Extremist Futures : Throughline It's 2074 and a suicide bomber has killed the President of the United States. Months later Marines open fire on protesters killing dozens. The Second American Civil War has just begun and once again the North and South are pitted against each other. This is all according to the dystopian world chronicled in Omar El Akkad's novel, American War. El Akkad's imagined, yet familiar, world is reflective of today's deep political and societal fissures, but it also pushes us to understand the universal language of war and ruin, to what happens after the violence begins and why it's so hard to end.

In this episode of Throughline, we immerse ourselves in El Akkad's 'what could be' to understand larger questions about history, humanity, and American exceptionalism.

Extremist Futures

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DION GRAHAM: (Reading) First shots of Civil War. At least 59 killed, more than 200 injured as Fort Jackson protests erupt in bloodshed.


GRAHAM: (Reading) Marking what many believe is the Columbus government's first assault in an all-out war on the opposition states.

(Reading) This is a direct statement from the federal government that if you disagree with the Sustainable Future Act or any decision made in Columbus, you are the enemy and must be destroyed.


GRAHAM: (Reading) Witnesses described a scene of carnage following the shooting, with several lifeless bodies lining the roadway and pools of blood clearly visible around them. A soldier inside Fort Jackson who was not among the guards stationed at Gate 2 said at least one of the protesters near the front of the demonstration fired a pistol at a chain and lock that held part of the temporary fence in place. Many demonstrators dispute that account, saying the Marines were not provoked in any way.

(Reading) This isn't only about secession anymore. This is about avenging our debt.


The first shots in the second American Civil War are fired on March 15, 2074.



At least that's what happens in the world imagined by reporter and author Omar El Akkad in his futuristic book, "American War." You'll be hearing excerpts from the audiobook like the one you just heard throughout this episode.

OMAR EL AKKAD: "American War" is a novel that is based largely in the South of the United States, in three states in particular - Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, takes place about 50 years from now. The United States of that time is a very different place. Geographically, it has changed in many, many cataclysmic ways. The eastern seaboard is largely underwater. Florida is gone. And long after it would do any good, the federal government decides to impose a prohibition on fossil fuels. By this point, most of the world has moved on to other sources of fuel. Nonetheless, a number of Southern states decide that they would rather secede than go along with this. What follows is a second Civil War, the kinetic part of which is over very quickly. The South loses again. And then there's a years-long insurgency.

ABDELFATAH: Most of the book takes place during that insurgency. The main character, Sarat Chestnut, is just 6 years old when we meet her, and she lives in the South on the wrong side of the war, where the smell of burning gasoline is celebrated and bombs fall randomly from the sky.

ARABLOUEI: Just a quick warning. We will be giving away some spoilers here.

ABDELFATAH: Over the next two decades, the conflict wrecks Sarat's life and radicalizes her. And by the time the two sides reach a peace, it's too late for Sarat. Full of rage and scarred by unspeakable trauma, she ultimately becomes an agent of death and destruction.

EL AKKAD: It's a novel about how damage begets damage.

ABDELFATAH: And about why people are pushed to extremes.

ARABLOUEI: We first started talking about this book when we were preparing for our episode about whether our U.S., the real one, could be on the brink of another civil war.


ANNE APPLEBAUM: It might not have one side in blue and one side in gray fighting on a field somewhere, but it may feel to a lot of people like a violent conflict.

ABDELFATAH: The fictional world laid out in "American War" shows one version of that future. When I read it, I couldn't stop thinking about it.

ARABLOUEI: Because even as Sarat perpetrates incredible violence, Omar never lets us forget the child we first meet.

EL AKKAD: Sarat is someone I dearly love, even though by the end I don't like her. Of all the characters I've ever written, she's the one who stays in my head the most. She's a deeply polarizing human being, but I would hope that people at least understand how she ends up in the place where she ends up. That that doesn't just happen in a vacuum. I was reading this essay on Dostoevsky a while back that mentioned in passing that the word empathy in the English language is fairly young. I think it's only about a hundred years old and it comes from the German einfuhlung, which I think I'm horribly mispronouncing. But the original German means literally to feel into. And that's generally, I think, as good a description of the purpose of literature in general as you're likely to find. You read to feel into another.

