The Lebanese writer wants to change the world, one novel at a time.
This story was originally published by The Economist.
October 4, 2021
Born in Jordan in 1959, Rabih Alameddine had an itinerant childhood. He was brought up in Kuwait and Lebanon; when civil war broke out there in 1975 he was sent to live in England. He later moved to California to study engineering, then embarked on a career as a painter before releasing his debut novel, “Koolaids”, in 1998, when he was nearly 40. The book revisited two crises that had shaped those formative years: the Lebanese civil war and the AIDS epidemic that afflicted gay communities in the 1980s. (Mr Alameddine is himself gay.) “Koolaids” announced him as a writer capable of combining tragedy and social commentary with biting black humour.
His five subsequent novels experimented with structure and voice, touching on family politics, Lebanon’s violent history and the ability—or inability—of literature to “make sense of the senseless”. The protagonist of “I, the Divine” (2001) compulsively writes and rewrites the story of her life; “An Unnecessary Woman” (2014) is narrated by a reclusive old lady who secretly translates literary classics into Arabic. “The Angel of History” (2016) is set in the waiting room of a psychiatric clinic as the narrator, a masochistic Yemeni poet, reflects on his experiences as a gay man in San Francisco during the AIDS crisis. Mr Alameddine says he is “fascinated by people who are on the margins but not so far outside that they cannot be seen”.
His books offer a compelling, often jarring, blend of cynicism and hope. They urge readers to contemplate the humanity and suffering of others rather than turn their faces away. He is ambivalent about the power of novels to effect meaningful change, but reckons that “trying is what makes for good literature”. “I keep telling myself that this is all meaningless,” he shrugs, “but there’s a part of me that keeps hoping and that hope is what makes me write.” Without that optimism, he quips that he’d have to “become a gigolo and live on a boat somewhere”.
In his new novel, “The Wrong End of the Telescope”, Mr Alameddine strives to humanise the refugee crisis. Set on the Greek island of Lesbos, it begins in January 2016, weeks before Europe “began to smother refugees in more and more bureaucracy, the empire’s most effective weapon”. To research the novel, Mr Alameddine travelled to Lesbos and Lebanon to interview those displaced by the war in Syria. But the more testimonies he heard, the less able he felt to write. “I was totally enmeshed. I could not separate myself from the subject that I was writing about,” he says. The questions that occupied him were: “How do we look at a subject that is difficult? How do we handle it and how can I break the wall between the reader and the book, so that I actually reach them?”
A breakthrough came when he devised a narrator called Mina, in whose voice he felt able to tell the story. Mina is a transgender surgeon who grew up in Lebanon before moving to America. She lands in Lesbos to help administer aid to the refugees arriving there, and finds herself closer to her homeland than she has been in decades. The island’s familiar landscapes trigger memories of her childhood and her family, all estranged except one brother. When she meets a Syrian refugee called Sumaiya who is suffering from terminal cancer, Mina finds purpose in caring for her in her final days.
As she reflects on her own past, Mina observes the complex relationship between the volunteers (many of whom seem to have come to Lesbos primarily to feel better about themselves), the Greek villagers (who are fed up with northern Europeans who “think they fart higher than their ass”) and the refugees (who find themselves trapped on Lesbos). Mina straddles the gulf between them. Although she is a volunteer, she, like the refugees, “knows what it’s like to lose everything and start all over again,” Mr Alameddine says. The novel conveys the nuance of the situation through dozens of carefully drawn vignettes; refugees tell their own stories, inside which other stories are contained. “What I hope that people see is not one side or the other, but sort of the entirety of it,” Mr Alameddine says.
“He will always write about the deeply political. That’s who he is,” says Elisabeth Schmitz, Mr Alameddine’s editor at Grove Atlantic, which published the novel in America. “He really wants to witness and he wants to make you witness”, but “he has a wit, a philosophical humour that makes it not just palatable to be reading about these very difficult subjects… but actually surprisingly deeply pleasurable.”
That trademark sense of humour—and consternation about his own craft—recurs in “The Wrong End of the Telescope”, in particular when Mina addresses an unnamed Lebanese writer. The laureate has come to Lesbos to listen to the refugee’s stories but he ends up locked in his hotel room, listening to “one soprano after another sing the great tales of woe”. Mr Alameddine shares certain traits with that character, who alternates between extolling the ability of literature to make sense of the world and vowing never to write another word. With each new novel he sets out to fix the world’s problems, he says, and each time he feels he has failed. “In many ways that’s also one of the themes of the book—that it’s really difficult to change anything in the world, but not trying is a problem,” he says.
He has encountered individuals who tell him that his novels have altered their worldview, but he has grander dreams. “Influencing one person is one of the greatest gifts and all that kind of stuff,” he says. “But changing the world is what I want—like any good revolutionary.”