No More Utopias: American War by Omar El Akkad
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In 2015 Omar El Akkad, a journalist at the Toronto Globe and Mail, departed from his usual reporting on Guantanamo Bay military trials, the NATO-led war in Afghanistan and a 2006 terror plot in Canada—an investigative piece that earned him a National Newspaper Award—and wrote an opinion piece. In it he warned against, “a lumping in of the victims of terrorists and the perpetrators of terrorists,” by two-dozen U.S. state governors refusing to accept Syrian refugees after the coordinated terrorist attacks in Paris, a move that “was also wrong as a counter-terrorism measure because it gives the Islamic State exactly what they want.”
Op Ed pieces are a form of writing El Akkad admittedly doesn’t do, according to his interviews from the time. In his debut novel American War, the journalist has again left investigative reporting for a different kind of writing with much the same aim, to warn against a future where a targeted group of people is forced towards the only option allowed open to them—extremism and violence. On many levels the novel is an impressive allegory of the events taking place the Middle East and the experience facing Muslims in North America and Europe, except that in American War El Akkad’s disaffected characters are white southern Americans.
El Akkad, who was born in Cairo, grew up in Doha and moved to Canada, sets his novel in 2075, when parts of the continental US have been decimated by climate change and are already under water. The country’s southwest has become a protectorate of Mexico—something that Trump might not envision. A second American civil war is ravaging the country, with Columbus, Ohio as the capital of “the Blues” in the north. The “Red” South, which adhered to fossil fuels against the North and the wider world’s push into new technologies of, in the words of the author, “the sun, the wind and the spitting and crashing of atoms,” is another cause for deep divisions. Like the first civil war, the South is losing and under blockade, with much of its food and illegal fuel smuggled in by China and the Bouazizi Empire, a coalition of dishonest Middle Eastern states, which, like the US in Iraq, have been working towards the destruction of a country, culture and economy.
The novel’s structure is noteworthy. Benjamin Chestnut, an orphan and a member of the “Miraculous Generation,” is the book’s erstwhile narrator. A survivor of the “Reunification Plague,” in one of the only disease-free places, New Anchorage, Alaska, he eventually becomes a scholar of the second civil war. The novel’s “fictional” chapters are interrupted by one or two-page official government reports, archival journalism accounts, oral histories, unclassified and redacted documents – all from Benjamin Chestnut’s research (similar to the false leads El Akkad said he waded through when he was doing his own research and reporting about Afghanistan.) Benjamin’s true involvement in what soon becomes a family epic as sprawling as Gone with the Wind is only revealed towards the book’s end.
The anti-hero at the heart of American War is Benjamin’s aunt Sarat, the tomboy opposite to her twin sister Dana who likes make-up and gussying up. After their father is killed seeking a permit to move his family safely to the north, the sisters, their brother and mother end up as refugees in the Patience Refugee Camp. American War is particularly strong on two aspects of Sarat’s transformation into a killing machine. The first is the “education” she undergoes by a mysterious camp elder, who offers perks to the then young woman in the camp, a quiet room to think in, rare books to read and a secret history to learn. To him, Sarat was ideal material because she was “truculent,” and difficult to convince. However once she witnesses a massacre in the camp and the wounding of her brother, a rebel fighter left with half a mind, her need for vengeance is clear. These grooming sequences feel intimate and as real as accounts published in the New York Times about jihadi groomers in Birmingham, UK, striking up close relationships with the feeble-minded in the American Midwest.
For the second, Al Akkad draws on his journalist’s eye for details following Sarat’s capture by northern authorities. She is water-boarded and held in solitary confinement such as the prisoners he wrote about, in Guantanamo Bay. The writing is dramatic and chilling and reminiscent of the artful photographs of Edmund Clark, one of the few photographers allowed inside the detention camp.
The inability of the Blues in American War to know exactly who they have in custody, and Sarat’s sudden release also ring true. By the time she meets her nephew Benjamin, her body is deeply scarred and her mind so disturbed that she will betray him and the rest of her family. It was the juxtaposition of childhood innocence and her own malicious intent that kept me rereading the last quarter of the book, “IV January, 2095 Lincolnton, Georgia.”
In these days of climate change, fear of bots and artificial intelligence and the unstoppable rise of authoritarian regimes there has been a resurgence in the selling of dystopian science fiction, according to BBC News’ Brian Wheeler. His list hilariously includes Trump’s own Art of the Deal alongside It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis; Orwell’s 1984, Huxley’s Brave New World and Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. While much of late has been made about “Arab science fiction,” that genre poorly characterizes American War because of the novel’s subject matter. Also, in his recent interviews, El Akkad openly describes himself as a not particularly observant Muslim but one who identifies with Canadian culture. What the writing and publication of his book does show, it will be a long time before the dystopian stories of our times—Arab or otherwise—are replaced by utopian ones filled with hopeful promise.