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Omar El Akkad

Award-winning journalist and author of the debut novel American War

  • About Omar El Akkad

    Omar El Akkad was born in Cairo, Egypt and grew up in Doha, Qatar before moving to Canada with his family. An award-winning journalist and author, El Akkad has traveled around the world to cover many of the most important news stories of the last decade. His reporting includes dispatches from the NATO-led war in Afghanistan, the military trials in Guantanamo Bay, the Arab Spring revolution in Egypt, and the Black Lives Matter movement in Ferguson, Missouri.

    El Akkad’s debut novel, American War, is a darkly prescient tale of a country and world torn apart by war, conflicts about fossil fuels, environmental catastrophes, and a devastating plague. The novel’s young heroine, Sarat Chestnut, is only six at the start of the Second American Civil War in 2074, but she endures a lifetime of turmoil and is profoundly shaped by the conflicts of her time. Sarat is eventually turned into a deadly instrument of war, and her fateful decisions have tremendous consequences not just for herself, but for her family, her country, and the generations that follow. American War was longlisted for 2018 Carnegie Medal of Excellence in Fiction and Nonfiction.

    Omar El Akkad’s next novel, What Strange Paradise, is a beautifully written, unrelentingly dramatic, and profoundly moving look at the global refugee crisis through the eyes of a child. What Strange Paradise is the winner of the 2021 Scotiabank Giller Prize and the 2022 Oregon Book Award, and a finalist for the 2022 Aspen Words Literary Prize.

    A gifted speaker, Omar El Akkad draws on his breadth of experience as a journalist at home and abroad to give his audience rare insights into the most important topics of our time, from terrorism to populist movements to racial tensions in America, and talks about how global politics informed and inspired his debut novel.

    Omar El Akkad is a recipient of Canada’s National Newspaper Award for investigative reporting and the Goff Penny Memorial Prize for Young Canadian Journalists, as well as three National Magazine Award honorable mentions. He lives in Portland, Oregon.

    Contact us about booking Omar El Akkad for your next event.

  • Speaking Topics

    The Endless War

    For more than 15 years, the war on terror has transformed the world we live in. But almost all the war’s carnage and consequences have impacted places that few Americans have ever seen first-hand. Drawing on his experiences covering the NATO-led invasion of Afghanistan and the detention camps of Guantanamo Bay, El Akkad presents an up-close look at some of the day-to-day details of the places that have come to define the post-9/11 age. This lecture includes a multimedia presentation, featuring photos from Afghanistan and Guantanamo.

    The Last Days of Spring

    In 2011, a wave of popular protests shook much of the Middle East, toppling a string of autocratic leaders and culminating in the ouster of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. But a half-decade later, almost nothing remains of the pro-democracy movement—many of its leaders jailed, silenced or in exile—and once again the Middle East’s most populous nation finds itself under the control of yet another military-backed strongman. Drawing on his experiences covering the protests in Egypt, and his personal family background there, El Akkad presents a look at how the once-powerful protest movement died, and whether it might ever rise up again.

    The Story of American War

    In this lecture, El Akkad talks about how he came to write his debut novel – the events that inspired it, the references buried throughout the text and the places he visited to research the book. This lecture covers the writing and editing process, the story of how the book came to be published, and the wildly different reactions it has prompted inside and outside the United States.

  • Video

  • Praise for Omar El Akkad


    Omar is an absolute superstar. We admire and appreciate him immensely, both on the page and in person. He’s chill and brilliant and wholly delightful.

    Literary Sojourn

    We had a wonderful visit with Mr. El Akkad!  He was incredibly gracious with his time and energy for the 3 days that he was on our campus! His text, American War, was a perfect selection for our Common Book Experience this year.  He and the book lend themselves to open discourse across many different populations in any intellectual environment.  He drew out major themes from the text and was very open and honest about what experiences and social locations he used to construct this novel. He is a rare author who can engage anyone on many different topics.  For these reasons he was a complete success as a common book author!

    University of Alabama

    We truly could not have asked for a better experience. Omar was so engaging, kind, and open to our students – he stayed for almost an hour after his presentation in the evening to answer questions from students. The entire day was wonderful, and we couldn’t have asked for a better selection with a better author. Thank you for helping us make this happen!

    Flagler College

    Praise for What Strange Paradise

    Hope and kindness light the story in unexpected ways . . . El Akkad's precise prose allows him to inject heartfelt observations throughout the novel . . . Perhaps El Akkad's biggest accomplishment with What Strange Paradise is that it manages to push past political talking points and shocking statistics to rehumanize the discussion about migration on a global scale, and it does so with enough heart to be memorable.

    Gabino Iglesias, NPR

    Riveting . . . Nothing I’ve read before has given me such a visceral sense of the grisly predicament confronted by millions of people expelled from their homes by conflict and climate change. Though What Strange Paradise celebrates a few radical acts of compassion, it does so only by placing those moments of moral courage against a vast ocean of cruelty.

    Ron Charles, The Washington Post

    In his acclaimed bestselling debut, American War, El Akkad demonstrated his ability to capture complex political events and place them on a personal scale. With his new novel, What Strange Paradise, he has done it again, this time asking questions about the global refugee crisis.

    The Millions, “Most Anticipated: The Great Second-Half 2021 Book Preview”

    [What Strange Paradise is] simple in the way that novels like The Stranger or Of Mice and Men are: brief, taut, cooly delivered but with seas of emotion swirling underneath.

