Lorraine Adams


(Reviewed by Sudheer Apte OCT 12, 2004)


The protagonist, Abdelaziz "Aziz" Arkoun, is a young Arab man from Arzew, a small coastal town in Algeria. Escaping the civil war, he arrives in 2000 in Boston as an illegal stowaway on a tanker, suffering terrible privation and second-degree burns, and jumps into the cold waters of Boston harbor. There, he joins a small community of fellow expatriates who have come similarly before him, living five to a dingy apartment and doing odd jobs.

Aziz's mentor Rafik, who shares his apartment with Aziz, is originally from his Algerian town. Rafik's apartment is also shared with his American girlfriend and with other assorted Algerian refugees, who mostly sleep on the floor of the leaky apartment.

Rafik is a slick operator; Aziz knows that "three-quarters of what Rafik told him was false." Rafik's associate Kamal from South Boston, who has lived for some years in Paris, is a crook. Rafik also has several other shady associates who fly to Tunisia, Germany, and other places, and there are stolen cameras, lighters, and other items that are kept in a storage facility in Everett.

Aziz and the others deliver pizzas, work menial jobs in restaurants, and eke out a living. They slowly learn the basics and start to assimilate. They go about their lives, working hard, smoking Marlboros, and trying to meet women at nightclubs. They often get into intense conversations about the sorry state of their home country and how Algerians have screwed it up, and speaking contemptuously of jihadis as "mosque heads." Slowly we learn of Aziz's own traumatic experiences in the army, and how he ended up deserting it and landed into the full horror perpetrated by Algeria's Islamist groups as well as by the military.

Having established our sympathy for Aziz and his fellow illegal aliens, Adams next develops the case of the FBI and police who are watching them in their hunt for terrorists. As the investigators tap phones and obtain translations through their bureaucracy, they stumble on unfamiliar names, puzzle over village ties, and misunderstand straightforward relationships. As they coordinate activities with other agencies and develop detailed, colored diagrams linking the various suspects together, we quickly realize how wrong their conclusions are. Adams, who won a Pulitzer prize for her Washington Post reporting on similar FBI anti-terrorism investigations before 9/11, shows us how well-intentioned American surveillance agents, who don't understand the language or culture of their subjects, can hopelessly bungle their investigation. Ultimately, the guilty go free while the hapless innocents are arrested and either imprisoned or deported.

In this first novel, Adams lets us identify very powerfully with the Algerian immigrants. She lends us a sympathetic hand and leads us into their minds. Aziz not only has no English; he is also bewildered by the culture and mannerisms he sees around him. He is confused by the casual, ironic affect of people, of "this way that Americans had, of being soft but hard; nothing difficult, nothing easy; nothing good, nothing bad. It was a way of being that Aziz had no words for yet." (He later learns that the term for it is "matter-of-fact.")

Gradually as we come to know Aziz, we come to understand him. This feat of empathy that Adams has accomplished is an important antidote for Americans' post-9/11 fear, which is based mostly on ignorance about people who are not like us. When you can identify with strangers, your knowledge drives fear away. The FBI special agent leading the investigation, once she gets a chance to eavesdrop on an English-language conversation, realizes too late that the people she has been watching care for each other in a way one would expect: that they are, in fact, just regular people looking for safe harbor.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 50 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from Harbor at RandomHouse.com

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About the Author:

Lorraine AdamsLorraine 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 for investigative reporting and was a staff writer for the Washington Post for eleven years. She lives in Washington, D.C., and is at work on her second novel.

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