Who is Rabih Alameddine, and why is he pretending he didn’t write this book?
That was my ongoing question as I read The Wrong End of the Telescope, Alameddine’s celebrated novel about Syrian refugees on the Greek island of Lesbos and the Western volunteers who attempt—with varying levels of earnestness, impatience, and vanity—to aid them.
The book’s structure seems paradoxically designed to draw attention away from—and simultaneously toward—the author. Narrated by the fictional protagonist, Mina, a Lebanese surgeon and lesbian trans woman, much of the novel is addressed in second person to an unnamed writer whom she meets in Lesbos.
“You suggested I write this,” Mina tells the writer. “You, the writer, couldn’t. You tried writing the refugee story. Many times, many different ways. You failed.”
Readers wondering whether this unnamed writer is Alameddine himself might notice similarities. Like Alameddine, “the writer” is a gay Lebanese American San Franciscan who traveled to Lesbos in 2015 to assist Syrian refugees. The writer’s body of work also bears a striking resemblance to Alameddine’s.
The writer’s goal is “to find a way to write about refugees and break the wall between reader and subject,” but he’s unable to do so. Instead, he says, the only wall that broke was his own. He tells Mina that, while he was no stranger to interviewing victims of war and violence, volunteering removed some needed distance.
“I was always the writer.… There was a barricade between the person I was talking to and me. I could hear the stories, and no matter how sickening they were, I felt protected.… They were stories, after all, simply stories. I deal with stories all the time.”
In Lesbos, stories that closely mirror the writer’s own life—such as that of a young man fleeing poverty not out of imminent danger but simply to seek an education—are what break his heart and precipitate his mental health crisis. In a recent interview, Alameddine describes experiencing a similar (or identical) crisis during his trip to Lesbos:
“All these things that I was feeling about the novel and about who I am. Am I Westerner? Am I an Easterner? Am I Lebanese? Am I American? She [Mina] was able to go through all that without having a nervous breakdown.… By imagining her, I was able to imagine the right kind of distance from the novel.”
Alameddine imagines Mina as everything he wishes he could have been in Lesbos: rational, every inch the competent surgeon, whether she faces a woman who mysteriously complains that her voice has become “heavy” or one who is dying of liver cancer.
“That’s why she was [the] perfect narrator,” Alameddine explained. “There’s a crisis and that person—I’m not saying it’s me—is under a duvet and listening to Mahler. There was no need for him to be helping. I thought that this is so stunning. That somebody goes to help and then it becomes all about them.”
Unlike the many self-involved volunteers in Lesbos (including the writer), Mina is the “perfect narrator” because she doesn’t make everything about her, even things that arguably should be. Mina does not describe facing any bigotry or exclusion in Lesbos. This contrasts with her seeming real-life counterpart, Alameddine’s close friend Susan Stryker, a transgender historian, who once wrote, “I am too often perceived as less than fully human due to the means of my embodiment.… My exclusion from human community fuels a deep and abiding rage in me that I…direct against the conditions in which I must struggle to exist.” Mina never expresses any rage on her own behalf, or despair about the plight of the refugees or her own estrangement from all of her family, except her brother. Her composure makes her a useful storyteller, but perhaps not a fully realistic human.
For all of Alameddine’s protestations, The Wrong End of the Telescope does end up being about the writer. By the closing of the book, he has become Mina’s dear and intimate friend, their shared experiences in Lesbos creating an extended chosen family with an imperative to care for one another: Mina, Emma, the writer, a nurse named Rashid, Mina’s brother, and Asma, a 10-year-old refugee and aspiring doctor. Mina and others correspond with Asma after she resettles in Sweden, but the writer visits her in person.
Only by collapsing his own walls between “myself” and “them” is the writer able to fulfill his goal of helping refugees and illuminating their stories: neither as a writer nor as a volunteer, but through real human connection, as a giver and a receiver of love and care.•
Join us on August 18 at 5 p.m., when Alameddine will talk to CBC host John Freeman and two special guests about The Wrong End of the Telescope. Be sure to visit the Alta Clubhouse to let us and your fellow California Book Club members know what you think of the novel. Register here.