    Mark Athitakis, Minneapolis Star Tribune

    What Strange Paradise is by turns tender and brutal in its truths. It is tremendously written, propulsive as it is expansive as it is granular in its specificities. Omar El Akkad writes with such emotional precision, power, and grace. Here we get the wondrousness of children set in sharp relief against a backdrop of the all too common dehumanization then dismissal of refugees everywhere. The book devastates and uplifts, somehow, and we are not left with hope—that isn’t the point—but asked to witness, to see what is here, with clarity, and with fullness of heart.

    Tommy Orange, author of There There

    Impassioned and richly detailed, What Strange Paradise moves like a thriller and punches like a work of art. With this haunting story of refugees, high seas, sharks and Samaritans, Omar El Akkad continues on his impressive exploration of our contemporary world.

    Aravind Adiga, author of The White Tiger and Amnesty

    Riveting . . . an intimate action-adventure story that’s laced with hope and compassion, emotions with the power to transcend borders and worldly disputes.

    G. Robert Frazier, BookPage

    "Great literature about migration should rehumanize the discourse surrounding it. What Strange Paradise does a fantastic job of that. Touching, gritty, and told in a unique voice that places childhood at the center of the discussion, this is a tender, haunting work about refugees everyone should read."

    NPR, “July Book-Ahead: What We're Excited to Read Next Month”

    El Akkad. . . expertly contrasts the well-paced story of Amir’s predicament with the ill-fated voyage that brought him to Greece. The ragtag bunch of strangers on the boat forms an incredibly well-drawn portrait of humanity as everyone bonds together initially, even with dollops of humor thrown in . . . A suspenseful and heartbreaking painting of the refugee crisis as experienced by two children caught in the crosshairs.

    Booklist, starred

    El Akkad's compelling, poetic prose captures the precarity and desperation of people pushed to the brink . . . A compassionate snapshot of one Syrian refugee's struggle to plot a course for home.

    Kirkus Reviews

    What an imaginative, touching, and necessary novel Omar El Akkad has brought to us. It reminds us of the human stories behind headlines and statistics, and gives us one of the most memorable children characters, whose story adds urgency and poignancy to that ‘awfully big adventure’ stated by Peter Pan.

    —Yiyun Li, author of Must I Go

    What Strange Paradise by Omar El Akkad just resuscitated my heart. This novel—following a boy who survives a refugee passage, and a girl whose homeland feels fractured—dares to unite us on the shore of shared human experience, and redefines hope in the face of despair. I want to read this book every single day. I want to live in a world where the beauty of strangers is a heartsong.”

    Lidia Yuknavitch, author of Verge

    It is one thing to put a human face on a migrant crisis and another to do so in so compelling a way that a reader simply cannot put your book down. I read this in one sitting, my heart pounding the whole way—in a strange paradise, you might say. Marvelous.

    Gish Jen, author of The Resisters

    Praise for American War

    Follow the tributaries of today’s political combat a few decades into the future and you might arrive at something as terrifying as Omar El Akkad’s debut novel, American War. Across these scarred pages rages the clash that many of us are anxiously speculating about in the Trump era: a nation riven by irreconcilable ideologies, alienated by entrenched suspicions. . . . both poignant and horrifying.

    Ron Charles, The Washington Post

    Whether read as a cautionary tale of partisanship run amok, an allegory of past conflicts or a study of the psychology of war, American War is a deeply unsettling novel. The only comfort the story offers is that it’s a work of fiction. For the time being, anyway.

    Justin Cronin, The New York Times Book Review

    American War is an extraordinary novel. El Akkad’s story of a family caught up in the collapse of an empire is as harrowing as it is brilliant, and has an air of terrible relevance in these partisan times.

    Emily St. John Mandel, author of Station Eleven

    Powerful . . . As haunting a postapocalyptic universe as Cormac McCarthy [created] in The Road, and as devastating a look as the fallout that national events have on an American family as Philip Roth did in The Plot Against America. . . . Deftly imagined . . . [El Akkad] writes with such propulsive verve.

    Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

    El Akkad has created a brilliantly well-crafted, profoundly shattering saga of one family’s suffering in a world of brutal power struggles, terrorism, ignorance, and vengeance. American War is a gripping, unsparing, and essential novel for dangerously contentious times.

    Donna Seaman, Booklist (starred review)

    A dystopian vision . . . cannily imagined . . . But above all, El Akkad’s novel is an allegory about present-day military occupation, from drone strikes to suicide bombers to camps full of refugees.

    Kirkus Reviews

    Omar El Akkad has created an American future that is both terrifying and plausible. In a world seared and flooded by global warming, the U.S. has fractured again into North and South. The barbarism that ensues is all the more awful because we know the rivers and the cities. And we know these people: they are our neighbors; they are us. Through the eyes of a young girl El Akkad lets us see the soul-crushing toll of war. It was only in the stunned minutes after I’d finished the novel that I realized he had also taught us how to make a consummate terrorist.

    Peter Heller, author of The Dog Stars and Celine

    American War, a work of a singular, grand, brilliant imagination, is a warning shot across the bow of the United States. Omar El Akkad has created a novel that isn’t afraid to be a pleasurable yarn as it delves into the hidden currents of American culture and extrapolates from them to envision a deeply tragic potential future.

    David Means, author of Hystopia

    Omar El Akkad’s urgent debut transmutes our society’s current dysfunction into a terrifying yet eerily recognizable future, where contemporary global and local conflicts have wreaked havoc on American soil. The threads between today and that future are his masterfully shaped characters. Their resilience, savagery, and humanity serve both as a portrait of who we are but also what we might very well become.

    Elliot Ackerman, author of Dark at the Crossing
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