With his debut novel American War (2017), Egyptian-born writer Omar El Akkad achieved what only perhaps Waguih Ghali (1930-1969) managed to pull off before him with his cult novel Beer in the Snooker Club (1964). The two highly successful novels present a rare balancing act between Egypt on one hand and the United States and Britain on the other, respectively. Both are written in the English language, primarily for an international audience or a hybrid generation, influenced by both cultures alike. Like Ghali, Akkad wrote a quintessentially Arabic novel set in a Western country.
American War is a futuristic dystopian novel that envisions a brutal civil war raging in the US from 2074 until 2095, between “the mighty North” and the “brittle” southern states. The war, which claims millions of lives, is being fueled by the North African Bouazizi: an empire of Arab states with Cairo as its capital, which used to be the backyard of US foreign policy. After the “Fifth Revolution,” however, these “failed” states united and brought down their respective fascist governments.
The protagonist is a young female Southern fighter called Sarat, who is driven by vengeance and the loss of her kin to wage a futile war against the North. It took me almost sixty pages to get into the novel, after which it was difficult to put down, as Sarat’s painful transition from an innocent refugee to the US’ fiercest fighter left me transfixed.
When I interviewed Akkad, who lives with his family in Portland, Oregon, I pointed out how much the setting of American War reminded of the current conflicts in the Middle East, mainly in Syria, but also in Iraq and even South Sudan. The influx of refugees from the South to the North in the novel, who end up living in dismal camps, seemed very close to the current flow of migrants and refugees from the Middle East and North Africa to Europe and the US.
In this conversation, Akkad discusses the inspiration behind his novel, his memories as a correspondent covering the war in Afghanistan, and how power dynamics figure both in war zones and in the publishing industry.
Sherif Abdel Samad: In American War, even European migrants are seeking refuge in the much more prosperous Bouazizi Empire, which sends aid and donations to the US. Given the current refugee crisis, I kept thinking to myself as I read, that with this novel you turned the table and said: Look, this could happen to you. At the same time, the scenario you devised is not so far-fetched. After all, less than two centuries ago, an actual civil war raged between the north and south of the US. There is a very memorable line in the novel: “What was safety, anyway, but the sound of a bomb falling on someone else’s home?” In another line, the agent from Bouazizi says that “everyone is fighting an American War.”
Omar El Akkad: When you live in the West as I do, you can’t imagine how easy it is sometimes to just ignore people on the other side of the planet. You become negligent to their suffering. I was really dumbfounded sometimes at how they can be regarded as strange, exotic creatures.
Ten years ago, I remember I was watching an interview on a US news channel with an American foreign affairs expert, commenting on the protests in Afghanistan against the presence of US troops. The question the moderator put to the expert was the typical, “why do they hate us so much?”
Imagine what he answered. He said that the hate stems from the fact that US troops have to scout Afghan villages to hunt down terrorists. Often, they storm into houses and hold women and children at gunpoint, which Afghans consider offensive. I thought to myself, who would not consider these drastic measures offensive? One of the reasons that drove me to write this book was my belief that we are not that different when it comes to injustice. There is a universal reaction to injustice.
I thought to myself, who would not consider these drastic measures offensive? One of the reasons that drove me to write this book was my belief that we are not that different when it comes to injustice. There is a universal reaction to injustice.
The funny thing, though, is that many Western readers perceived my novel as dealing with the current state of affairs in the US, but I actually finished the novel before Donald Trump had come to power. Very few get the references to the Middle East; American War is considered by most as a predominantly American novel.
Yet, you see, my book has bits and pieces of the Middle East everywhere. Camp Patience, for example, where Sarat flees to, is modeled after Sabra and Shatila. The internally displaced Southerners who still preserve the keys to their houses and cannot go back is something I witnessed with my Palestinian friends.
In a way, I am from there — the Middle East — but I am living in North America. It was quite natural for me to reverse the situation. Otherwise, my book would never have been read in the US.
SAS: You worked for some time as a war reporter for Canadian newspapers in the Middle East. You witnessed war firsthand in Afghanistan. How did this experience shape you as a person? And what drove you to abandon the comfort and luxury of living in Canada and travel to troubled areas on the other side of the world?
