Alameddine, Rabin. “The Wrong End of the Telescope”, Grove Press, 2021.
In “The Wrong End of the Telescope”, Rabih Alameddine, takes us onan Arab American trans woman’s journey among Syrian refugees on Lesbos island.
Mina Simpson is a Lebanese doctor who arrives at the Moria refugee camp on Lesbos, Greece, after having been urgently summoned for help by her friend who runs an NGO there. She is alienated from her family except for her beloved brother and has avoided being so close to her homeland for decades. Now with a week off work and being away from her wife of thirty years, Mina has hopes of doing something meaningful. A boat comes bringing Sumaiya, a fiercely resolute Syrian matriarch with terminal liver cancer, she is determined to protect her children and husband at all costs. Sumaiya refuses to tell her family about her illness. Sumaiya’s secret brings the two women to a deep connection. As Mina prepares a course of treatment with the limited resources on hand, she faces the circumstances of the migrants’ displacement and her own constraints in helping them.
Alameddine brings together the stories of other refugees with Mina’s own story giving us tragic and amusing portraits of people facing a humanitarian crisis. He looks at the intersection of identity when the present day crisis of Syrian refugees is confronted.
Mina and Alameddine have a great deal in common. She grew up in Lebanon, has problems with her family over her sexuality, was able to get to the US as a student, and then stayed. Mina is a middle-aged now, married successful surgeon who has lived as an out trans woman and lesbian for many years. In many ways their lives reflect each other.
When Mina comes to Lesbos to provide medical care and whatever other help she can to the waves of incoming refugees, she finds that there is not much to really do. One of the central questions of the book is trying to grapple with how the wish to help during a crisis can cause one to feel defeated. Mina spends a lot of time thinking about her childhood in Lebanon, about how similar she is to the refugees and she relates more strongly to the white helpers than her own people. By working with one particular woman and her family, she is able to cope. Mina does sometimes worry about how others will see her, especially since she knows that trans women are not safe in the communities that the refugees come from.
Queer suffering is part of who she is but it is not the focus the novel. Mina is so fully drawn, however, that her identity as trans is not really relevant.
Reading this, we face questions about empathy and sympathy and taking care of people causing us to ask questions about our own lives.
Alameddine gives us the stories from a refugee camp in Lesbos and we meet people who usually form part of a labelled group for us— doctors, boat people, refugees, NGO’s. Through his lens they become persons and we can imagine the what would it be for them to be us.
The book was is heart-wrenching and soul-filling with deep characters and a deep and beautiful plot. It is a collection of vignettes that attest to the violence of war and displacement without being sensational.
It combines the biographical with the historical and personal moments to give us an intimate tale of human connection during disaster.