He was my people—he and I kneaded by the same hands. He was on the shorter side, my height, not in the greatest of shape. His hair had less gray than mine but was the same shade of dark. We had similar facial features. I would have recognized that he was from the Levant even without the Palestine Red Crescent Society vest he sported. The rest of us, the recently disembarked, were about twenty or so, a motley crew, various nationalities. You would probably say we looked like a painting from a time long past, the late cold light illuminating and shadowing our backs as we stood around the circular belt, a single here, a couple there, waiting for our bags, waiting and waiting. The Palestinian stood by himself to my left. He had a happy face, satiated, like what I would expect Bernini’s Saint Teresa to look like postcoitus, postecstasy.
Farther east than Athens, the island of Lesbos was as close as I’d been to Lebanon in decades, yet I stood facing not the glorious Mediterranean but the chug, chug, chug of dirty black rubber, a wheel of time if ever there was one—a wheel of time with a few gashes patched with duct tape. The ceiling felt dark and oppressive. I looked for a seat, but there was none. All twenty passengers, with few places to sit, kept shifting their weight from one foot to the other, hips swaying like sluggish, arrhythmic pendulums. The air was nippy and smooth, like velvet.
I texted Francine: Landed. Love you.
I texted Mazen: Landed. Love you. Can’t wait to see you.
A book, facedown, was the only object making the round along the carousel. It exited the stage on the far end and moments later entered by slipping under the rubber curtain to my right, the eternal return, each time a little wetter because of the drizzle. A bored-looking young man, Germanic in appearance and attitude, probably still on winter break from college, freshman or at most sophomore, picked up the book and glanced at it briefly before flipping it back onto the circulating belt. The discolored cover was faceup now, a Scandinavian novel of some sort, a murder mystery—a brooding, handsome man, a woman’s bare thigh, a pistol. A South Asian woman in a head scarf chatted with a Han Chinese in Malay, her eyes fixed on where her bags might one day appear. An African woman and a European, possibly Greek, both in Red Cross windbreakers and matching smartphones, looked the most at ease. The entire airport seemed to be on a coffee break. Time felt lethargic.
The book reappeared once more, and it had been flipped. I thought it strange. On my left, the Palestinian looked around the room, caught my eye, raised a questioning eyebrow. I scrunched my face and shrugged. He grinned, turned the book faceup when it reached him. He and I watched it disappear again. He was biting at a hangnail. The book returned facedown once more. He gasped in glee and covered his mouth with a fleshy palm, including me in his delight. We had yet to exchange a word and we didn’t have to—Levantine nonverbal communication would appear psychic to the uninitiated eye, a brow furrowing or a slide of a lip was worth a thousand pictures, and that was before one included the hands.
The Palestinian waited until the book reached him and turned it over again. All of us were now watching the book’s cycle, even the two American men who had conversed endlessly and loudly during the entire flight from Athens but hadn’t spoken a word since. The room felt energized. The book came back facedown again. Someone was bored, I thought. We waited for the Palestinian to do the honors. Like an actor performing onstage, hungry for attention, he gauged his audience, acknowledging us with his eyes, and flipped the paperback with a mild flourish. But this time, as soon as it disappeared, we heard the muffled ruckus of the luggage arriving behind the wall, the book returning as it left.•
Excerpt from The Wrong End of the Telescope, by Rabih Alameddine, with the permission of Grove Press. Copyright © 2021 by Rabih Alameddine. All rights reserved.