OEA: I started out as a journalist right after college. I was 23 at the time and had always wanted to be a foreign correspondent. I wanted to unveil stories that were underrepresented in the media. Especially war stories. And I thought if I didn’t do it, then no one else would cover those stories the way I would. So I was pushing for a foreign desk job as soon as I was hired. Canada was involved in the war in Afghanistan.
Naturally, all the newspapers had reporters there. I was 25 years old when I traveled to Kandahar with a Hemingway-esque vision and a zest to write about life and death. Yet it took me no time to discover that there was nothing heroic or romantic about it. Although I witnessed the horrors of fighting, it was not what stuck with me throughout my stay.
I was 25 years old when I traveled to Kandahar with a Hemingway-esque vision and a zest to write about life and death. Yet it took me no time to discover that there was nothing heroic or romantic about it. Although I witnessed the horrors of fighting, it was not what stuck with me throughout my stay.
One of the first discrepancies about war which I learned early on was how discriminatory security practices were on a NATO field in Kandahar. The base was heavily protected by NATO troops of course, equipped with the most modern weapons and artillery. The gates and the highway leading to the base, on the other hand, were protected by Afghan soldiers, who had very modest weapons, and were constantly struck by suicide bombers. Although they were both fighting on the same side, and in the end the Afghan troops were protecting NATO, there was a discrepancy in how they were armed. That stuck.
SAS: I found the notion of place and home pivotal in the book. At the beginning, it seemed to me that the protagonists were mainly fighting for a geographical entity, be it the North or South. Yet as the war rages on and the South becomes fragmented into factions that fight each other, reminiscent to me of the conflict in Syria, the hero shifts her loyalties to her kin, and becomes driven by her sole aim of vengeance. I am not sure how many American readers understood the significance of the Ahly baseball caps and Orascom T-shirts Southern children wear, donated to them by the Bouazizi Empire. Sarat — whose name sounds Arabic to me by the way — (Akkad laughs over the phone) starts out as a patriot, fighting for the South, but ends up fighting for herself alone. What do place and belonging mean to you in American War?
OEA: It is true. The heart of the book is about the meaning of place. It is of personal importance to me as well. It starts with your name and how it changes (he pronounces his name, Omar Mohamed El Akkad, first in Arabic, then in the distorted way it is pronounced in North America).
I am definitely Egyptian, but I left Egypt as a child and spent 11 years with my parents in Qatar. Of course I do not feel Qatari. When we moved to Canada I was 16 years old. Now I live in the US, but I do not consider myself American.
I read many Arabic authors for a time. Yet I always resisted Arab culture, even though I loved it, as I had trouble separating the countries from the governments, which I despise, as they are responsible for torture and forced disappearances.
My book is about what happens when someone is stripped of their place. The protagonist is removed from her place at the beginning of the book. The South is not really about the US, as many perceived it over here. It is about when someone does not know where they belong. Sarat has a sense of place, and it is taken from her. In the end, she decides only to help the people who did not hurt her. This book is as American as the film Casablanca is Moroccan. I chose an American setting for an Arab story. Americans are not used to that. But If I had called it “Middle Eastern War,” it would have never been picked up.
This book is as American as the film Casablanca is Moroccan. I chose an American setting for an Arab story. Americans are not used to that. But If I had called it “Middle Eastern War,” it would have never been picked up.
SAS: American War is primarily a war novel. War affects the smallest details in the lives of the protagonists. It even changes the sexual act, which comes to revolve more around pain than pleasure. Also, each of the characters has been crippled spiritually, mentally or physically by the fighting. Of course war is destructive. But what was war like to you?
OEA: There were two sides to the war in Afghanistan. First is the side I expected, which you see in the movies, where you are being fired at for example. A few days after my arrival in Afghanistan, our convoy was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade. We had to duck, keep our heads down and remain on the ground. Despite the horrors of this experience, I had somehow expected it. I kind of wanted that excitement. In hindsight, however, that was the least interesting aspect.