ABDELFATAH: I'm Rund Abdelfatah.

ARABLOUEI: I'm Ramtin Arablouei.

ABDELFATAH: And today, we want to dwell a little longer in Omar El Akkad's imagined America to try and see ourselves more clearly by looking back from the future.


BILAL ABATTARI: Hey. This is Bilal Abattari (ph) from Baton Rouge, La., and you're listening to THROUGHLINE on NPR.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Part I - someone else's table.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Millions of Americans live on a coast, but a new report says sea levels could rise as much as a foot within 30 years.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Historical coastal communities all along the Louisiana coastline are literally disappearing.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: I wonder if they are aware that what they are doing is building in the future Atlantis and that the whole thing is going to get flooded.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: As the East Coast recovers from a weekend of severe flooding out west in California, firefighters are battling several deadly wildfires.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I love my trucks. I'm not giving up my trucks.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #5: Would you go electric if you can get an electric truck?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I won't be alive long enough to go electric. I'll be gassing it right up to the end.


GRAHAM: (Reading) I was happy then. The sun broke through a pilgrimage of clouds and cast its unblinking eye upon the Mississippi Sea. The coastal waters were brown and still. The sea's mouth opened wide over ruined marshland, and every year grew wider. The water picking away at the silt and sand and the clay until the old riverside plantations and plastics factories and marine railways became unstable. Before the buildings slid into the water for good, they were stripped of their usable parts by the Delta's last holdout residents. The water swallowed the land. To the southeast, the once glorious city of New Orleans became a well within the walls of its levees. The baptismal rites of a new America.

A little girl, 6 years old, sat on the porch of her family's home under a clapboard awning. She held a plastic container of honey, which was made in the shape of a bear. From the top of its head, golden liquid slid out under the cheap, pine floorboard. The girl poured the honey into the wood's deep knots and watched the serpentine manner in which the liquid took to the contours of its new surroundings. This is her earliest memory. The moment she begins.


ARABLOUEI: This is how we first meet Sarat Chestnut, Omar El Akkad's main character in his novel "American War," a child born in a future America that's been deeply shaped by our real-life past.

ABDELFATAH: So much of what you're describing about this kind of futuristic world you've constructed in this, you know, in this novel is really about the past. And maybe that's how all sci-fi works actually operate, you know. They're actually operating in the realm of the past and the present more than they are the future.

EL AKKAD: I wasn't interested in writing a futuristic book, and you're one of the few people to talk to me about that. Usually, I get the opposite. I get angry letters from readers who picked it up and saw 2075 and expected sort of hover cars. And instead, they're getting a version of the topography that feels like it's actually dated relative to the present moment, because that's one of the things that happens when your society is subjected to warfare. It's akin to moving backwards in time.

ARABLOUEI: Omar is intimately familiar with this type of time travel. Forced to leave Egypt as a child, he grew up in Qatar before living in Canada and now the U.S. And for nearly two decades, he was a reporter covering the war on terror, the war in Iraq and Afghanistan and the Arab Spring. And all of it, his life and work, informed the book "American War."


GEORGE W BUSH: Americans are asking, why do they hate us? They hate what they see right here in this chamber, a democratically elected government. Their leaders are self-appointed. They hate our freedoms - our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other.

EL AKKAD: So the closest thing I have to a genesis moment for when I started thinking about this book was many years ago, early into the sort of NATO invasion of Afghanistan.


BUSH: Every nation in every region now has a decision to make. Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists.

EL AKKAD: The early days of the war on terror, for me at least, was defined by two sort of load-bearing beams. One was this imposition of a kind of moral binary best defined by George W. Bush saying, you're either with us or you're with the terrorists, right? There was this notion of clean dividing lines that were supposed to split the world in half.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Non-English language spoken).


UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Down, down America.

EL AKKAD: I was watching this interview and it was taking place in the immediate aftermath of these protests. Afghan villagers were protesting against the U.S. military presence. And the question that was put to this gentleman was something like, why do they hate us so much? And as part of his answer, he noted that sometimes the special forces have to go into these villages and conduct nighttime raids looking for insurgents, and that when they do this, they will quite often ransack the houses or hold the women and children at gunpoint. And then he very helpfully added, and, you know, in Afghan culture, that sort of thing is considered very offensive. And I thought, you know, name me one culture on Earth that wouldn't consider this offensive, right?

