Taking Away the Distorting Lenses

Rabih Alameddine’s novel The Wrong End of the Telescope, the August California Book Club selection, gives us a new vantage from which to see our own response to refugees.

rabih alameddine
EZE AMOS

When it comes to enemies of art, some dastardly and unbearable villains can kill a writer cold. Assassins—both successful and would-be—the likes of which we’ve seen this past week in Chautauqua, spring to mind. For every Salman Rushdie who miraculously survives, though, many have not—like Anna Politkovskaya, who dared to write truthfully about life in contemporary Russia; or Walter Rodney, the Marxist historian of Africa killed by a car bomb in Georgetown, Guyana; or Ghassan Kanafani, the Palestinian writer murdered 50 years ago this summer in Beirut by agents of Mossad. One thinks of the dozens of Mexican journalists killed doing their work in a narco-state.

It should not be incumbent on a writer to give their life, but that is sometimes the bargain. This risk speaks to how dangerous it can be to interrogate the sacred, to ask questions, to poke fun. Power structures everywhere would prefer us to deal with preconceived emotions, even when it is these very forces that lead us to conflict, because such feelings can be managed, deployed. When someone or some someones can be called an enemy, a freak, or less than human, you can exclude them. You can ignore them. You can go to war with them.

Few writers in America are as allergic to preconceived ideas—have as much fun with them, even when writing about the deadly serious—as novelist Rabih Alameddine. Drawing on vast reservoirs of wit, pathos, and storytelling dexterity, Alameddine often guides us laughing into tragedy and po-faced into the comedic. His 1996 debut, Koolaids: The Art of War, unfolds during the Lebanese Civil War and the worst days of the AIDS epidemic in San Francisco. Though bearing witness to both, it also manages to crack jokes about Tom Cruise, The Waltons, every single religion, and death itself.

This dark, cackling intelligence is operating at a dazzling peak in The Wrong End of the Telescope. Bearing witness, once again, this time to the terrifying reality migrants face upon arriving in Europe, fleeing war, Alameddine also manages to send up the empathy industrial complex that has grown up around the “migrant crisis” and work toward the insight that volunteering in Greece to help take care of arriving Syrians is a key site for virtue-signalers. Volunteers from Europe and America descend on Greece in hopes of helping, and also take a selfie with a real, live refugee.

Observing this clusterfuck is Mina Simpson, a Lebanese-born trans doctor. Sharp-tongued, Beirut-raised, vulnerable, ribald, and great company, she is a classic Alameddine heroine. As a narrator, she is a reluctant guide and scans every room she enters like an outsider, seeking exit. Upon arriving in Lesbos, from Chicago, she immediately begins differentiating herself from the Americans. “He was my people,” she says, eyeing an Arab man at the airport, “kneaded by the same hand. 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.”

Before he was a novelist, Alameddine was a painter. Though he never worked figuratively, he is an exquisite portraitist as a writer. He gives the gift of sight to his characters and allows them to be seen seeing, judging, and making wrong assessments. The effect feels like something Proust’s narrator describes in Swann’s Way at the outset of that tremendous novel: “Our social personality is created by the thoughts of other people,” Proust wrote. “Even the simple act which we describe as ‘seeing someone we know’ is to some extent an intellectual process. We pack the physical outline of the creature we see with all the ideas we have already formed about him.”

Can we truly see someone, especially a person whose life has undergone an almost supernatural transformation, such as crossing a body of water on a dinghy for their safety? Or crossing from one presentation to another? The Wrong End of the Telescope wants to ask if this is even possible and, if so, what one does with such sight. Being trans, Mina draws this question to an acute point, and being an outside observer who hasn’t been home to Beirut in decades makes it poignantly confusing for her as she begins talking to migrants who have forfeited homes, livelihoods, and health to arrive on unfriendly, unglamorous shores speaking her mother tongue.

Doctors today call listening to people’s stories narrative medicine, but it is also, for Mina—being Middle Eastern—simple hospitality. Time and again, Mina is shocked by the way ailing migrants are sorted not through basic decency and questions, but rather preconceived interrogations about political situations. On top of this, some volunteers would like to take their picture without truly seeing them. Many of those arriving are highly alert to these distorting lenses and refuse to play along. Among the early patients whom Mina coaxes into talking to her is Sumaiya, a Syrian mother who is clearly dying of some form of cancer. The scene where Mina deals with her is worth the price of the book alone.

Sumaiya’s story forms one of the baseline threads of the novel, but, as with all of Alameddine’s books, there’s so much more that winds around this central story. In alternating short chapters, we hear of Mina’s own migration from Beirut to the United States, how along the way she finally recognizes she was meant to be a woman, even as she presented—in an increasingly politicized time—as a Middle Eastern man. The first time she falls hard for a woman, they experiment with S&M in one of those most tenderly erotic scenes of that ilk to appear in a novel in years.

