The Limits of Empathy in Rabih Alameddine’s Refugee Saga

15 September, 2021
Mur­al paint­ed by Syr­i­an refugees par­tic­i­pat­ing in the Arto­lu­tion project.

The Wrong End of the Telescope
a nov­el by Rabih Alameddine
Grove Atlantic (Sept 2021)
ISBN 9780802157805

Dima Alzayat

the wrong end of the telescope
The lat­est nov­el from Rabih Alamed­dine is avail­able from Grove Atlantic.

When in 2018 direc­tor Lena Dun­ham announced she had been hired by pro­duc­ers Steven Spiel­berg and J.J. Abrams to adapt Maris­sa Fleming’s non­fic­tion book, A Hope More Pow­er­ful than the Sea: One Refugee’s Incred­i­ble Sto­ry of Love, Loss, and Sur­vival (2017) into a fea­ture film, the back­lash was swift. Some crit­ics were upset that Dun­ham had not pre­vi­ous­ly expressed any inter­est in the plight of the Syr­i­an refugees she would now be paid to present onscreen; oth­ers were frus­trat­ed that some­one else hadn’t been hired – sure­ly, some­one as priv­i­leged as Dun­ham was not the best choice to rep­re­sent mar­gin­al­ized voic­es; still oth­ers were resigned to the dis­ap­point­ing truth that refugee sto­ries, espe­cial­ly those that claimed to offer audi­ences and read­ers so-called authen­tic voic­es and expe­ri­ences, were now con­sid­ered time­ly and could be quick­ly churned out for profit.

Syr­i­an Amer­i­can author and civ­il rights lawyer Alia Malek extend­ed her crit­i­cism to Fleming’s book. At the time, Flem­ing was a spokesper­son for the UN High Com­mis­sion­er for Refugees, and Malek took issue with the pow­er dynam­ic that enabled Flem­ing to nar­rate the sto­ry of Syr­i­an refugee Doaa Al Zamel, the book’s sub­ject. In inter­views, Flem­ing insist­ed that with­out her, Al Zamel’s sto­ry would remain untold; the book itself is mar­ket­ed as giv­ing voice to “unheard voic­es.” Her nar­ra­tion, Flem­ing believed, was a force for good: “Sto­ries cap­ture people’s imag­i­na­tions and have the pow­er to edu­cate, cre­ate sym­pa­thy and encour­age action.”

This dilem­ma, of who gets to or should try to give voice to the voice­less and whether or not lit­er­a­ture real­ly is a force for good, under­pins Rabih Alameddine’s lat­est nov­el, The Wrong End of the Tele­scope. It’s a murky under­tak­ing, but Alamed­dine is not known to shy away from dif­fi­cult top­ics. His pre­vi­ous nov­els, which include Koolaids: The Art of War (1998), An Unnec­es­sary Woman (2014) and Angel of His­to­ry (2016), deal heav­i­ly with the Lebanese Civ­il War and/or the U.S. AIDS epi­dem­ic, and explore how state, cul­tur­al and famil­ial val­ues and actions can wreak hav­oc on indi­vid­u­als and communities.

In The Wrong End of the Tele­scope, Alamed­dine plunges head­first into impor­tant ques­tions about empa­thy and fic­tion, armed with his sig­na­ture sharp sar­casm and acer­bic humor. “Every idiot thinks they’re a writer, they’re not;” he pro­claims in the book’s open­ing pages. “Every dullard thinks they have a tale to tell; they don’t.” Alamed­dine is not tak­ing aim at lit­er­a­ture he sim­ply dis­likes or dis­agrees with — his is a much more inter­est­ing pur­suit: What is the point of fic­tion? What does it do? What can it yield? These queries lie at the heart of his nov­el, one that takes as its sub­ject the plight of refugees cross­ing the Mediter­ranean and those who wait to receive them on the oth­er side.