And that's when I started thinking about this notion of taking the hallmarks of the conflicts that have defined the world in my lifetime and recasting them as close to home as I could think - the point being to sort of advocate this idea that there's no such thing as an exotic form of suffering. You know, if you think of any James Bond movie or Jason Bourne movie that you've ever seen, there's always a scene on a Caribbean island or a car chase through a Moroccan bazaar, and it's fully understood that the place is scenery. The place is the table, and the tablecloth being laid on top of it is somebody else's story. And all I wanted to do was turn the United States into the table.

ARABLOUEI: "American War" draws extensively from both Omar's own reporting and real-world archival oral histories, articles and speeches. Deployed in the novel's fictional America, these documents put recent real-life events in a new light. They swap the table. For example, here's the fictional speech that the president of the Bouazizi Union - an imagined federation of Arab countries - delivers at Ohio State University in 2081.


GRAHAM: (Reading) The government of the Bouazizi Union has no desire to impose its will on the affairs of any other nation. I believe we are all in agreement that the end of the troubles your country faces will come at the hands of the people who call this country home - nobody else.

ARABLOUEI: And here's President Obama's actual 2009 speech in Cairo.


BARACK OBAMA: Today, America has a dual responsibility - to help Iraq forge a better future and to leave Iraq to Iraqis.


GRAHAM: (Reading) That all reasonable people of the world, regardless of race or ethnicity or religion, yearn for the same right to liberty, democracy and self-determination.


OBAMA: Principles of justice and progress, tolerance and the dignity of all human beings.


GRAHAM: (Reading) We are, all of us on this earth, drawn instinctively to peace. And I believe peace will prevail. Thank you, and God bless America.


OBAMA: The people of the world can live together in peace. We know that is God's vision. Now, that must be our work here on Earth. Thank you. And may God's peace be upon you.


OBAMA: Thank you very much. Thank you.

ABDELFATAH: There is these little clues throughout the book where this - you know, this fictional future that you've invented in the contours of your imagination, as you described it - right? - it is continually sort of, like, poking at parts of our reality or invoking small pieces of it in a way that I think is helpful in drawing kind of this parallel that you're describing - this kind of bigger parallel. And one of those other little kind of clues or just provocative sort of, like, you know, allusions back to our actual reality, is the name of the empire - the Bouazizi Empire - which, immediately - like, if you know the Arab Spring and the story of the Arab Spring, you know that Mohamed Bouazizi (ph) was the vendor who set himself on fire and basically began - set off the Arab Spring. And in the book - I would love if you could just describe sort of why you decided to go with that name and what the empire in the book represents and how it's relating to the Arab Spring, if at all, in your mind - the Arab Spring as it exists in our reality.

EL AKKAD: Yeah. So the Bouazizi Empire is this thing that runs across North Africa and into the Middle East. And it's basically the new sort of rising superpower in the world. Now, parts of the Middle East are compromised, I guess would be the word. So, you know, the place where Saudi Arabia currently is is just a bunch of solar panels. It's too hot to live there now, but they're generating energy that way, which obviously is a sort of beat-you-over-the-head metaphor, I suppose. But it's this kind of new, emerging superpower. And in this process, a lot of what this empire is now doing is sort of passively sabotaging its rivals. So the United States is caught up in this civil war, and it's not like the Bouazizi Empire is actively engaged in it, but they are sort of tipping the scale a little bit.

ABDELFATAH: For the book's main character, Sarat, this geopolitical chess is in the background. She's radicalized by her own day-to-day reality.

ARABLOUEI: Coming up, we talk to Omar El Akkad about what it means to be ripped away from one's history and place and the damage that can cause.


BRETT: Hi, this is Brett (ph), a permaculturist from beautiful Willamette Valley in the Pacific Northwest, and you're listening to THROUGHLINE.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Part II - euphemistic fraudulence.


EL AKKAD: So the year before I was born, the president of Egypt was assassinated.


DOREEN KAYS: The mood in Egypt tonight remains one of shock as the country begins 40 days of official mourning.