The Wrong End of the Telescope thrives in such juxtapositions: Mina on the island, weaving through a mixture of tat (Barbie Dolls given to arriving children) and tragedy (a young man from a village who wanted education so desperately his family has given him everything to study). Her consciousness is constantly layered by previous tendernesses, previous wounds, which Alameddine unfurls with monumental care. These scenes never explain. They simply channel moments of life that reverberate. The feeling of sleeping next to a sibling at age 10, the brute force of a mother’s example as a paragon of beauty. Ultimately, Mina is, like so many Alameddine characters, deeply lonely. Her family eventually abandoned her. Like many queer people in California, scores of her friends died during the 1980s and 1990s from AIDS. The diva persona she wears is born equally of joy and defense.

It is this combination of longing and rage that leads Mina to a correspondence—real or imagined, it is not quite clear—with a figure who resembles the author of the book. Spliced into the text like strobe-lit letters, these missives illuminate its recipient like a lyric poem, through inference. Like the real Alameddine, Mina’s silent correspondent is a survivor, a Beirut-raised immigrant to America, a writer who tried—and hated himself for trying—to figure out how to write about migrants and their arrival in Greece.

As if to make that echoing any clearer, several passages of one of those essays (one of which I published in a home-themed Freeman’s issue) appear in the novel. One passage describes how a woman Alameddine met decorated her tent in a refugee camp with sequins. “She had studded her entire pantry with sequins, with results Liberace would have envied. You thought she must have spent untold hours gluing sparkles onto sheets of wood that would become a pantry to store nonperishables. Intricate and delicate, no spot left uncovered, so over the top that many a drag queen would kill for it.”

The Wrong End of the Telescope is a secret ode to drag. To the spaces of care that made it possible for Mina to realize who she was, even if she balked the first time, drawn into a performance in Brazil by a friend in the 1980s. “They covered your face with so much makeup that you felt like a cadaver being readied for an open casket. But no, you were no cadaver; with lipstick, eyeliner, and a good foundation, they restructured your face, built another atop the one you wore.”

Alameddine’s novel would have been predictable had it merely poked fun at the selfie-takers. Instead, what it does once Mina has begun to see patients is explode as many preconceived emotions as possible about what counts as transformation. The engine of this detonation is narrative, and as the book progresses, and Mina’s self-consciousness recedes, we hear more and more stories from the migrants she meets and talks to, their arcs always interrupted by arrival, not unlike the syncopated tales told in Olga Tokarczuk’s masterwork Flights, a novel, like this one, about what movement does to a life.

As Mina’s stay extends, she meets people who surprise, annoy, frighten, and delight her. She meets a trans person from Raqaa who responds matter-of-factly that they were able to treat themselves during the civil war by taking pregnancy pills. She hears of a doctor, Sitt Fawzieh, who cross-dressed during the time of Daesh rule in Syria so he could treat both men and women—donning a burka and entering homes as a female physician. “Once inside a home, he would take the niqab off and put it back on as he left. No one in the community betrayed him, of course. He was one of them. And so was she.”

Tender as such stories might seem to us—for Mina, they are a conflicting quarry she encounters on a beach in Greece where there are Iraqis, Syrian, Palestinians, and some people who seem to be masquerading, possibly, as migrants to hide some other reason for travel. Still, being there is the closest she has been to her family in decades, and Alameddine beautifully conjures the mixture of shame, relief, and bewilderment this plethora produces. Ultimately, the brother she was closest to comes to visit her, and The Wrong End of the Telescope weaves meditations about family with insights about larger tribes. What does it mean for someone like Mina to be of a them like the people she’s treating—and why is she so willing to travel across the globe to help them, when she wouldn’t even go home?

It’s hard to believe we are barely a century into the period of the passport. Depending on which United Nations white paper you read, the numbers of people, the world over, who will be migrating due to desperate need in the next 50 years will be in the billions. To put that in perspective, at the end of devastating climate collapses in the Sahel, civil wars in the Middle East, and a brutal Russian invasion of Ukraine, there are a mere 100 million on the move today. In other words, in many of our lifetimes, there will be 10 or 20 times the current number who are without a home. Too many for a selfie. Too many to live in a world that talks about walls, or us, or them. This extraordinary, moving, and, yes, very funny novel asks the dangerous and daring question: How long are we going to keep looking at this condition through the wrong end of a telescope?•

Join us on August 18 at 5 p.m., when Alameddine will talk to CBC host John Freeman and two special guests, Susan Sarandon and Rebecca Makkai, 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.

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