Vol. 112 (2021) 

 Jay Fox On: Rabih Alameddine's 
The Wrong End of the Telescope



By Jay Fox

Asheville, NC, USA


In early September 2015, outrage began to spread throughout the West after a photographer snapped an image of the corpse of Alan Kurdi, a three-year-old Syrian boy. In the photo, a Turkish police officer stands above the body, which seems to have been lazily discarded onto the beach not far from the resort town of Bodrum. Alan had drowned while he and his family attempted to travel from Turkey to the Greek island of Kos, and from there to Canada.


The family was not alone. An estimated 1.3 million people flooded into Europe in 2015 alone. This was no doubt a daunting logistical task, but it was also a difficult political one. However, the clear tragedy of Alan Kurdi’s death seemed, for a time, to provide a moment of moral clarity to much Europe and North America. The logic was straightforward: Others clearly need help and resources; we have resources and the ability to help; ergo, we should share what we have and try to help these people who are trying to escape from war, famine, and poverty.


This kneejerk reaction didn’t look too deeply into the destabilizing forces that had led to the war, famine, and poverty. It was quite simply a reaction to seeing others suffering. For this reason, the general impulse to provide help was perceived as being selfless and virtuous. Those who decided to go and offer direct aid (particularly medical workers) were applauded as the most altruistic among us.  


Of course, this impulse, while pure, was also uninformed—or rather it was informed solely by ethical reasoning and lacked any historical insight.


Not all the refugees were from Syria. While the civil war and the rise of the Islamic State (a/k/a Daesh) had all but broken the country, much of the region had been deeply dysfunctional for decades. On the one hand, there were several repressive and deeply corrupt regimes being propped up by the liberal democracies of Europe and North America who favored the status quo because it guaranteed access to cheap oil. On the other, more than a decade of "nation building" wars in Afghanistan and Iraq had resulted in the displacement of millions of people, many of whom relied on aid from more stable neighbors who were struggling to handle the sudden influx of people and the fallout from previous conflicts like the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990), the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), the First Intifada (1987-1993), the Gulf War (1990-1991), and the Second Intifada (2000-2005), amidst ongoing strife in Yemen, Sudan, and Libya.


Suffice to say, there was not one cause for the refugee crisis that Alan’s body came to symbolize, nor was it a singular event. Displacement has been occurring for decades and there has been a steady stream of refugees from across the region, as well as the religious spectrum—Sunni, Shi’a, Jewish, Christian, Druze—for decades. As long ago as the 1970s, there were warnings of a "brain drain" from the Middle East as families with the means sent their children abroad to escape turmoil. These children would then go to confront their own unique problem, as many never felt truly accepted by their adopted culture and felt alienated from the one they left behind.




Rabih Alameddine’s sixth novel, The Wrong End of the Telescope (Grove Press, 2021), takes place just a few months after the discovery of Alan’s body, on the Greek island of Lesbos. Situated no more than ten miles off the coast of Turkey, if one crosses at the narrowest point between the island and the mainland, Lesbos is home to multiple refugee camps desperately in need of humanitarian workers, especially medical personnel. One of these volunteers is the novel’s narrator, Dr. Mina, a trans woman of Lebanese and Syrian ethnicity who was born in Beirut and educated at Harvard. She is a practicing surgeon living in Chicago with her wife, Francine, a psychiatrist.


Dr. Mina has come to Lesbos at the behest of her friend Emma, a Swedish nurse working with an NGO on the island, and plans to both offer what help she can, but also meet with her brother, Mazen, who still lives in Beirut. While on the island, she befriends a Palestinian nurse named Rasheed and a family that had fled Syria to protect their oldest daughter, Asma, after one of the Islamic State’s rising stars proposed to her. She was ten.