EL AKKAD: And Egypt, which has never been a particularly free place in my lifetime, fell under a particularly oppressive form of martial law. You know, at certain points, you weren't allowed to be out at night. Anyone who's ever been to Cairo will tell you that that's a city that functions pretty well exclusively at night. But it was a very oppressive atmosphere. And my dad, who was working as an accountant at the time, you know, one night he's leaving the hotel, and because he works as an accountant in a hotel, he's technically part of the tourism industry, so he's allowed to be out at night. He has a special pass. And he's walking home one night, and there's these two soldiers on a street corner, these two kids, you know, and they're bored. They got nothing better to do. So they decide to give him a hard time. So one of them stops him and says, show me your papers. So my dad takes out his ID, hands it to a soldier...


EL AKKAD: ...Who rips it up without looking at it and says, show me your papers. And it becomes clear that things aren't going to go well at that point. And he was very fortunate in that his boss was walking out of the hotel shortly after him and happened to be friends with that soldier. And so he got out that night. But I think that was the straw that broke the camel's back for my dad, who loved Egypt. I mean, he marinated in that place. He really, really loved that place, and nonetheless, he had to get the hell out. And so he found a job in Libya of all places.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Non-English language spoken).


EL AKKAD: So we're at the airport in Libya. I think around then I was maybe 3 or 4 years old. And the way Arabic names work is my name - my middle name is my father's first name. His middle name is his father's first name - so on, so forth. So my father's name is Mohamed Ahmed El Akkad. So Mohamed Ahmed happens to be an incredibly common combination of names in the Arab world. Turns out somebody on the terrorism watchlist has the same name.


EL AKKAD: We're taken into secondary. We miss the flight. The job offer is revoked. And by chance, he finds a job a little while later in Qatar, little peninsula sticking out of Saudi Arabia, which ends up being the richest country in the world, pound for pound. And so I end up growing up in there instead of Libya because of a coin toss at an airport.

So the reason that I bring all of this up is because I write about people who are unanchored. I write about that sense of not having a place to call home or a set of stories to call home because fiction is one of those places where you get to move the contours of the invented world to fit your own experience. And because I've never had a particularly good answer to that question - where are you from? - it seemed like an incredibly welcoming place for me. And a big part of that means writing about luck, writing about the things that have influenced the reason I sound the way I do, the reason I have this accent, basically the entire trajectory of my life. And all of these are things that I had almost nothing to do with. Because of that coin flip in the airport, my entire life changed. And that kind of - that sense of being unanchored and being the product of pretty well chance is a central theme in my writing.


ABDELFATAH: I mean, I've had that conversation with my dad where he said - he's like, you know, when they went to Saudi, you know, life was just not great there as a kind of Palestinian refugee. And so he was like, we either - we're going to go to the U.S., or we're going to go back to Jordan. And he's like, we made the decision to go to the U.S., and, like, it's probably why I have this show and why - you know? But that was a decision made long before I had the ability to make decisions, really.

So that's really powerful because you're a fiction writer now, but before that, you were a journalist, and it's probably something that you've encountered many, many times in your work as a journalist - I know I have - where you see that the forces kind of shaping people's lives are often - it's often an illusion of control, but it's often many, many different things that are kind of colliding to get people, you know, in a - you know, for example, you know, a person in a town in Ukraine to leave their home, the forces that led to that moment are so far beyond kind of any one decision that they made.

EL AKKAD: I think we all have the sort of fundamental desire to have some say over the things we do and the things that are done to us. And people go to some very bad places when that sense of agency is taken away. And so Sarat is constantly dealing with this. She's forced to move from the only home she's ever known, and then she's forced into this place that is essentially a refugee camp but, in the way that when you're a child any place becomes home, becomes home for her, and then she's forced from there. And every time this happens, it's a reminder that you don't have say, that you don't have agency, and that takes her to places that I don't think she would have gone otherwise.


GRAHAM: (Reading) Does your family still have many old things? He asked Sarat. Things from before the war? Not really, Sarat said. We used to have a few of my grandparents' things back home, photos and a wristwatch and a couple of letters, but we left most of them behind when we came here. That's a shame, isn't it? The first thing they try to take from you is your history. A soft, stringed lament silenced their conversation.


