A sense of necessity drew Omar El Akkad to war reporting, until another sense of necessity compelled him to write his stunning debut novel, American War.
For 10 years El Akkad led a double life, working as an international war reporter for Canada’s The Globe and Mail and writing fiction between midnight and 5:00 a.m., squeezing in sleep here and there. The grueling schedule allowed him to write three draft novels that never left his hard drive, but his fourth, American War, is not only being published by Knopf, and agented by a Toronto literary agent, but creating significant and well-deserved buzz by fervent evangelists.

El Akkad’s future dystopian tale begins in 2075 during the second American Civil War, in which Red and Blue states clash over the need for sustainable energy. Climate change has wreaked havoc, with water swallowing Washington, D.C., and Florida, while a new Middle Eastern and North African superpower has emerged: the Bouazizi Empire.

To keep track of all of this devastation and conflict, the author peppered his upstairs office walls with invented maps, timelines and drawings.
“I didn’t get many visitors up there, but the ones who did visit certainly had a few questions about what the hell was going on in that room,” he remembers.
Occasionally, during moments of early morning fog, El Akkad himself momentarily confused fact and fiction. “I’d be groggy because I was up until 5:00 writing,” he says, “and I would mention something stupid and have to catch myself and say nope, South Carolina still exists. Not a real thing.”
Born in Egypt, raised in Qatar and Canada, El Akkad now writes fiction full time from the home he shares with his American wife near Portland, Oregon. In a multitude of ways, he seems uniquely qualified to have written this remarkable novel.
American War chronicles the life of Sarat Chestnut, who metamorphoses from an inquisitive 6-year-old living with her family in a shipping container in Louisiana into a radicalized, head-shaven warrior on the prowl in the refugee camp where she and her family end up. El Akkad peppers his page-turning narrative with short excerpts from history books, eyewitness accounts and other imagined documents.
“[Their inclusion] started as a bit of a crutch,” El Akkad admits. “I didn’t think I had the talent to tell the kind of story that I wanted without making it horribly clunky. So I would write the main narrative and then dream up a document that I thought would be left as sort of an archival echo of what had happened. As I progressed, I found that [these documents] had added an element of texture that I didn’t anticipate.”
Although set in America, Sarat’s riveting story in many ways transcends politics, with details so impeccable and a plot so tightly woven that the events indeed feel factual. How, I wondered, did El Akkad pull off this feat?
“The short answer is outright thievery,” he says, laughing. “I stole much of it from my experiences growing up in the Middle East and also from my experiences as a journalist.”
After moving with his parents from Egypt to Qatar at age 5, and from Qatar to Canada at age 16, El Akkad finished high school in Montreal and studied computer science at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. “I can’t program my way out of a paper bag for reasons that still baffle me,” he admits, “but I earned a computer science degree.”
His real passion, however, was the college newspaper, where he spent most of his time. Later, at The Globe and Mail, he covered the war in Afghanistan, military trials at Guantánamo Bay, the Arab Spring protests in Egypt, the Black Lives Matter movement in Ferguson, Missouri, and the effects of climate change in places like Florida and Louisiana.
“A lot of the world of the book is based on the things I saw while on those assignments,” El Akkad says. “I like to say that a lot of what happened in this book happened; it just happened to people far away.”
He points out that Camp Patience, the refugee camp where Sarat’s family lives, is modeled on the NATO airfield in Kandahar, Afghanistan, and on Guantánamo Bay. “A lot of tents in wartime look exactly the same,” he notes.
The journalist was drawn to war reporting after reading Dispatches, Michael Herr’s classic account of frontline reporting on the Vietnam War. “It seemed to me that war zones combine the ability to write stories that otherwise wouldn’t be told with a sense of necessity—the idea that wars are among the most significant things we do as human beings and deserve the most coverage.”
On the front lines of Afghanistan in 2007, El Akkad discovered that the adrenaline rush he anticipated never materialized—even though he was in the line of fire during nightly RPG attacks.
“I never got that sort of strange Hemingway-like fascination with the kinetics of war,” he explains. “I was mostly interested in its effects on the losing side, the way that it moved the losing side backward in time.” In Afghanistan he saw people living in mud huts that “you wouldn’t be particularly surprised to see Jesus walk out of.”
The tragedies he witnessed as a reporter ultimately drew him back to his first love, fiction. He had no intention of writing a political future dystopian tale; that’s simply what unfolded.
“It’s called American War,” he says of the novel, “but I never intended to write a book about America or war; I intended to write a book about the universality of revenge. I wanted to explore the idea that when people are broken by war, broken by injustice, broken by mistreatment, they become broken in the same way.”
He continues: “The notion was to take all of these wars that I’d grown up seeing—the Israeli-­Palestinian conflict, the wars on terror, even cultural events like the Arab Spring—and recast them as something very direct and near to America. The idea being to explore this notion that if it had been you, you’d have done no different.”
This article was originally published in the April 2017 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.



Portlander Omar El Akkad’s Debut Novel Is a Dystopian, Antiwar Tale

Drones. Eco-crisis. Civil strife. American War owes more than a little to the present day.

Omar El Akkad, an award-winning journalist born in Egypt and raised in Qatar, has filed dispatches from Afghanistan, the military trials at Guantánamo Bay, the Arab Spring revolution in Egypt, and the Black Lives Matter movement in Ferguson, Missouri.
Now living in Portland, El Akkad turns to fiction with American War, a dystopian tale that begins in 2075.
El Akkad’s debut novel features disaffected Southern states that secede after a ban on fossil fuels, amid rising sea levels. The author says he hopes it’s an antiwar book. 
Why did you decide to overlay North-South historical tensions with our accelerating environmental calamity and an imagined future energy crisis?
I went looking for an analogy to the cause of the first Civil War. I knew I wouldn’t find anything that compares with the sheer human cruelty of slavery. But as something many people are happy to accept today because it makes life easier and powers a massive commercial empire, fossil fuel seemed a fitting analog.
The book does contain disturbingly familiar trappings—combat drones, suicide bombings, and a Guantanamo-esque base. What happens when all this moves to US soil?
I knew from the beginning that the only way to write the novel I wanted to write was to take the conflicts the United States has been involved in, indirectly or from a great distance, and recast them as elements of something immediate. I think a lot about a news interview I saw a few years ago with a foreign policy expert discussing how American soldiers conduct nighttime raids in Afghanistan—they often barge into villagers’ homes and hold women and children at gunpoint. In Afghan culture, the expert helpfully noted, this sort of thing is considered offensive—as if there exists a single culture on earth that wouldn’t consider this sort of thing offensive. That’s why I had to bring these things here. Most everything in this book is based on something that really happened. It just happened to someone voiceless, someone very far away. 
Your protagonist, Sarat, becomes radicalized over the course of the book. Do you think your novel’s depiction of an America rent by war might restrain readers flirting with zealotry in today’s politically charged atmosphere?
I hope so, but I doubt it. My intent was to show that there exists no such thing as a “foreign” kind of suffering. Regardless of ethnicity or culture or religion, war makes us all angry and bitter and vengeful in the same way. The story of Sarat’s transition from a curious, loving young girl to an instrument of violence is, in my mind, the story of how all forms of weaponized hatred end up creating more of the evil they claim to oppose. But will anyone read my novel and decide to change course? I honestly don’t know. I hope I’ve written an antiwar novel, and I hope it resonates.
No foreign kind of suffering—is that what one character means by saying “the misery of war represented the world’s only truly universal language”?
That is the closest thing to a thesis statement in the whole book. I don’t care where you’re from, nobody reacts any differently to a bomb falling on their house. The privilege to believe otherwise is just that—privilege.


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