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, but creating significant and well-deserved buzz.
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 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.
Author photo by Michael Lionstar.