GRAHAM: (Reading) The room filled with music. "Son qual stanco pellegrino," Gaines said. Every night was different. Sometimes they discussed the natural world - a textbook spread open on the table before them, full of pictures of all the plants and animals that didn't survive the planet's warming. Most often, they talked about the way things used to be. He fed her the old mythology of our people. The South of Spanish moss and palmetto fronds. Of magnolia trees dressed up in leaves of history and history's stepsister, apocrypha. Of unmatched generosity and jubilant excess of whole pigs smoked whole days, and of peaches and pecans and key lime pie. She gorged on it all, delighted not only that such a world existed but that she held to it some ancestral claim. How much of it was real and how much pleasant fantasy didn't matter. She believed every word.

ARABLOUEI: Looking for a sense of wholeness, a sense of purpose, is what makes Omar's main character in "American War," Sarat Chestnut, so susceptible to Albert Gaines. He's charming and empathetic, and his mission is to radicalize people for the Southern cause.

EL AKKAD: And the thing about Albert Gaines is that he's a liar. He's a - he lies left, right and center to get what he wants. But he does it in a pretty convincing way. You know, I remember growing up around kids in Qatar. Qatar is 90% non-Qatari, or at least was when I was there. Ninety percent of the population has come from somewhere else and - to cash in on the oil and gas money. So my friends were from everywhere, you know? And you'd meet kids whose sense of home was a bunch of stories. And even at a young age, an understanding that chances are, they will never get to attach those stories to a geography. You know, maybe their grandparents walk around with keys on necklaces or they have deeds to homes that have long since been bulldozed. But the act of transmitting the story is the final act of resistance. So Sarat shows up and she meets this mentor figure, Albert Gaines. She's never had this kind of mentor before, and he senses immediately that there's a negative space where he can put these stories. And that in doing so, he can fulfill something that she doesn't even know she needs.

ABDELFATAH: Why did you decide to sort of hone in on sort of this one family and on this one teenage girl, really, as she's encountering these - as we were talking about before, these kind of, like, forces beyond her control that really take her down a path that I'm sure she wouldn't have predicted for herself?

EL AKKAD: Yeah, I mean, a lot of the book, for me, is about everything but the finish line. You know, 9/11 basically coincided with my adulthood. I was 19 when it happened. And so for years and years, you're watching this interpretation of the other that is based exclusively on the finish line. You know, somebody blows themselves up or does something horrific and it's presented as an encapsulated thing. That's all that happened was that event. And it's a very dangerous thing to look at everything that led up to that event, how that person became the kind of evil they are at the finish line. And so that's what this novel is about, in large part, is the rest of the race leading up to the finish line.

When we first meet Sarat, she is a fundamentally good and decent human being, and she's trusting, she believes, what people tell her about the world. And the more damage to which she is subjected, the more that circle of trust closes in until finally, all that it encompasses is just her own sense of revenge. You know, there's a lot of people who, when subjected to damage, will respond with love. And I would hope that there are more people in the world who are like that than not. But this is a novel about what happens when somebody is subjected to damage and then becomes damaging, themselves. And that's what the arc of Sarat's life is.


GRAHAM: (Reading) A faint evening rain fell over Camp Patience. Back in Sarat's childhood home, the rain used to make a sharp sound as it hit the shipping container's roof. But here in the camp, it was a whispered admonition, a soft shh against the tattered tents. Sarat listened. She lay in her cot. Her mother and sister asleep nearby. Through the window flap, a soft line of silver moonlight illuminated her sleeping sister's face.

EL AKKAD: Towards the middle of the book, there's a section that takes place in this refugee camp for displaced Southerners. It's called Camp Patience. And so, you know, you have Camp Patience. The Arabic word for patience is sabra. Sabra and Shatila. That's sort of the reference, right?


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #6: This morning, bodies were found throughout Sabra, the largest Palestinian refugee camp in west Beirut.

EL AKKAD: And the events in Camp Patience, particularly the end of that section, is based very much on a massacre that took place in a Palestinian refugee camp called Sabra and Shatila.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #6: The killings apparently began last night. Some had been machine gun. Others shot in the head. A family was murdered and pushed into a pile of rubble.