We meet Lebanese Amer­i­can Dr. Mina Simp­son as she arrives in Les­bos, Greece, equipped with her med­ical skills and a desire to be use­ful. She has been beck­oned by her friend, Emma, a Swedish NGO work­er who has promised her she’s need­ed. But the island is awash with vol­un­teers and a spell of bad weath­er has slowed boat arrivals to a trick­le, leav­ing Mina to ques­tion the neces­si­ty of her pres­ence. Being phys­i­cal­ly close to Lebanon also brings with it a resur­gence of dif­fi­cult mem­o­ries: Mina has not been to Beirut for 36 years, hav­ing been expelled from her fam­i­ly after com­ing out as a trans­gen­der woman soon after mov­ing to the U.S. for col­lege. Emma assures Mina that the “dis­as­ter tourists” — many of whom are busy tak­ing self­ies and order­ing refugees and locals around — will soon leave, and promis­es to take her far­ther south where boats are land­ing despite the storms. This is where Mina meets Sumaiya, a Syr­i­an woman who arrives in a boat with her hus­band and three young daugh­ters. Mina quick­ly learns that Sumaiya has ter­mi­nal liv­er can­cer and is in a lot of pain, and with Emma’s help, sets to work to ensure that Sumaiya’s final days are com­fort­able and that the dying woman’s wish to see her fam­i­ly reset­tled some­where safe is fulfilled.

When Mina moves clos­er to Moria Refugee Camp to bet­ter assist Sumaiya, she encoun­ters oth­er refugees and cross­es paths with an unnamed, well-known Lebanese Amer­i­can author — a sur­ro­gate for Alamed­dine him­self — who, like her, has come to Les­bos to be help­ful but has found him­self over­whelmed. Mina address­es the author through­out the nov­el, and it is through these inter­locu­tions that we learn about her past —her dif­fi­cult moth­er, her mar­riage, and her jour­ney to claim her gen­der iden­ti­ty — as well as the author’s strug­gle to cre­ate some­thing of val­ue from his work with refugees. After years of vol­un­teer­ing with Syr­i­an refugees in Lebanon, he has attempt­ed to do the same in Les­bos, but feels he has failed. From Mina, we learn of the author’s plight:

You tried to find a way to write about refugees and break the wall between read­er and sub­ject. You said you want­ed peo­ple not to dis­miss the suf­fer­ing, not to read about the loss and sor­row, feel bad for a minute or two, then go back to their glass of over­ly sweet chardon­nay. But you failed, of course. And then the first crack in your veneer. You said, in a whis­per, that the only wall you broke was yours.

Mina also direct­ly ref­er­ences Alameddine’s pre­vi­ous­ly pub­lished essays on his work with refugees, fur­ther blur­ring the dis­tinc­tion between char­ac­ter and author, fic­tion and reality.

Like Alameddine’s ear­li­er nov­els, The Wrong End of the Tele­scope is frag­ment­ed, self-reflex­ive and inter­tex­tu­al, and immers­es read­ers in shift­ing per­spec­tives and tan­gen­tial tales. The form enables Alamed­dine to incor­po­rate indi­vid­ual refugee sto­ries and thus refuse the ten­den­cy to reduce asy­lum seek­ers to one name­less, face­less mass. We meet Rania Kasem, a Syr­i­an doc­tor who “car­ried her­self with an innate ele­gance” and “lost her hus­band piece­meal.” We learn about a gay cou­ple from Iraq whose asy­lum cas­es were placed on hold because their Euro­pean proces­sors ini­tial­ly found them “much too mas­cu­line.” We are also remind­ed of heart-wrench­ing sto­ries, like that of Aylan Kur­di, the drowned tod­dler whose image made news­pa­per cov­ers and chal­lenged Euro­pean con­scious­ness (how­ev­er short lived), and Baris Yagzi, a young musi­cian found dead on the Turk­ish shore clutch­ing his violin.

Even as he shares these sto­ries, Alamed­dine is doubt­ful of his narration’s val­ue. “How can one make sense of the sense­less?” he chal­lenges. “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.” He turns the fin­ger he points not at oth­ers, but at him­self. Mina won­ders if the author uses peo­ple for their sto­ries; “You cared for the tale, not the teller,” she says to him. Alamed­dine nego­ti­ates both the impor­tance and help­less­ness of wit­ness­ing: mere­ly lis­ten­ing “did noth­ing to ame­lio­rate the sit­u­a­tion,” but “doing noth­ing would have been a crime.”

