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Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

This is a great book, and you should read it. Egyptian-born, US-based debut novelist Omar El Akkad has written a dystopian, futuristic nightmare that contains elements all too familiar from today’s breaking news headlines: drone strikes and refugee camps, border walls and biological weapons, global warming and crumbling infrastructure. What makes El Akkad’s vision compelling is that in his hellish future, the agent of these horrors — the United States — has stopped exporting them to other nations. Instead, the US has turned them on itself.

In the year 2076, four of America’s southern states hold a second secession, prompted in part by dwindling fossil fuels and the environmental catastrophe that their unregulated use has brought about. Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina are subsequently drone-struck and subjected to biological attack, resulting in massive casualties and internal civilian displacement into a series of poorly-funded refugee camps along the north-south border. Only international relief efforts keep mass starvation at bay, spearheaded by a resurgent caliphate, the Bouazizi Empire, which stretches across North Africa into the wastelands of the once-prosperous Middle East. Oil revenues have long since dried up, yet this pan-Arab state remains prosperous enough to send relief supplies to American rebels fighting against the governmental regime.

What prevents this harrowing and gripping novel from being just a clever Sunday-supplement think piece is the focus that El Akkad places on the human characters caught up in the nightmare scenario. It’s easy enough to draw parallels between, say, fictional refugees from Alabama living in camps along the Tennessee border, and real-world Palestinians sweating their lives away in Jordanian camps — but drawing clever connections is no substitute for the novelist’s heavy lifting of telling a compelling story that readers will care about.

A debut novel that seemingly transposes current global events to a dystopian American future is much more than a political parable

El Akkad accomplishes this goal through the character of Sarat, a young girl who, at the start of the novel, lives through hardship, displacement, violence and indoctrination, until she finally proves herself capable of appalling acts of violence. Again, it is easy to focus on the bigger picture here — anybody can be driven to terrible actions, if they are treated badly enough for a long enough time; just look at Iraq/Syria/Palestine/Afghanistan! — but again, that misses the point. Sarat is not some stand-in for war victims. She is a very specific person: a girl named “Sara” who misheard her name early on and never bothered to correct herself; a tomboy with a stubborn streak but a soft spot for her twin sister.

When her refugee camp floods and precious, irreplaceable items get carried into the tide, Sarat organises her friends to locate them and return them to their owners. That is the girl who lies at the heart of this novel, not some generic militant-in-training.

Aside from Sarat, author El Akkad retains reader interest by employing a deft touch with language to evoke a melancholy more often associated with war and hardship than with, say, life in suburban US. Surveying the ruined landscape of America, the narrator highlights “the entrails of that long-subsumed world and the futile efforts to preserve it: thin strips of asphalt that disappeared at high tide, ghost towns propped on man-made hills, crumbling bridges that nosedived into the water… these things stood as ruins and like all ruins were in their own way grotesque, a transgression against the passage of time.”

Elsewhere, a character’s state of mind is powerfully conveyed: “Rage wrapped itself around her like a tourniquet, keeping her alive even as it condemned a part of her to atrophy.” And later: “She soon learned that to survive atrocity is to be made an honorary consul to a republic of pain.”

Scattered throughout the book’s chapters lie snippets of extra-textual information: history lessons and biographical sketches, official reports, unclassified government documents, interviews with veterans and so forth. These interludes provide important background information as well as adding a sense of verisimilitude to the proceedings; just as important, they diversify the narrative voice in a story that starts out grim and becomes progressively grimmer. Some of these chapters serve to foreshadow events in the story as well, adding to the sinking feeling in the reader’s stomach.

In the end, though, this is Sarat’s story first and foremost. As she grows from girl to teenager to young woman, her journey takes her down progressively more painful avenues, and her final destination begins to feel inevitable. It’s a story that is all too familiar in much of the world outside the US, but that seems to be the point El Akkad is making. As another character realises midway through the novel: “The universal slogan of war, she’d learned, was simple: If it had been you, you’d have done no different.”

The reviewer is the author of five novels, including
The Preservationist and Fallen

American War
By Omar El Akkad
Knopf, US
ISBN: 978-0451493583

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, June 18th, 2017