EL AKKAD: To the point where some of the dialogue in that section is from witness accounts of what happened there.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: (Through interpreter) They left us on the ground like this. No one looked at us.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: There was this line, you're on this pathway. And one of the women had an infant in her hands. And she tried to give this infant to one of the doctors and the Phalange said, no, you can't take this baby.


GRAHAM: (Reading) The first weeks after the massacre at Patience had been the darkest. The house they were given as blood money felt alien. Every night, the sisters slept together in a room, fully lit, the windows sealed shut with boards. For the first few nights, Dana could not sleep. She lay frozen by Sarat's side, certain that the men who'd taken their mother and brother would return to take them, too. And on the fifth day, when the Free Southerners came from the hospital and brought with them a living shell of the brother both Sarat and Dana thought was dead, Dana screamed because, in a way, the massacre was now unending.


EL AKKAD: And so whenever I would do book clubs in the U.S., almost all the time I would get the question about why that section was so brutal and why that section - you know, couldn't you tone it down a little bit? And I would explain, like, look; I understand, but I was referencing something, and that tether is short, and I wanted to reference the thing that had happened, and the thing that had happened was bloody. And then I did a book club, a virtual book club with an Egyptian reading group that had gotten the reference almost immediately. And the first question they asked was, well, if this is based on Sabra and Shatila, why did you tone it down so much? So, you know, the prism through which they were reading that book was entirely different. And that's one of the things I've had to come to terms with, with "American War," is that depending on your orientation in the world, that novel reads very, very differently.

ARABLOUEI: After the massacre on Camp Patience, Sarat becomes a sniper for the South and is ultimately captured by the North and held for years at a place called Sugarloaf, which is based on Guantanamo Bay.


GRAHAM: (Reading) Excerpted from the Civil War Archive Project. Sugarloaf Detainee Letters. Cleared, unclassified. Dear - redacted. I received your letter in February - redacted - from the - redacted - humanitarian team delivered it to me. As usual - redacted - read it first. So I don't know if I got the whole thing. But I'm grateful to - redacted, redacted, redacted, redacted, redacted, redacted, redacted...

EL AKKAD: A lot of the book is about the physical layer of violence of wartime, and I think these source documents show you some of the other layers that hold up the physical violence layer - euphemistic violence, linguistic violence, a kind of euphemistic fraudulence to the world. You know, I remember once being in Guantanamo Bay, and we were touring - I think it was Camp Four, which is the medium-security prison down there. And at one point, I ask the soldier giving us the tour - I say, so when do the prisoners - and as soon as I get to that word, prisoners, he stops me, and he says, we don't have prisoners here, sir; we have detainees. There were no interrogations in Guantanamo Bay. Of course there were interrogations. People were interrogated left, right and center. But they never called it that. They called it reservations. Detainee 8632 has an 8:30 p.m. reservation.

If you exist in that environment, you have to believe that the people in these cages and the people to which you are doing these things are monsters because something monstrous is already happening, and if they're not the monsters, then you are. Somebody has to be a monster in this equation. And I was thinking about sort of what being on the other side of that equation would do to a person. You know, I had to research waterboarding for this novel, and that's an incredibly horrific thing to go through. It's a horrific thing to watch. And you get people who will tell you whatever the hell you want to hear to have it stop. So Sarat is this person who is deeply aware of who she is. She's very, very strong. And in this place, she is broken, and she is turned into whatever they need her to be just to make all of this stop.


ARABLOUEI: Coming up, we talk with Omar El Akkad about the current moment and what happens when we can't agree on a shared truth.


RIANNA: Hi, this is Rianna (ph) from Austin, Texas. I am very grateful for NPR's history podcast, THROUGHLINE. You know, a podcast that talks about the liminal space between past and present makes my heart so happy. So thank you so much, NPR.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: Part III - What it Means to See.


GRAHAM: (Reading) An oral history of the reunification talks. David Castro, Peace Office Senior Negotiator, 2089-2095. I remember the day their delegation came up from Atlanta. We spent six months preparing for it, so that by the time negotiations started, we had thousands of pages of notes on every conceivable topic. We had a little agenda ready for them with a few proposed starting points to kick off the negotiations. But I still remember the very first day, their chef de mission sits at the table, pushes the agenda aside without reading it and says to us, first things first - I don't want to hear a single one of you ever use the word surrender. It turned out they didn't give a damn about travel restrictions or prisoner swaps or any of those things. For three days straight, all they wanted to do was haggle over the wording of the Reunification Day speeches and the preamble of the peace agreement. Hell, I remember we spent a couple of hours one day planning out how the Reunification Day photo op would go. They wanted their president to be the one to extend his hand first and ours then to take it.

