“All foreigners and beggars come from Zeus, and any kindness is a blessing. So give the stranger food and drink, and wash him down in the river, sheltered from the wind.”
Homer, The Odyssey
“Our torments also in length of time may become our elements.”
Milton, Paradise Lost
I first learned of the novelist Omar El Akkad from an interview he did of with Aryeh Cohen-Wade on Bloggingheads. What struck me then was the obvious humanity of the author. El Akkad seemed to exude empathy, perhaps the most essential skill for anyone who wants to depict human lives in fiction. It was this that led me to pick up his dystopian novel American War. I was not disappointed, for what I found there wasn’t just a novelist skilled at depicting the inner life of his characters, but an author capable of placing an entire society into the desperate shoes of another, showing us what it might mean if the tragic reality we now sees as mere pixels on a screen was instead our own.
American War tells the story of a young girl named Sarat, a strange, curious child, a refugee who becomes transformed by the horrors of war into a vehicle for almost nihilistic revenge.
The novel is set in the latter half of our own century. It is a world where the United States has been ecologically, geographically and politically transformed by climate change. Where the Civil War is replayed (with the protagonists largely the same) only this time over the question of fossil fuels- the North fighting to ban their use and the South fighting to retain them.
El Akkad’s genius lies in deftly rearranging history’s deckchairs. Instead of the US (to disastrous results) engaging in the internal conflicts of a divided and far-off Middle East, he gives us a bloodily divided America whose civil war is compounded by the interference of a united and powerful Arab state known as the Bouazizi Empire. It is an Empire which mirrors the West’s own moral ambiguity today. With the Red Crescent being a vital lifeline for Americans devastated by war, while at the same time some of its political players aiming to preserve the American’s divisions by helping the bloodletting continue.
Of course, in a world devastated by climate change the living conditions of the Arab world have changed radically as well. In El Akkad’s telling the Bouazizi have responded to these changes through a series of political revolutions which brought their formerly divided peoples into a single state, along with a technological revolution driven by the region’s abundant solar energy that power vast air-conditioned cities nestled deep under the boiling sand.
In American War Americans do to each other what we have done to foreigners over the long course of our “war on terror”. Whole families are killed by robotic “birds” which roam the skies and strike without warning or reason. The moral friction that might challenge such actions lubricated away by the compensation of victims. Like many of America’s captives in the years that initially followed 9-11, Sarat is waterboarded and force fed rectally, prevented from sleeping, chained in place, stripped of her humanity.
In an interview different from the one I mentioned earlier El Akkad said he wanted to show us the effects of our actions stripped of the distance of orientalism. Those whose lands we fight in and occupy are just like us and their reactions- including their mass flight to safety- make sense only when we realize this. That Americans have learned nothing from even our most recent history is obvious when it comes the current US supported war in Yemen and in our conception and barbaric treatment of refugees fleeing the broken states of central America whose breakdown we had a large part in creating.
Yet what makes American War a great novel is that El Akkad refuses to turn his victims into heroes. Sarat is ruined rather than ennobled by her suffering, and though there are times where she brushes close to redemption, she is ultimately overcome by the desire for revenge. American War is thus closer to Greek Tragedy and especially the Oresteia than a dystopian fable like The Hunger Games whose -savior rising from the outcast- optimism has obvious Christian roots.
How many Sarats have we created and continue to create? It is not just a matter of spreading the desire for violent revenge through wars or our failure to respond humanely to those fleeing to us for safety, but a question of wasted potential. What might a mind like Sarat provided a proper education and safety have done for humanity? And even ignoring such utilitarian reasoning, what might the richness of a soul like hers have brought to the world had that soul been truly cared for? The real world, right now, is filled with anywhere from 25-50 million potential Sarats.
The current stage of the refugee crisis appears to have peaked, but this is likely a mere prelude to later in the century when million more will be driven from their homes by rising seas and spreading deserts. Even in light of refugee flows leveling off the cruel response of the Europe today is to pay autocracies to keep them, and to set up camps beyond its shoes, while the even crueler response of the US is to separate parents from children and lock them in cages.
If I was struck by El Akkad’s humanity in his interviews and novel I was equally struck by the humanity of Ai Weiwei the dissident Chinese artist in his documentary on the refugee crisis Human Flow. While American War aims to inspire empathy with refugees by putting us in their place, Human Flow pursues the same goal by letting us directly experience their world.
Human Flow is a stunning film where the editing is the commentary. Through it we experience harrowing journeys at sea, the stifling of human potential in the camps and political prisons such as Gaza, the overland flight of whole villages who having been thrown outside of the infrastructure of civilization and are reduced to a state of permanent camping. These refugees are like time travelers trapped between the past and the future who are blocked from moving forward by barbed wire, police, and human prejudice.
American War and Human Flow offer us a kind of education in the experience of exile and the compassion needed to confront it. Sadly, it’s a lesson we couldn’t learn soon enough.