Mina also runs into a friend from the US, a writer who bears more than a striking resemblance to the novel’s author. This writer is on the island interviewing refugees, transcribing their stories, and ostensibly trying to figure out a way to effectively tell their story in the form of a novel. The problem, unfortunately, is that he simply doesn’t know how to write about the tragedy in a way that fully captures its scope and depth or how it relates to his own experience as a young man leaving Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War and moving to California to attend UCLA. He doesn’t know how to present the experience of asylum seekers to people in the West. "Did you believe that if you wrote about Syrian refugees the world would look at them differently? Did you hope that readers would empathize? Inhabit a refugee’s skin for a few hours?" the incredulous narrator asks the author. "They’d get outraged on social media for ten minutes. But then they’d pour another glass of chardonnay. Empathy is overrated."


More than being overrated, empathy seems to be beyond the grasp of the Westerners who arrive on the island. In some cases, it’s because they cannot bridge the culture gap due to their own myopia. This includes the two journalists who hear Asma’s story from her father, Sammy, and conclude that he must really love his daughter, which is evidently a surprise since they note that "not all of them" do. In others, it’s because even many of the more ostensibly caring volunteers on the island lack the ability to be selfless, thereby precluding the capacity for empathy. In fact, many of the young volunteers are clearly more interested in the performance of helping, as indicated by their self-aggrandizing and tactless snapping of selfies on the beaches of Lesbos with recently arrived asylum seekers.


Alameddine’s take on the humanitarian crisis isn’t always so mordant, nor is his novel just a series of refugee vignettes relayed by Mina between details of the deteriorating conditions in the camps. A great deal of the book examines the pasts of both Mina and the author, typically through brief episodes from their youth in Lebanon or their more recent pasts in the States. At the heart of the novel is the question of how one stays connected to the past after a rupture so traumatic as to make the divorce a severance not from present-self and prior-self, but from self and other. More than just the question of how one relates to their own past, it is question of how one reinvents themself after their past has been obliterated.


Alameddine considers this in terms one’s relation to their actual past mostly, but it also has larger political implications, particularly in a region overflowing with young people who are struggling to find employment and historical and sexual agency. "These boys grew up believing they were meant for great things," the character Rasheed says. "Do you know what Iranian mothers call their baby boys? Doodool tala." The literal translation: Golden penis.


To assume that this rancor is somehow unique among the dispossessed and marginalized men of the Muslim world would be to overlook the much of the rage and indignation that seethes through online forums among people who identify as incels (involuntarily celibate) or join reactionary nationalist groups (regardless of the nation to which they swear allegiance). In the case of the latter, whether it’s the Islamic State or some neo-Nazi group, the central mythology revolves around the notion that deserving men have been robbed of their birthright and that resurrecting an illusory past, typically through violence, is the only means of rectifying this injustice.

Jay Fox

Of course, the central conflict in the novel is less of an analysis of the frustrations of the world’s men and more about Alameddine’s own frustrations in trying to tell the story of the refugee crisis. By relying on someone who has lived in the East and West, who understands what it is like to play the role of man and woman like a modern-day Tiresias, who occupies a space that blurs lines between us and them on multiple planes, he manages to create the perfect amount of distance between Beirut and Chicago for the narrator to convey the complexity of the tragedy with compassion and a surprising amount of wit.


While she may be a fiction herself, and despite the fact that she tells Alameddine that "writing does not force coherence onto a discordant narrative," the novel is at least successful in granting the reader the opportunity to follow a narrative that is not their own and adopt a perspective that is perhaps a little less myopic than the one they possessed before reading the book. This momentary bounding of the culture gap may not lead to a great concord between East and West, but it does create the potential space for empathy, which is perhaps all that even the greatest literature can accomplish. Conversely, when people reinforce their narrow perception of others, they reduce the possibility of empathetic reasoning but also—as Edith Wharton wrote of two aging socialites in the short story "Roman Fever"—view "each through the wrong end of her little telescope."



Jay Fox      




Jay Fox is the author of The Walls and is a regular contributor to Stay Thirsty Magazine.





All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.