The next day, they changed their mind. Of course, the other negotiators on the union team loved all this because they were getting their way on all the strategic stuff. I was the only one who put up a fight. I told the president's people, if we go along with this, if we nod and smile while they parade some fantasy about this being a noble disagreement between equals, the war will never really be over. They just didn't understand. You fight the war with guns. You fight the peace with stories.


ABDELFATAH: In the book, there's this great line where you say, you know, you fight the war with guns. You fight the peace with the stories. We talk a lot nowadays about metanarrative and creating a shared story and all of that. But how do you actually reach that? Do you have to destroy a certain narrative in order to prop up a different narrative?

EL AKKAD: So one time, I was driving up from Florida. I had been in Miami doing a story on climate change, and I had a few extra days to kill. And I decided to go do a story in Atlanta. So I'm driving up the highway, and I crossed the Florida-Georgia line, and there's this billboard on the side of the road, and all it says is secede.

And it was fascinating to me - right? - because when you win a war, one of the things traditionally that you do is impose real serious restrictions on the culture and stories that caused that conflict in the first place. And yet in this country, we still to this day have far more monuments to the perpetrators of slavery than we do its victims. We have billboards that say, secede. We have the stories of violent insurrection baked into the system. I think one of the most dangerous things about the moment that this country is in right now is that you have a significant portion of the population firmly of the belief that whatever they want to be true is more important than what is actually true. That's a really dangerous place for any society to be in.


GRAHAM: (Reading) If you had a chance to go where it's safe, wouldn't you? Sarat thought about the question. It seemed sensible to crave safety, to crave shelter from the bombs and the birds and the daily depravity of war. But somewhere deep in her mind, an idea had begun to fester. Perhaps the longing for safety was itself just another kind of violence, a violence of cowardice, silence, submission. What was safety anyway but the sound of a bomb falling on someone else's home?


ABDELFATAH: This idea of safety and, does my safety come at the expense or necessitate the sort of destruction of someone else's sense of safety, is, I think, a very provocative one. But also, in some ways, like, it feels resonant to the current moment, where it's like, you must tear down someone else's - maybe not literal home but even just sense of reality or kind of narrative in order to create the safety for yourself. I wonder if, you know, since writing it, as you've watched these forces kind of tearing at the seams of American democracy and potentially driving us towards American war but not the fictional one, do you see reality beginning to mirror this fictional universe that you've created?

EL AKKAD: For years, I would have said no because I thought I had extrapolated far enough and passed things through enough of a grotesque sort of, you know, funhouse mirror that that couldn't possibly be the case. And in the last few years, not only has that stopped feeling that way, but there's been places where reality seems to have outdone the fiction, by which I mean there's things that have happened in the last few years in this country that, had I inserted them into this narrative, I think my editor would have told me to tone it down a bit. You know, this country is going through something fairly existential. There's a particular force that has to be stared down and stared down directly. And I think there's a real reluctance to do that.

ABDELFATAH: In previous interviews, I notice that you cited Marwa Helal, where she says, they will say, show; don't tell, but that assumes most people can see.

EL AKKAD: Yeah, I love that line. I love Marwa, and I love that line. One of the things I struggle with as a writer is the idea that I'm sort of caught between canons. There's the traditional Western canon, and then there's the stuff from the old country. And I sort of take from both pretty liberally. And so when you think about the traditional writing advice in this part of the world - you know, show; don't tell - that's great for someone like Hemingway, who had the Victorians yelling on his behalf for a long time before he showed up. So he could afford to not say because it was already known what he wasn't saying. But to give you a sense of where that becomes a problem, in my second novel, this book "What Strange Paradise," I have a scene near the beginning of the book where a nightclub on the shores of this Western island is playing the same rap song over and over again. And if you read between the lines, the rap song is "Big Pimpin'" by Jay-Z.


ABDELFATAH: Good song.

EL AKKAD: Yeah, great song.


