A Terrorist Comes of Age in El Akkad’s Poignant–and Chilling–American War

Omar El Akkad

Set 50-plus years in the future, Omar El Akkad‘s debut novel American War (Knopf, 2017) has been widely praised, becoming one of those rare books with science fiction themes to make numerous mainstream publications’ Best Books of the Year lists. It was, for example, among the 100 Most Notable Books in The New York Times, the Best Books of 2017 in GQ, and was the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s top pick for Canadian fiction.

I was thrilled that El Akkad accepted my invitation to appear on New Books in Science Fiction. (Listen to the interview). It’s a wonderful book–lyrical, imaginative, and, as a terrorist’s coming-of-age story, acutely relevant to today.

El Akkad was born in Cairo, Egypt, grew up in Qatar, eventually moved to Canada, and now lives in Oregon. He has worked as a journalist, covering everything from the Arab Spring to the Black Lives Matter movement. He also spent two years covering the terrorism trials of the Toronto 18, which gave him insight into how young minds are radicalized and provided partial inspiration for his depiction of American War’s protagonist, Sarat Chestnut.

We meet Sarat when she’s an appealing, headstrong six-year-old and follow her, via El Akkad’s nuanced writing, as she grows up in a refugee camp, sees her family destroyed, and is groomed to commit acts of terror. Ultimately, she plays a pivotal role in the outcome of the Second American Civil War, and yet, in a reflection of the true-to-life nature of El Akkad’s storytelling, her motives aren’t the black-and-white of Hollywood, but remain murky.

Despite the book’s title, El Akkad told me that he doesn’t feel he’s writing about America. “To me if was never a book about America but about the universality of revenge… That any of us subjected to the injustice of being on the losing end of war, being on the losing end of violence, break down the same way and become damaged the same way and become wrathful the same way. The book is set in an allegorical America.”

Man on Tracks

The crowd is mesmerized by a man on the subway tracks.

Last night I, my husband and our friends had one of those strange yet eerily familiar moments that seem typical of life in New York City where drama unfolds unexpectedly in front of you and yet at (what feels like) a safe distance.

We’d just stepped onto the subway platform at 34th Street and Broadway when a woman ran to the emergency phone near us and began pressing the call button in a panic. Others began shouting at the clerk in her bulletproof booth, and the rest of the crowd was leaning over the edge of the platform, peering toward the far end of the tracks.

“What happened?” my husband asked the woman on the phone. “There’s a guy on the tracks,” she blurted, panting with panic. I assumed the man must have fallen or was pushed. My next thought was he might be suicidal. As we drifted with the crowd toward him, we realized he must be either drunk and/or mentally ill. Although dressed like an ordinary citizen of New York, only someone whose thinking was impaired would act as he did: as if he were simply going for a stroll on the narrow wooden platform over the deadly third rail.

People screamed when it appeared he might topple and some were offering their hands to help lift him back onto the platform. I wondered why the Transit Authority didn’t shut the power, although I imagined it was probably a complicated process. (A question for officials: shouldn’t a simple on-off switch be accessible in emergencies?) Others were mumbling “Where are the police? What’s taking them so long?” A local train and an express train pulled partly into the station, inching along until they came to full stops.

For 15 minutes, the man was the star of a scary show, the focus of the crowd’s collective panic, voyeurism and agitation. Of course, everyone was snapping pictures and taking video (myself included) which seemed both awful and like a perfectly natural thing to do. When the police finally arrived, I’m told (because I stopped looking, fearing the man’s dance on the 3rd rail could only end in tragedy) that they simply grabbed him and pulled him back onto the platform.

I’m sure there’s a lesson in this, but I’m not sure what it is. (That one man has the power to stop two trains?) At least I was happy that the police took decisive action and encouraged that the crowd, rather than demonstrate indifference, showed concern and offered to help, even as we took out our smart phones and documented this strange sad moment from many angles.