By National Book Award and the National Book Critics' Circle Award finalist for An Unnecessary Woman, Rabih Alameddine, comes a transporting new novel about an Arab American trans woman's journey among Syrian refugees on Lesbos island.
Mina Simpson, a Lebanese doctor, arrives at the infamous Moria refugee camp on Lesbos, Greece, after being urgently summoned for help by her friend who runs an NGO there. Alienated from her family except for her beloved brother, Mina has avoided being so close to her homeland for decades. But with a week off work and apart from her wife of 30 years, Mina hopes to accomplish something meaningful, among the abundance of Western volunteers who pose for selfies with beached dinghies and the camp's children. Soon, a boat crosses, bringing Sumaiya, a fiercely resolute Syrian matriarch with terminal liver cancer. Determined to protect her children and husband at all costs, Sumaiya refuses to alert her family to her diagnosis. Bonded together by Sumaiya's secret, a deep connection sparks between the two women, and as Mina prepares a course of treatment with the limited resources on hand, she confronts the circumstances of the migrants' displacement, as well as her own constraints in helping them.
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.
Release date: September 21, 2021
Publisher: Audible Studios
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The Wrong End of the Telescope
Round and Round We Go
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. Few passengers, yet the resulting commotion was boisterous, buzzing movements like aroused hornets around their hive.
The airport claimed the mighty name of Mytilene International but had only five usable carts that we could see. I would have to lug my luggage. I’d checked a bag for the first time in over ten years, usually traveled with only a carry-on, but I thought it would be a good idea to come with extra winter clothes to donate to refugees: socks, sweaters, long johns, fleece jackets, and woolen skirts that would not fit anyone with my waist size because the discount store had colorful summer ones in abundance but cold-weather skirts only in petite.
My bag was the last to come out, of course. I had bowed the handle with a thin red ribbon to distinguish it, but it turned out I didn’t need to since it’s an old Samsonite, a model not seen since the 1980s, not produced since the 1970s. I had no intention of returning with it. I began to wonder, not for the first time, what I was doing there. The Americans grabbed their bags and rushed to stand first in line at the Hertz counter, tapping the service call bell a couple of times. I arrived behind them. The stall was hardly the size of a closet, yet its two yellow signs splashed us with jaundice.
The clerk, under the outside awning, heard us, saw us through the glass doors, dropped his cigarette, and pulled his pants up by the belt. He took a long, exaggerated breath and sighed. Behind him was a small open-air parking lot, a rain-slick coastal road, and the aforementioned Mediterranean, yes, glorious. Or was this the Aegean, which Aegeus threw himself into when he thought his son Theseus had failed against the Minotaur? The clouds were such that both the asphalt and the water had the same color, a bluish slate, the color of oxidization on copper with a tinge of periwinkle violet. Off-season on the island, no cars on the road, no boats in the water, purple hills in the distance, east, Turkey in all likelihood, close and not, an hour by ferry if you had the right passport. In the parking lot, a gray van screeched to a stop in front of the Palestinian, and out rushed two women wearing the same white-and-orange vest he was. They hugged him with such fierceness I thought he was going to tumble over, and without releasing him, they began to jump up and down like pudgy kids on one pogo stick, evidently not minding getting a little wet. I looked around to see if anyone else was watching, but the Americans were in some kind of philosophical discussion with the Hertz clerk, making sure to insist that they were not the kind of men who would be cheated.
If those purple hills were Turkey, then the itsy-bitsy, teeny-weeny bikini of a country, Lebanon, was a few degrees south. I had not been back there in almost forty years, and it was highly unlikely that I ever would. My brother Mazen constantly invited me to visit—come back, come back, he’d say—and I resisted. The dream of my return had died decades ago. He was the only family member I cared about. When I informed him that I was coming to Lesbos, his first response was that I should come to Beirut, which was next door. How could I be in his part of the world and not see him? I explained that I wasn’t going to take more time off and he should be the one to come to Lesbos. He argued for a bit, telling me that he would love to see me in my hometown, that I needed to be in Beirut, but we both knew that I had him, that I would win, that I’d always win with him.