In his work with Syr­i­an refugees in Lebanon, the fic­tion­al­ized author, per­haps like Alamed­dine, is able to keep his dis­tance from his sub­jects. His inter­views with refugees are done with the help of a UNHCR han­dler. “I was able to lis­ten dis­pas­sion­ate­ly, imper­son­al­ly. They were sto­ries after all, sim­ply sto­ries.” But in Les­bos, he finds him­self at a loss at how to cap­ture and con­vey these sto­ries – the rea­son why, a mys­tery even to him­self. “Metaphor seems use­less now, sto­ry­telling impotent.”

In her most recent book, Writ­ing and Right­ing (2021), lit­er­ary his­to­ri­an Lyn­d­sey Stone­bridge argues that while read­ing might make us more empa­thet­ic, our empa­thy is sus­pect and does not man­i­fest in pro­gres­sive change. “When a writer or jour­nal­ist says he is ‘giv­ing voice’ to a refugee by includ­ing her sto­ry in his prose, what he is prob­a­bly doing is cast­ing her in a nar­ra­tive that re-makes her life in a form he, and his read­ers, rec­og­nize as human because they’re famil­iar with that par­tic­u­lar genre of being human.” In such instances, the writer achieves lit­tle more than to com­pel the read­er to pity the refugee, while rein­forc­ing the pow­er dynam­ics that sep­a­rate read­er from refugee.

In short, writ­ing and read­ing lit­er­a­ture that elic­its empa­thy is not mean­ing­ful nor use­ful in and of itself. Yes, such lit­er­a­ture can lead peo­ple to feel more, to care more. It can help to chal­lenge opin­ions and per­haps shift per­spec­tives. But these shifts do not nec­es­sar­i­ly lead to the rad­i­cal changes such lit­er­a­ture often pur­ports – or is assumed – to make. Fur­ther­more, the imper­a­tive to cre­ate such lit­er­a­ture can com­pel writ­ers to har­vest the expe­ri­ences of the most mar­gin­al­ized among us to allow the most priv­i­leged to pat them­selves on the back for inhab­it­ing such unfor­tu­nate char­ac­ters, if only temporarily.

It is this sen­ti­ment that Alamed­dine both agrees with and strug­gles against. “Empa­thy is over­rat­ed,” the novel’s unnamed author laments. Cre­at­ing lit­er­a­ture that will only act as “an emo­tion­al pal­lia­tive for some cou­ple in sub­ur­bia” is of lit­tle val­ue to him. His goal, like Alameddine’s, is not to use refugee sto­ries, like Sumaiya’s, to teach read­ers how to care about oth­ers. He is aware that what is need­ed is resources, and in one of the novel’s most pow­er­ful scenes, Mina and her com­pan­ions con­vince the reluc­tant author to join them for an after-din­ner stroll to the Myti­lene Port where refugees wait to board the fer­ry to Athens. There, they encounter a group of teenage boys who quick­ly sur­round the author, eager to talk to him, show him their YouTube videos, and share with him their hopes for the future. When the author learns that the boys are stuck at the port, unable to afford pas­sage, he makes his way to the tick­et office to buy as many tick­ets as he can afford. Mina and the oth­ers in the group con­tribute what they can. Stone­bridge writes that “[t]he kind of writ­ing that has the best dia­logue with human rights punc­tures moral self-regard with truth.” In this scene, Alamed­dine demon­strates the val­ue of lis­ten­ing, of wit­ness­ing, of acknowl­edg­ing oth­ers’ sto­ries so they feel heard and less alone. But he also rec­og­nizes that this, on its own, with­out action that results in mate­r­i­al change, will nev­er be enough.

DamascusGreeceReviewSyrian refugeesTurkey

Dima Alzayat was born in Damascus, Syria, and grew up in San Jose, California. Her short story collection, Alligator and Other Stories (2020), was published by Picador U.K. and Two Dollar Radio, and was a finalist for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Award for Debut Short Story Collection, the Swansea University Dylan Thomas Prize, and the James Tait Black Memorial Award. She holds a PhD in Creative Writing from Lancaster University.


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