to his father.

Men who spoke Arabic. He had not anticipated anything even remotely this lucky. It was such a gift, such a wonder, that for a full ten seconds he stood rooted to the street, his coldness receding. It would not be good to be who he really was—that much was easy. Deafness, no, but perhaps down on his luck, unstable, if only slightly. He would not beg, no, something more permanent had to be gotten out of this marvel of two men speaking Arabic.

“Brother,” he said, and was surprised at the sound he made. It was a whisper. “Brother!” he shouted, producing only a speaking voice.

They did not hear him. But then, one of them saw him, out of one eye at an angle, and caught his breath.

The other man turned to see, and when he did, Aziz shouted again. “I am sick, help me! I have lost my home.” But when he looked at them, their faces were made entirely of fear, nothing else. He began to feel their fright welling up inside him and the urge to run was enormous, bigger than he could counter, and as he started, he fell, hard, on the pavement, scraping his bare palms, his elbow, reopening the thin scabs from wringing his ship’s uniform, succeeding in shielding only his cheeks and his eyes, from which tears as hot as tea were spilling.





They wanted to take him to a hospital, but he would not let them. So one of them took him to a mosque. He was Egyptian. He worked in a Radio Shack. He went into the mosque talking on his cell phone and came back with donated sweaters, pants, shoes, and a sparkling aquamarine ski jacket. Then he drove Aziz to an apartment in the suburbs, where a wife accepted him with no expression into a hallway with blush-colored broadloom stretching into rooms with white furniture.

The Egyptian took him to the bathroom, where there was a tub that was white, new, and clean. The man explained that there was hot water, right from this handle. Aziz’s parents did not have hot water. Water came in an urn, carried up the hill from the well that everyone shared, and he and his brothers had spent a good deal of their time working out who would be responsible for doing this and who would get excused from it. His mother could have never done it herself, nor would they have ever let her.

The man explained that this was a shower, and he wanted to say, Yes, I know what a shower is; my father managed a hotel for European tourists and I have seen them, I have used them, but he had decided that appearing to be meek and stupid was by far the better course. It also seemed clear that the man did not need to question him too closely to feel an obligation to help him, in however rote a fashion, and that he had little interest in pinning down whether Aziz had jumped off a boat or was a vagrant so imbecilic he could not remember how to bathe.

When the temperature was right, which the man was extremely concerned would be so, putting his hand in and out of the water and turning the handle by bits, he told Aziz to clean himself, to put on the mosque clothes, and that there would be a meal for him in the kitchen. And then he said, “Don’t worry,” and smiled an unaccountably radiant smile that Aziz was entirely unprepared for, and he dropped his head quickly because he did not want this man to see him cry again. When he looked up, the man was gone, the door had closed, and the room was filling with steam. A long high mirror over a pair of sinks was clouding. He walked to it. He looked. He saw a man he knew was himself—of course he knew that—but he was also stained and chapped, almost burned, but he had not been near a fire, he knew, he remembered he had not. He had lobster skin in places, a fearful red on his arms, and then when he looked his elbows were like the wattle of the young roosters his father kept in the back, a glistening crimson he had to keep rubbing the mirror with a towel to see.

He needed to rest on the floor. He could no longer stand. He was crying as quietly as he could, holding himself around his knees on a towel, trying not to spoil the white tile, but he gave up and pulled all the towels he saw in the bathroom down to the floor and lay there on them, watching the water rain in the tub.

He began unbuttoning his uniform, and then he tried to take off one of his socks, and there was his blistered foot, so gelatinous he gasped at the first tug, and then he was shaking. He was faint, and the vertiginous delay in his motions, the slowing of the sound of the shower, finally, finally scared him. He understood that realizing was what was making him weaker than he was. He had to pay attention; he must, above all else, after everything, not let his personhood disintegrate on this bathroom floor in this Egyptian’s apartment. This was what breakdowns were, he said in his own head, enunciating silently, precisely, the sound of his inside voice reminding him of how that voice had been with him in the hold and it was with him now. All a breakdown was was coming up to this kind of a situation, and instead of taking the other sock off the person began howling, or whimpering, or indulged in the real pleasure—for there was no other way to think of it—of feeling how wretched, how lost, how utterly unthinkable and mad everything in his life had been, culminating in a screaming he could not stop and the Egyptian bursting in, while down the hall his children hung anxiously on their playpen bars and the stolid wife pretended she was unconcerned, when inside she was screaming too, something like I am not able to go on, I cannot go on, I will not go on.