The automatic doors yawned open; cold air and the Palestinian came in.
“Would you like a ride?” he asked in Arabic. Blotchy, circular cheeks were most of his face, along with lips—the delicate full lips of a gourmet. Everything about him was round. I pointed to the yellow sign, smiled. “Well, if you wanted to save some money, and you know,” he said before briefly pursing those lips, “there’s no threat to your honor with me, absolutely safe.” He looked about to burst from anticipation, waiting for what kind of reply, a boy hoping I would join his game.
“I’d be more worried about your honor, my dear.”
He laughed loudly enough that both Americans glared as they scurried out the door with their bags.
“I misplaced mine back in Jerusalem,” he said, now in full camp, arms akimbo, both hands clamped around his waist.
The clerk fake coughed, which led to a fit of real ones lasting a full ten seconds. I should have taken out my stethoscope, but I only handed him my license and passport, told him I had a reservation, a small car for the week I was to spend on Lesbos.
The Palestinian introduced himself as Rasheed. He was with a group of Jerusalemite nurses and first aid workers, asked me who I was with and where I was going.
I told him my name and that I was meeting a friend with a Swedish NGO. “I simply want to see what’s happening here,” I said. “My brother is joining me in two days. We’ll help wherever we’re needed.”
“Come help us,” he said, writing his local cell number on a card. “We can use you. Anyone who speaks Arabic is good. Well, there are a number of Arabic speakers but few who understand the culture. There’s nothing happening in Skala Sikamineas. No boats are landing there anymore. All the refugees used to in the beginning of the crisis, but now they’re landing down here, on these beaches and a little farther south.”
The van honked twice; the clerk shook the car keys.
“Call me, please. I’ll explain what we do.” He walked off toward the parking lot. The door slid closed behind him, but he turned around and came back in. “I know all the secrets of this island,” he said. “If you call me, I’ll tell you more.” His eyebrows rose teasingly. “You must call to find out.” He exited, then turned around once more. “What do you do for work, Madam Mina?”
“It’s Dr. Mina,” I said in a false huff.
“Oh, come on,” he said. “You’re not serious. You can really help us. Please, I’m willing to go down on my knees and beg.”
You Made Me Do It
You suggested I write this. You, the writer, couldn’t. You tried writing the refugee story. Many times, many different ways. You failed. And failed again. Maybe failed better. Still you couldn’t. More than two years after you and I met in Lesbos, you were still trying. You tackled it from one direction, then another, to no avail. You were too involved, unable to disentangle yourself from the tale. You said that you couldn’t calibrate the correct distance. You weren’t able to find the right words even after numerous sessions on your psychiatrist’s couch.
I should write this thing, you told me. You called it a thing, flicking your hand with a dismissive Levantine gesture. Every idiot thinks they’re a writer; they’re not. Every dullard thinks they have a tale to tell; they don’t. But I should. I have a good one. You insisted I write the refugee story, as well as your story and mine. This thing.
I told you I wasn’t a writer. I could form sentences, present ideas and so forth, but not write a memoir or a book that anyone would necessarily want to read. Who said anything about publishing, you said. I should write my story; no one has to read it. There are enough books out there, you said. Why add more? I should write to make sense of my world, to grasp my story. Writing simplifies life, you said, forces coherence on discordant narratives, unless it doesn’t, and most of the time it doesn’t, because really, how can one make sense of the senseless? One puts a story in a linear order, posits cause and effect, and then thinks one has arrived. Writing one’s story narcotizes it. Literature today is an opiate.
You contradict yourself all the time. You know that, right?
I know, I know. You are large, like Whitman. You contain multitudes.
If writing my story will not simplify my life, will not make more sense of my narrative, if I can’t publish and become a gazillionaire, why should I do it?
Memory is a wound, you said. And some things are released only by the act of writing. Unless I go in with my scalpel and suction to excavate, to clean, to bring into light, that wound festers, and the gangrene of decay will eat me alive.
And whatever you do, you said, don’t fucking call it A Lebanese Lesbian in Lesbos, just don’t.
I’m writing now. I’ll tell your tale and mine.
I’ll write your story for you.
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