We are all in search of a home

In “The Wrong End of the Telescope”, Rabih Alameddine draws us away from the headlines and into the personal story of one individual. Mina is complex, compelling and very real. By pulling us into her life and allowing us to see Lesbos through her eyes, the reality of the refugee camp comes alive. Richard Marcus read the book

By Richard Marcus

With his latest book, Rabih Alameddine plunges the reader into the tragedy of the refugee camps on Lesbos. Yet this is more than just another trip into sorrow and anguish, guided as we are by a transitioned woman doctor. Mina Simpson is a Lebanese American who left her home country nominally to go to school, but to also escape her family. As the novel opens Mina is landing on Lesbos having received an urgent summons from a friend: doctors are desperately needed on the island to help with the influx of refugees. Ostensibly she has come to help, but she's also here for another reason. This rock in the Aegean Sea is also the closest she's been to her native Lebanon since she left to go to university in the United States.

Neither the reader nor Mina is sure what she's going to encounter in Lesbos. Everyone has heard of people washing up on the beaches of the island and how it has become a staging post on the long winding road for refugees seeking shelter in a hard world. Yet those formless impressions of horror don't tell the whole story. In fact they somehow dehumanise the situation. By pulling us into Mina’s life, however, and then showing us Lesbos through her eyes, the reality of the refugee camp comes to life in a way no newspaper article can accomplish.

An empathic bridge

Perhaps there is something about her story and the stories of the other characters Mina introduces us to beyond the refugee camp, which, while not comparable to what they are witnessing on Lesbos, are analogous enough to the migrants' situation that they act as an empathic bridge for readers. Though not to the extent of those embarking on dangerous voyages across the sea in unsafe boats, Mina and her companions are all people in search of home, either metaphorically or actually. Their displacement is either due to estrangement from their own family, or like those coming from Syria, because they are fleeing Lebanon's ongoing instability.

Cover of Rabih Alameddine's "The Wrong End of the Telescope" (published by Atlantic Grove)
Not since the inimitable Aaliya of "An Unnecessary Woman" has Rabih Alameddine conjured such a winsome heroine to lead us to one of the most wrenching conflicts of our time. Cunningly weaving in stories of other refugees into Mina’s singular own, "The Wrong End of the Telescope" is a bedazzling tapestry of both tragic and amusing portraits of indomitable spirits facing a humanitarian crisis

Lesbos is depicted as a place where the roads meet, where people of all nations have gathered in search of something. While it's obvious why the refugees have risked everything to come here, the answers are far less obvious when it comes to the others.

Firstly, there are the refugee tourists. Those volunteers who travel to Lesbos and the camps under the pretence of wanting to help, only to pose for selfies on the beach while people stagger ashore. Are they merely there to publicly massage their egos – showing the world and their followers on Instagram how noble and self-sacrificing they are?

Mina herself is not quite sure of her own motivation for being there. Sure doctors are needed, but if that's her reason for being here, why did she also arrange to meet her brother?

They haven't seen each other since she left Lebanon, but there's more to it than that. He is the only one in the family who let her back into his life after she was disowned by everybody else. He is her one connection to her original home.

A catalyst to face up to the past

However, her own problems diminish when Mina meets Sumaiya and her family. Sumaiya had fled the horrors of Syria, a Daesh commander wanted to marry their 11-year-old daughter, under extreme duress.

She has terminal liver cancer and is in constant pain. By the time she and her family make it to Lesbos, the only help Mina can offer is to ease her pain. Her dignity in the face of unimaginable suffering and her fierce independence act as a catalyst for Mina and her companions to face up to their own pasts.

Mina recounts her time growing up in Lebanon before she was able to transition, or even be out as gay, when her mother was already accusing her of being a disgrace to the family. Until now she's never really come to terms with this rejection, but the reunion with her brother and witnessing Sumaiya's dedication to her family, brings memories and emotions flooding back.

In an interesting narrative device, Alameddine has Mina relate the story as if she were telling it to some unknown other, a writer. Like Alameddine, the writer is Lebanese and could easily be the author of the book. Were she Catholic, we would call this confidant her confessor: she tells him things she hasn't told anyone else, while telling his story at the same time. Initially we think they are close friends, but it turns out they had only been acquaintances before they meet on Lesbos. He is there interviewing refugees in an effort to write about them, but he's failing miserably. All he wants to do is hide in his room.

Is Alameddine explaining to us why he took this approach to writing about the situation on Lesbos? Was the reality of the refugees so overwhelming that he could only bear to tackle it indirectly? The inclusion of this character is an interesting commentary on how people react to witnessing trauma.

Alameddine takes us back and forth between the refugee camp, Lebanon, and contemporary America over the course of Mina's story. While the different strands of the tale might at first seem unrelated, he gradually weaves them together to create a picture both vivid and real.

Mina is a captivating character and we gladly follow her around her world. From her descriptions of life in Lebanon as a child to her safe and comfortable home with her wife back in America, and the refugee camps of Lesbos, we see her in a variety of environments. The impression we are left with is of a woman who after many years of being lost has finally achieved her goal of finding a home in a new country.

The Wrong End of the Telescope is a magnificent and heart-rending book. By examining the people who try and help deal with human suffering on an immense scale, Alameddine brings the plight of the refugees to life with greater empathy than anything else you'll read.

Richard Marcus

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