He pulled down the uniform and stepped out of it. Then he put one of the towels into the tub, because he did not want to see his clotted bits swirling on the white, and he didn’t want to slip. He put his hand into the rain of water, and it was hot, but not too hot, and the kindness of the Egyptian’s tinkering flooded through him, causing more tears. He put his foot into the tub and on the now-wet towel. He had to grab the side of the tub with his hand and the pain was fierce, but he was no longer shaking and he was only a little dizzy. He forced himself, slowly, because he did not want to shock his system—or he had an idea there might be such a danger after having been cold for so very long—and as he put his shoulder and his neck and part of his back into the falling water, he realized his back was not hurt at all, not the skin, only the muscles were terribly sore. The hot water began to loosen them. He kept his hands out of the water and pushed his head back into the shower and cried, cried and cried as the clarity of the warm sweet water seemed to wash into his brain, not just through his hair. He began to say an old prayer his mother had taught him, his first one. He said it over and over, like a song, while he took the soap and endured the sting it brought. He didn’t look down at what swirled away from the towel in the tub’s bottom. He just washed and washed and rinsed and rinsed. And when the water started to lose some of its warmth, he turned it off and wrapped the towels from off the floor around his head, and his back, and his legs, and he sat there, humming a little, until he heard the Egyptian tap on the door.


From the Hardcover edition.
Lorraine Adams|Author Q&A|Author Desktop

About Lorraine Adams

Lorraine Adams - Harbor

Photo © Mary Noble Ours

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.

Author Q&A

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.

Author Q&A

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.

—Lorraine Adams

Praise | Awards

Praise

"Captivating. . . . Intricately plotted and beautifully written. . . . A remarkable act of artistic empathy." --The New York Times Book Review"Luminous. . . . Heart-stopping. . . . Adams draws her characters with compassion and humor." --The Washington Post Book World “Razor-sharp. . . .  A vivid, fast-paced entry into an immigrant’s story that is part thriller, part social commentary and at times darkly funny. . . .Terrific.” –The Miami Herald “A great, gutsy first novel. . . . Outstanding.”–Entertainment Weekly Deeply introspective and tantalizingly beautiful. . . . Harbor is one of the best new novels of the year.”–The Baltimore Sun“Complex, vibrant, and imaginative . . . as compelling as it is necessary.”–Esquire"Endlessly fascinating. . . . Convincing and utterly compelling." --Time"Mesmerizing. . . . A ripping read. . . . A heart-rending cautionary tale of American justice gone awry." --Los Angeles Times Book Review“Remarkable . . . brilliant. . . . Compelling and haunting. . . . Adams creates an exquisite tension in a character who is at once unseen and yet hunted, both estranged from society and deeply enmeshed in a complicated social order. . . . [Harbor is] a work of art that lifts the veils of many of our assumptions that have formed since 9/11.” --Boston Globe"[A] great, gutsy first novel. . . . Outstanding." --Entertainment Weekly"Fascinating. . . . [Adams] writes convincingly from within the hearts and minds of her characters. Though topical, the narrative flies well beneath the headlines." --The Oregonian"A chilling story of identity and loss culled from real-life experiences. . . . A cautionary tale that asks readers to be open-minded. . . . [Adams] never loses sight of a story that alternates between incredible moments of joy and sadness." --Pittsburgh Tribune-Review "Insightful. . . . Adams adds welcome shading to the usual portrayal of the war on terror." --U.S. News & World Report “A disturbing tale where suspicion is enough to trump innocence and the consequences of naivet? are potentially disastrous. . . . Adams humanizes the terrorist threat and convincingly shows how a confined worldview can breed generalizations that may hatch tragic consequences." --San Francisco Chronicle“Brilliant. . . . A strong and disturbing book.” --Annie Proulx, Book-of-The Month Club News “Adams displays a gift for detail and character that takes us fully inside the complex systems of survival, kinship, and religious ideology which form Aziz’s world.” --The New Yorker“Adams is a sharp observer of the current war-on-terror politics. [Harbor] counters the media’s easy perceptions in our age of xenophobia by immersing readers in the depths of myriad characters.” --The Dallas Morning News"Mesmerizing. . . . A timely and grippingly written book, Harbor helps give the war on terror a human face." --People “Adams drags her characters through the wheels of fate and makes them sing . . . . [Her] sentences move with speed and visual economy, but also contain poetic beauties. . . . A compelling story with great characters--timely, suspenseful and profound.” --Ruminator Review“A powerful look at America through immigrant eyes that is not only timely but essential in our post-9/11 society.” --Ft. Worth Star-Telegram“[Adams] writes with verve and is so convincing that it often seems that this is a true story instead of fiction . . . A story about complex interaction between human beings of greatly differing cultures, written by an author of enormous talent.” --Deseret Morning News