JAY-Z: (Rapping) We doing big pimping. We spending cheese. Check them out now.

EL AKKAD: There's Arabs on a boat, on a migrant ship, headed towards the island. They hear music, and one of the Arabs says, listen; there's - our people are nearby. They're playing our music. Well, "Big Pimpin'" by Jay-Z samples an Egyptian song called "Khusara Khusara."

ABDELFATAH: That's why all Arabs love it (laughter).

EL AKKAD: Exactly, right?


EL AKKAD: The number of people whose sort of, like, cultural knowledge base overlaps between Jay-Z's back catalog and mid-20th century Egyptian pop is not huge, right? And so if you show don't tell in that context, well, it's as if you haven't shown anything at all because you're pulling from a lineage that isn't well known enough for you to use that shorthand. And that's been a central issue with all of my writing, and this is particularly true with "American War." But I think at a certain point, you just have to be done playing by a set of rules that were not constructed for you in the first place, that never assumed you to exist in the first place. You know, I grew up in a bunch of different places, and I steal from them liberally, and if someone doesn't have that same background, they're not reading the book I wrote. And that's OK. I'm OK with that.

ABDELFATAH: You know, you are now a U.S. citizen. You're voting in U.S. elections. And, you know, that book, the - you know, this passport, it's really - it's currency, right? The passport is currency, and it gets you into all these places all over the world. And I just think about how, in some ways, it's so arbitrary where we say we're from. It's like, well, is it where - the passport you hold? Is it the - you know, is it where your parents left from? Is it where, you know, you went to elementary school? Is it - you know, I think it's something that more and more people are grappling with. And you realize that this construction, that was really a 20th century thing - right? - of creating these nations and creating these passports and, really, like, identifying people with a particular nation or passport or within certain borders. It's almost maybe going to become obsolete before we know it and, you know, reorder the whole world again.

EL AKKAD: Yeah. I mean, I come from a part of the world where a hundred years ago, a bunch of British and French guys sat around and drew some lines on a map fairly arbitrarily, and now we have Lebanon, you know? And as a result, the way I think about things like passports has been deeply shaped by that background and that history. You know, I think if you don't exist within the privileged group in any society, I think there's always something that you point to and think, once I get my hands on this, they can't mess with me anymore, you know, whether it be extreme wealth or a higher education or, in my case, I thought, this passport. And it occurred to me later on that, really, the thing that I think that way most about is these stories. The act of writing them down gives me a sense of anchoring that I don't think I could get in any other way.


GRAHAM: (Reading) She'd learned recently that solid land was not the natural skin of the world, only a kind of parasitic condition that surfaced and receded in million-year cycles. The natural skin of the world was water, and all water on Earth was connected. In this way, she was able to make believe she was swimming not in some offshoot of the Tennessee River but in that muddy place by the banks of the Mississippi. For a brief moment, she was home. There's only one page from Sarat Chestnut's diaries I didn't burn. It's the first page of the first book. I carry it in my wallet. And every now and then, I read the opening lines. When I was young, I lived with my parents and my brother and my sister in a small house by the Mississippi sea. I was happy then.


ABDELFATAH: That's it for this week's show. I'm Rund Abdelfatah.

ARABLOUEI: I'm Ramtin Arablouei. And you've been listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.

ABDELFATAH: This episode was produced by me...

ARABLOUEI: And me and...










ARABLOUEI: Fact-checking for this episode was done by Kevin Volkl.

ABDELFATAH: Audio excerpts from "American War" by Omar El Akkad were provided courtesy of Penguin Random House and read by Dion Graham.

ARABLOUEI: Thank you to Micah Ratner, Rachel Seller, Juma Sei, Taylor Ash, Tamar Charney and Anya Grundmann.

ABDELFATAH: This episode was mixed by Alex Drewenskus and Robert Rodriguez. Music for this episode was composed by Ramtin and his band Drop Electric, which includes...

ANYA MIZANI: Anya Mizani.

NAVID MARVI: Navid Marvi.

SHO FUJIWARA: Sho Fujiwara.

ARABLOUEI: And finally, if you have an idea or like something you heard on the show, please write us at throughline@npr.org, or hit us up on Twitter at @throughlinenpr.

ABDELFATAH: Thanks for listening.


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