English-speaking tourists in Egypt during the late 1870s were sure they understood the people amongst whom they moved: they and their society were summarily characterised in the handy pages of a Baedeker. “[Egyptians] occupy a much lower grade in the scale of civilisation than most of the western nations,” the guidebook explained, “and cupidity is one of their failings.” Pankaj Mishra pondered this passage in his From The Ruins of Empire (2012), a book whose central thesis is that “[a]ssumptions of Western supremacy remain entrenched even among intelligent people; indeed, they routinely dictate the writing of newspaper editorials as well as the making of foreign and economic policy in the United States and Europe” (p. 295). The signal failure of empathy at the heart of this catastrophic solipsism has wreaked great havoc upon the world, and upon the Arab world in particular.
The Egyptian-Canadian writer Omar El Akkad has attempted in American War to short-circuit this superiority complex, in an effort not just to depict the Arab experience under Western supremacy but better equip cosseted western readers to feel it. Born in Cairo and raised in Doha, El Akkad has as a reporter covered the war in Afghanistan and the Arab Spring, among other regional flashpoints. His debut novel, however, takes place in the United States of America up to one hundred years hence, following a devastating twenty-year civil war between a revanchist statelet comprised of South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi, and a rump federation shorn of large tracts of the south-west, which are now in turn sequestered by a resurgent Mexico. The events of the war—seen through the eyes of Sarat, an innocent child living in neutral territory at its start and an embittered and extreme insurrectionist by its close—are narrated by an historian of the period, following the discovery of a clutch of journals.
This might at first glance suggest that the novel is more usefully read against the recent rash of commentary around Confederate alternate histories. American War, however, is more centrally about those Arab countries which in El Akkad’s future have, following an event known as the Fifth Spring, finally come together in a great democratic union known as the Bouazizi Empire—and which now meddle in and destabilise the USA just as it once did to them. One character explains, late in the novel: “My people have created an empire. It is young now, but we intend it to be the most powerful empire in the world. For that to happen, other empires must fall” (p. 306). In other words, dear American reader: how do you like it?
This sort of table-turning is a pretty blunt way of encouraging cross-cultural discourse, but American War commits to it wholesale. In this future United States there are huge refugee camps and feared drone strikes, routine suicide bombings and constantly shifting territorial borders. Characters suffer amputations and head injuries, their houses are destroyed and bodies never found. This USA’s politics are unstable, its economy stagnant, its people itinerant. “Sometimes it seemed […] that there had never been a Union at all, that long ago some distinct erected or opportunistic party had drawn lines on a map where previously there were none, and in the process created a single country fashioned from many different countries” (p. 18). What’s American for “Sykes-Picot”?
In 2075, a year into a civil war sparked by the assassination of a President seeking to impose anti-fossil fuel laws on the gas-guzzling south, Sarat and her family, the Chestnuts, flee what they fear are advancing soldiers in their home state of Louisiana. They manage to bribe local representatives of the Free Southern States to ferry them to a refugee camp designed for the many displaced persons now fleeing a war- and climate change-ravaged south, and here—in one of the novel’s many ellipses—they spend six long years. The refugee camp, of course, is a place of radicalisation: young men join gangs bent on rebellion, while Sarat meets a shadowy recruiter by the name of Albert Gaines. Beyond the walls of the refugee camp lie nativist troops eyeing the interlopers with suspicion, and regular military units guarding the borders with trigger-happy enthusiasm.
It is in Sarat’s conversations with Gaines that the novel finds some of its most subtle passages. Gaines’s words are juxtaposed with those of a Union politician, quoted in one of the many inter-chapters which pose as documents from the period and act as elegant infodumps of contextual knowledge. Where the Union man writes that it is impossible to convince a fighter in a war that their side is wrong, Gaines insists Northerners “use words like democracy and freedom and equality and the whole time you and they know that the meaning of these words change by the day” (p. 142); where the politician tries to weave a narrative of mutual destiny, Gaines dismisses the war as “just a bunch of young men killing young men on the orders of old men” (p. 136). In its own way, either story is convincing in context; yet both men are shown to be wrong, and ultimately equally self-serving; Sarat might have chosen to follow either and still ended her life broken. “This isn’t a story about war,” the narrator tells us early on. “It’s a story about ruin” (p. 6).
The problem with this fatalism is that it comes to infect the narrative. There is, of course, a massacre at the camp: the military allow the nativist thugs free rein one night, and Sarat loses much of her family. Gaines arranges for her to be set up as an agitator and gun-runner further south, and, ultimately, she is imprisoned by the Union. In the torture scenes that follow, El Akkad turns out some of his finest prose. “There was no lie too big,” he writes of Sarat’s water-boarding, “that her fear of drowning couldn’t make it true” (p. 257). There are no heroes in this story; Sarat is brutalised to the extent that even the principles that initially drive her violence evaporate away. “Fuck the South and everything it stands for,” she spits, as she troops off to attack the North (p. 313). There are no heroes … and there is no cause.
