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Harborby Lorraine Adams
Author Q & A
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.
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?
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 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?
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?
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.)
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?
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