What stuck with me more was, for example, the money market in Kabul. Locals trying to get their money out of the country, giving it to people to smuggle out to Dubai. (The novel contains a similar setting, where Southerners entrust Sarat’s family with their money.)
What also touched me was meeting the Afghan translators who accompanied the American soldiers. They were not given any armor, only a uniform with the name “Joe” on it. (In the novel, there is a pivotal agent from the Bouazizi Empire called Joe.) It was a dangerous job of course. All they wanted was a reference letter from the troops to get a visa to the US. But they would never get it.
I had prepared myself for the endless misery that ensues when drones hit a wedding and kill dozens of innocent people, for instance, but not the voicelessness; the inability to have a say over what is happening in your life. What it means if you are twenty-five years old and all you have ever known is war. Almost all the people I met there had no control over their lives. This is why people are driven to boats in the sea. This stayed with me.
SAS: You covered the January 25 revolution in Egypt. How was that like for you, returning to your country of origin?
OEA: A few months before the Arab Spring, my father sadly passed away. He was an Egyptian down to his bones. He knew everything about the culture and the people, marinated through and through in Egypt. Yet he had to leave his country in the 1980s, as he could not find a decent job. He went to Qatar instead. If we had not moved for the prospect of a better life, I would probably still be in Egypt right now.
My father died from a heart attack on a cruise in Italy where he was on vacation with my mother. His wish was to be buried in Cairo. So I flew over to Italy to accompany my mother and my father’s body to Cairo, and right at the airport I had what you could describe as a truly Egyptian experience. The female clerk at Cairo airport refused to allow the my father’s coffin in because we didn’t have the necessary papers. So my cousin spoke to the clerk, and told her, “Look, these are Egyptians, and all they want is to bury their father in his home country, so please be good and let them through.” The clerk just looked at us, and then let us pass. To me, this can only happen in Egypt.
A few months after we buried my father, the Arab Spring happened. I wish my father had been alive to witness it. I had given up on Egypt; to me it was like a failed state. I was thirty two at the time and had only known one president. I allowed myself hope and felt extremely proud. I felt like I never had in my entire life, and then had my heart broken a few years later.
I don’t know how I feel toward Egypt as a country now. I am very reluctant to feel hopeful again. But it meant a lot to me me when I was writing the book, creating a similar scenario like the Arab Spring, adapting it to a fictional failed state, this time the US.
SAS: Your book has been translated into German and Arabic. French and other languages might soon follow. It was hailed by the American press as a major success. And yet, your novel is about the Arab World. Does it matter to you to be read in your country of origin? And how was it reading your own writing in your parents’ mother tongue?
OEA: From a personal standpoint, it is more important to me that American War is read in Egypt. The Arabic translation was produced by United Arab Emirates publishing house Kalimat in November 2017, because they had ties to my American publisher and were the first to express interest in the translation.
It was very important to me that it was translated by an Egyptian, though, which it was. I do not think it will be a huge hit in the Middle East, given the way I portray Arab regimes in the book. Yet anyone reading the book in Egypt for me is hugely important, even if it is just a single person. Egypt is in my blood, and it will always be in my blood. I am always drawn back to the place where my parents are from.
Of course it was amazing to hold the book in Arabic in my hands. I had to order it through Amazon. I have lots of Arabic books and I try to read them but my Arabic is that of a five year old, really. I have spoken more Arabic in this conversation than all of last year.
(He laughs. During our conversation, Akkad switches a few times to Arabic, but then swiftly picks up in English again, although I detect no accent or weakness in his Arabic.)
SAS: My last question for you is typical: What are you working on right now?
OEA: I have already started on my next book and hopefully it will see the light, inshallah. I spent a lot of time researching. But it has not been easy, since I have been on a book tour for American War the past eleven months.
The book I am working on now is very close to my heart. Yet I am not sure at all if it will sell. It is not set in the US. I have taken a comforting, popular European fairytale and appropriated it, using it to tell quite a different story. It’s not a science fiction or dystopian book like American War, and it might not be as successful. I guess I got lucky there.
SAS: Well, I think it’s a lot more than luck that made it succeed. Thank you very much for this interview.