This nihilism can be tough to swallow, as can El Akkad’s strange decision to make enemy manipulators of the Arabian union comprised of the descendants of those people for whom he presumably wishes his contemporary readers to develop empathy. Likewise, the absence of race from the mindsets of his Americans feels a curious oversight—is he really suggesting that in less than sixty years a civil war might be fought in the USA in which race has no purchase whatsoever? At times like this, El Akkad’s future strains to stretch between the various points of his elaborate analogy. When the revolution which gave birth to the Bouazizi Empire is described as a time when Arabs “forced out the Kings and forced out the generals and formed a republic” (p. 138), isn’t El Akkad simply trying too hard to craft exact equivalence? Do the parallels need to be this stark, the detail this whittled down to essentials so bare that they lack the conviction of granular detail, in order to make their point?
In this year’s Exit West, the Pakistani novelist Mohsin Hamid created a nameless city—which might be Raqqa, or Mosul, or Cairo, or Atlanta—and took a pair of refugee protagonists through a series of magic doors to a future America. The conceit of the doors allowed him to de-emphasise the trauma of transit—often the focus in novels of migration—and instead dwell on issues of place, belonging and identity not so different to those more viscerally depicted in American War. But Exit West, despite its often fairy-tale tone, is in fact often much more particular than El Akkad’s novel. Here’s Hamid’s civil war, this one in London:
The operation to clear the migrant ghetto in which Saeed and Nadia found themselves began badly, with a police officer shot in the leg within seconds as his unit moved into an occupied cinema near Marble Arch, and then the flat sounds of a firefight commenced, coming from there but also from elsewhere, growing and growing, all around, and Saeed, who was caught in the open, ran back to the house, and found the heavy front door locked shut, and he banged on it until it opened, Nadia yanking him in and slamming it behind him. (Exit West, pp. 159-60)
And here’s his future USA:
Marin was overwhelmingly poor, all the more so in comparison to the sparkling affluence of San Francisco. But there was nonetheless a spirit of at least intermittent optimism that refused entirely to die in Marin, perhaps because Marin was less violent than most of the places its resident had fled, or because of the view, it position on the edge of a continent, overlooking the world’s widest ocean, or because of the mix of its people, or its proximity to that realm of giddy technology that stretched down the bay liked a bent thumb […] (Exit West, pp. 192-3)
There is something in Hamid’s quieter prose, his moments and vignettes, both more intimate and somehow more universal, more open and alive, than there is in El Akkad’s melodrama. In entirely eschewing analogy, and in painting his future history so sparingly, Hamid somehow manages to convince more completely than El Akkad’s South Carolina Quarantine Zone, or the maps which open his novel with an attempt at an approximation of Floridaless sea levels, seem to manage. The danger of handing one’s fiction over to one’s analogue is that the reader begins to feel claustrophobic.
Indeed, American War is at its weakest in its pacing: because El Akkad covers twenty years in 300ish fast-moving pages, we are often treated to lines such as, “this was their first meeting since she’d shot the general at Halfway Branch five months earlier” (p. 228). Likewise, sections of the novel are uneven in length and incident—the chapters in the refugee camp are allowed to dilate, but those set a few years later in Sarat’s insurrectionist Georgia rush by, full of new characters and situations introduced often with a single line of dialogue. American War surely began as a simple idea: the young girl we meet in the first of the novel’s two best-written sections—its earliest, set in the swamps of Louisiana—becomes the tortured rebel warrior of its second stand-out element. The rest of the novel feels like connective tissue, an attenuated explanation and explication, for that juxtaposition.
This is a noble project. Its story is unremittingly grim—fittingly, given that its aim is to allow its assumed western readers to understand better events and situations they will often otherwise see only on the nightly news. It does this by transplanting them to towns with familiar names, amongst people whom claim a shared nationhood. The novel’s adolescent central character, its transparent prose style, and its practically post-apocalyptic setting also encode it in many ways as YA, and the novel can further be read as a sort of educational tool, a learning of a world. But like many a debut novel, American War sometimes doesn’t seem quite sure which techniques are best deployed to achieve these effects.
In discussing recent texts to review in this Strange Horizons special, my editing colleagues in the Reviews department agonised a little about the preponderance of diasporic writers in our longlist. American War, with its North America-based writer and setting, felt in some ways like an imperfect choice. But it’s science fiction is of the most pungent kind, and many western readers may not for some time have easier access to a work of science fiction by an Arab writer than this novel, which has been accompanied by a significant PR push from its prominent publisher, Picador. American War is, too, an important, urgent, and engaging read—it is a future history that memorably revivifies an American past to depict, in a posited American future, the reality of the present Arab experience. Few endeavours could at this particular moment seem of more crucial importance than to teach the west that it is not exceptional, and should abandon its old assumptions. If it occasionally creaks under the strain of this ambitious undertaking, which novel, precisely, would not?
In 1863, the British aristocrat Lady Duff Cooper, presumably leaving her Baedeker at home, opined that, “I have been really amazed at several instances of the English fanaticism this year. Why do people come to a Muslim country with such a bitter hatred in their stomachs?” American War brings the “Muslim country” to the English-speaking world—and its readers, in the course of making their way through it, will almost inevitably come to understand and question bitter hatreds of many kinds more closely. Most novels, however well written, have achieved far less.