Awards

WINNER Los Angeles Times Book Prizes
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Book

Los Angeles Times Book Prize Winner for First Fiction
A New York Times and Washington Post Notable Book and Entertainment Weekly’s #1 Fiction Book of the Year

“Captivating. . . . Intricately plotted and beautifully written. . . . A remarkable act of artistic empathy.” –The New York Times Book Review

The introduction, discussion questions, suggestions for further reading, and author biography that follow are designed to enhance your reading group’s discussion of Lorraine Adams’s provocative first novel, Harbor, a rich and moving portrait of Muslim Arab immigrant life in America that challenges some of our deepest and most conflicted emotions in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks.

About the Guide

The story centers on Algerian stowaway Aziz Arkoun, from his near-death arrival in frigid Boston harbor to his acclimation to life first in gritty East Boston and then in Brooklyn. Throughout the chronicle of Aziz’s confused and lonely years in America, Adams weaves an eerie account of his terror-filled past as a young soldier in the corrupt Algerian army in which he became a double agent and engaged in gruesome acts to survive. Horrific events forced Aziz to leave his beloved family in Algeria, and his experience in the army continues to haunt him in his new life in America. Once safely in East Boston, Aziz is taken in by his crooked childhood friend, Rafik, a fellow Algerian illegal alien. As they house other friends and stowaways escaping the brutal civil strife in Algeria, as well as Aziz’s educated brother, who is able to immigrate legally, their bond becomes stronger. However as he suspected all along, Aziz finds out that Rafik and a friend are involved in theft and drugs, among other criminal activities. When Aziz realizes that the U.S. government is onto them, his fate and the fate of his fellow Algerians takes unexpected twists and turns as Harbor reaches its astonishing conclusion.

About the Author

Lorraine Adams was educated at Princeton University and was a graduate fellow at Columbia University, where she received a master’s degree in literature. She won a Pulitzer Prize in 1992 for investigative reporting for The Dallas Morning News. She was a staff writer for The Washington Post for eleven years covering, among other things, the FBI. In 1999, Adams reported on the arrest of an Algerian in Canada, Abdel Ghani Meskini, and his involvement in a terrorist plot to detonate a car full of explosives at Los Angeles International Airport. Adams has also authored book reviews, among them, “Terrorism and the English Language” published in The Washington Monthly, September 2002. She lives in Manhattan and is at work on her second novel. Harbor was the recipient of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize.

Discussion Guides

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?

Suggested Readings

Debra J. Dickerson, An American Story; Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, The Unknown Errors of Our Lives; Andre Dubus III, House of Sand and Fog; Mark A. Gabriel, Ph.D., Islam and Terrorism: What the Quran Really Teaches About Christianity, Violence and the Goals of the Islamic Jihad; Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner; Yasmina Khadra, The Swallows of Kabul; Robert Malley, The Call from Algeria: Third Worldism, Revolution and the Turn to Islam; Frank McCourt, Angela’s Ashes; Philip Roth, The Plot Against America; Esmeralda Santiago, When I Was Puerto Rican; Zadie Smith, White Teeth; Amy Tan, The Joy-Luck Club.

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